Chimes, cheers, and applause: Sounds of celebration highlight Commencement 2015

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Yale College seniors celebrate their conversion to alumni. (Photo by Michael Marsland)

Yale’s 2015 Commencement on May 18 began in far-flung corners of the campus, as groups of soon-to-be graduates milled about, adjusting their gowns and mortarboards, asking friends for help with their hoods, taking photos, and posing for others. Soon these swirls of students resolved themselves into orderly streams as they began their march (metaphorically) to the future and (literally) to Old Campus for the university-wide degree ceremony.

Awaiting them there was a sea of family members and friends, many clutching congratulatory bouquets and balloons, cameras held at the ready. Conspicuous among the crowd was a woman holding a large sign showing a football and the number 30 with the message “Run Varga Run!” — clearly referring to the Yale football player Tyler Varga, who was honored as Yale’s top male athlete during the Class Day exercises on May 17.

Amidst the peals of the bells of the Harkness Tower carillon could be heard the strains of a bagpiper, who serenaded the students of Trumbull College, and the rhythms of an African drumming troupe which, by longstanding tradition, led the procession of Divinity School students in the long march down Prospect Street hill. As the individual processions merged into one, the music of the Yale University Concert Band took over and set the beat for the parade around the New Haven Green and onto Old Campus.

Winners of Class Day awards carried special banners during the Commencement procession. (Photo by Michael Marsland)

The huge monitors that dotted Old Campus gave the audience a view of the marching students long before they actually arrived at the gates. At the head was a contingent of university officials, faculty members, and honorands, led by President Peter Salovey. The monitors showed the faces of the seated students as the cameras panned the crowd — eliciting cheers from those pictured and bursts of applause from the audience.

The Yale College seniors, who had donned creative headgear for the Class Day exercises the previous day, were more traditionally garbed for this ceremony, but showed off their pride-of-place by waving flags and handkerchiefs with their residential college logos, topping their mortarboards with suns (Pierson College), wielding foam axes (Morse College), and shaking colorful foam noodles (Silliman College).

Some graduate and professional students added decorative touches to their own academic dress — most notably students from the School of Forestry & Environmental Studies whose headgear bloomed with flowers and other greenery. One Law School student had “Game of Loans” written on her mortarboard, while several School of Nursing students had “Call the Midwife” on theirs. A few School of Drama students wore bright-red clown noses.

Salovey opened the formal ceremony by welcoming the students and their families and friends to Yale’s 314th Commencement. “We gather to recognize the extraordinary accomplishments of all of you who have worked so hard to complete your programs of study,” said the President. “We salute your efforts, your diligence, your talent, and your intellect.”

A student representative enthusiastically waves her diploma after receiving it from the President. (Photo by Michael Marsland)

After an opening prayer by University Chaplain Sharon Kugler, the time-honored ritual of the presentation of candidates for degrees began: Each dean stated the number of candidates for each degree, adding “they have been recommended by the faculty of [the school] and approved by the Corporation. I now ask you by official act to confer upon them these degrees.” After each presentation, the President told the students, “By the authority invested in me, I confer upon you [the degrees] as designated by the dean and admit you to all their rights and responsibilities.” The President then presented diplomas to student representatives, some of whom signaled their classmates by waving their degrees triumphantly.

There were two notable exceptions to this interchange: When the Law School students, who do not complete their degree program until later this month, were presented, the words “when,” “will,” and “shall” were added — and emphasized; and when the Ph.D. candidates were presented by Dean Lynn Cooley (in her first Commencement as head of the Graduate School of Arts & Sciences), she spoke the ritual words in Latin — and Salovey replied in kind.

During each presentation, the students receiving their degrees jumped to their feet and cheered, waving their arms and occasionally tossing things into the air (a mixture of confetti, glitter, and aerosol string in the case of the School of Nursing graduates). Yale College Dean Jonathan Holloway, also making his Commencement debut as dean, had broken with tradition during Class Day by only asking the undergraduates to practice their cheer once, instead of twice as per recent tradition. His confidence in his students was well-placed: The undergraduates’ cheer was the loudest and most sustained of any group of graduates.

The tradition of awarding honorary degrees to outstanding individuals dates back to Yale’s earliest days: The first, four master’s degrees, were presented at the university’s first graduation in 1702. This year, nine individuals were honored for achieving distinction in their fields. They were:

President Peter Salovey presents an honorary degree to alumnus author and activist Larry Kramer. (Photo by Michael Marsland)

Jeffrey Friedman, who discovered the hormone leptin, which has changed the study and understanding of human obesity;

Dean Kamen, the inventor and entrepreneur whose creations include the Segway and the first wearable infusion pump;

Angélique Kidjo, an award-winning singer and songwriter who is dedicated to girl’s education and women’s rights in Africa;

Larry Kramer ’57 B.A., a playwright, author, and AIDS and gay rights activist;

Elon Musk, CEO of Space Exploration Technologies (Space X) and Tesla Motors;

Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, coordinating minister for the economy and minister of finance for the Federal Republic of Nigeria;

Peter Schultz, a chemist who developed strategies and technologies to accelerate the discovery of new molecules with novel properties;

Gayatri Spivak, a scholar of postcolonial theory who has been active in the support of rural education and in feminist and ecological social movements in India; and

Janet Yellen ’71 Ph.D., chair of the board of governors of the U.S. Federal Reserve System and head of the Federal Open Market Committee.

See the honorees citations and biographies.

Provost Benjamin Polak introduced the honorands, who were bedecked with an academic hood as Salovey read their citations and presented their degrees. Alumnus Larry Kramer, who has had a longstanding (albeit sometimes contentious) relationship with the university, was also given a hug by Salovey after he awarded the alumnus with his second Yale degree.

The Commencement ceremonies concluded with the singing of a hymn, a benediction by Divinity School Dean Gregory Sterling, and the procession of the new graduates off Old Campus and back to their far-flung corners of the university, where the schools and residential colleges hosted their own degree ceremonies.

Here's a look back at the hustle and bustle of Commencement 2015.
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