Yale’s 316th Commencement had rain, ‘thunder,’ Stevie Wonder (and more things wonderful)

A light rain fell on and off throughout Yale’s outdoor Commencement ceremony on the Old Campus on May 22, and there was even a bit of “thunder” — in the form of applause and music only — as celebrating students gave several rousing standing ovations, and as Yale Concert Band drummers rhythmically beat their instruments while leading the academic procession of the soon-to-be graduates.

There was thunderous applause as President Peter Salovey announced the start of Yale’s 316th Commencement and as he symbolically conferred degrees on Yale College graduates and on the graduates of the university’s Graduate School and 11 professional schools. The nearly 10,000 students and Commencement guests also cheered loudly while giving standing ovations to two of the eight honorary degrees recipients at the ceremony: singer and songwriter Stevie Wonder (whose birth name is Stevland Morris) and civil rights advocate and longtime U.S. Congressman John R. Lewis of Georgia. 

Announcing Wonder, President Salovey praised the singer’s many musical contributions as well as his humanitarian and philanthropic efforts, saying: “’The Music of [Your] Mind’ has brought joy to millions. You told us to ‘Clap our hands/just a little bit louder,’ and the whole world clapped along. A Rock and Roll Hall of Famer with 25 Grammy Awards and an Oscar, you have always sung to us in the ‘Key of Life,’ while working to help the poor, sick, and marginalized. Whether you were ‘Living for the City’ or speaking up for ‘Misrepresented People,’ you brought us to ‘Higher Ground,’ with your incisive protest songs. And you go the whole country to sing ‘Happy Birthday’ to Dr. King, helping establish a national holiday in his honor. Sorcerer of song, in appreciation of your irresistible music and your courageous humanitarian efforts, we are proud to present you with this Doctor of Music degree: ‘Signed, sealed, delivered, it’s yours!”

Civil rights activiist John R. Lewis received a standing ovation when he received his honorary degrees.
Civil rights activiist John R. Lewis received a standing ovation when he received his honorary degrees. (Photo by Michael Marsland)

Wonder boogied a bit onstage facing the crowd as the audience roared and the Yale Band played “I Wish” from the singer’s “Songs in the Key of Life” album. 

Lewis was hailed by Salovey for championing civil rights and serving the public for six decades. “From the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama, to the halls of the U.S. Congress, you have been the conscience of our nation,” read the president.

Also receiving honorary degrees were former U.S. Senator and U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry ’66; conductor and violinist Marin Alsop; linguist and project director of the Wôpanâak Language Reclamation Project Jessie Little Doe Baird; neurobiologist Cornelia Bargmann; electrical engineer Irwin Mark Jacobs; and author and social activist Ngugi wa Thiong’o. All received sustained applause from the crowd on Old Campus. (See the biographies and citations for all of the honorary degree recipients here.)

Moving closer and seeking warmth

President Peter Salovey walked with Handsome Dan XVIII, who was attending his first Commencement as Yale’s new mascot
President Peter Salovey walked with Handsome Dan XVIII, who was attending his first Commencement as Yale's new mascot. (Photo by Michael Marsland)

At the start of the ceremony, as the graduates prepared to enter the various gates leading onto the Old Campus, anxious parents began to line up to be closer to the procession of graduates, with their cameras — some mounted on selfie sticks — at the ready. Several balloons depicting a graduation-gown clad figure — bobbed in the air. The chilly air caused some parents or guests to cover themselves with blankets, while others donned their Yale rain ponchos for an extra layer of cover.

The graduating students cheered as Salovey processed to the stage with Handsome Dan XVIII — the eight-month old bulldog who serves as Yale’s mascot — on a leash. It was the puppy’s first Commencement, and every time one of the large video screens on either side of the stage showed a view of him during the ceremony, the crowd hooted. 

One of the most regal of sights at the Commencement ceremony is the procession of the flags — representing the United States, the State of Connecticut, the City of New Haven, the university, Yale College, the residential colleges, and the various other schools. Student marshals carried the colorful flags through the crowd and up to the Commencement platform, where they lined the stage. 

A celebration of intellect and a prayer for peace

In his welcome, Salovey remarked that Commencement honors “the extraordinary accomplishments of all you who have worked so hard to complete your programs of study. We salute your effort, diligence, your talent, and your intellect. We also join you in dispensing gratitude for all who have supported you in these endeavors: your families, your friends, your teachers, and all the other members of the Yale community.”

University Chaplain Sharon Kugler then led those gathered in a prayer, noting that people came from every corner of the earth to attend this year’s ceremony. She remarked, “May God bless us. We are one family. From this moment on, sow our hearts with an imaginative daring, one that stirs us to become a living example of salaam, of shanti, of peace.” Her prayer was just briefly interrupted by an unauthorized individual who rushed on stage and grabbed the microphone, who was removed from the stage by campus police and security.

Graduates from the School of Nursing celebrated with silly string and confetti.
Graduates from the School of Nursing celebrated with silly string and confetti. (Photo by Michael Marsland)

The new graduates cheered unreservedly as Dean Jonathan Holloway (in one of his last official acts as dean before becoming provost at Northwestern University) and the deans of the Graduate School and each of the professional schools (Art, Architecture, Divinity, Drama, Forestry & Environmental Studies, Law, Medicine, Management, Music, Nursing, and Public Health) in turn came forward to state the number of degree recipients and to ask Salovey to confer degrees upon their graduating students. In a time-honored tradition, marshals from the schools accepted the symbolic degrees, most wearing something that has become a distinguishing symbol for their schools: a red clown nose for School of Drama students, for example, or a garden or forest of sprigs or other greenery atop their mortarboards for School of Forestry & Environmental Studies students. When Salovey conferred their degrees, no group was as visibly celebratory as the students from the School of Nursing, who sprayed silly string on each other and unleashed bombs of glittery confetti, which rained down upon them along with the misty drizzle. (See the “Ask Yale 2017: Favorite memories and future plans” video below.)

Sea of umbrellas, blue ponchos, and smiles 

As if weather gods had played a role, the rain only picked up after all the degrees were awarded. The Old Campus became a sea of umbrellas and blue Yale ponchos for much of the remaining ceremony, which also included the singing of the hymn “O God, beneath thy guiding hand” and a benediction by School of Divinity Dean Gregory Sterling, who prayed: “Grant longetivity to those whose brief time here is fulfilled. Watch over them wherever they may be.” He went on to call for everyone in the audience to be transformed “with grace, so we may work for the wellbeing of all.”

After the Old Campus ceremony the graduates headed to their respective residential colleges or professionals schools for more intimate ceremonies, where each of the graduates would be individually honored.

At one point during the ceremony, Old Campus became a sea of umbrellas.
At one point during the ceremony, Old Campus became a sea of umbrellas. (Photo by Michael Marsland)

The mother of Yale College graduate Misael Cabrera, who traveled from California to watch the ceremony, said she had one wish for her son. “I wish him the best in his future endeavors and all blessings,” she said. “We are really proud.” Cabrera, who majored in political science, will soon start a job working for a consulting firm in Dallas, Texas.

Asked what he most wishes his daughter, the father of Yale College graduate Holly Robinson didn’t need any time to think. 

I just want her to be happy,” he said.

For graduation morning, at least, smiles and laughter were abundant as the new graduates departed Old Campus for their next event, even as they drew closer to bittersweet farewells to the campus and friends later in the day.

Just before they receive their diplomas, 2017 Yale graduates reminisce about their favorite Yale memories and talk about their future plans.
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Media Contact

Susan Gonzalez: susan.gonzalez@yale.edu,