In Class Day address, Hillary Clinton encourages students to keep up their fight
For the first time in modern memory, a forecast of thunderstorms forced Class Day exercises to be held inside on May 20, but members of the Class of 2018 seemed to take the change of plans in stride.
They were in high spirits as they gathered in Woolsey Hall, exuberantly cheering as they saw themselves and their classmates captured on one of the big video monitors near the stage, and showing their admiration for Class Day speaker Hillary Clinton ’73 J.D. and of some of their classmates who won top student prizes by giving them standing ovations.
The thunderstorms never materialized. Instead, shafts of sunlight streamed through the huge windows of Woolsey Hall and upon the graduates, many of whom had removed their black graduation robes in the humid heat.
Clinton, the former First Lady, U.S. senator, secretary of state, and 2016 presidential candidate, spoke to the soon-to-be graduates about resilience, and the ways that they have already shown courage during their four years at Yale. She told them that they are graduating “at one of the most tumultuous times in the history of our country,” but said, “If any group were ever prepared to rise to the occasion it is you, the Class of 2018. You’ve already demonstrated the character and courage that will help you navigate this tumultuous moment.”
Clinton recalled how many members of the Class of 2018 took part during their sophomore year in the March of Resilience, led by students of color, “to make Yale a more just, equitable, and safe place for everyone.” She noted how their activism led to the renaming of Calhoun College to Grace Hopper College, replacing the name of a graduate who was a proponent of slavery (John Calhoun) for that of a pioneering female naval officer who was also one of the first American computer programmers. A second residential college, Pauli Murray College, was named during their time as undergraduates for a “trailblazing LGBT civil rights activist,” Clinton noted.
“These changes didn’t happen on their own,” Clinton told the seniors. “You made them possible. You kept fighting. You kept the faith and because of that in the end you changed Yale as much as Yale changed you.”
“The best of times, the worst of times”
Clinton began her speech describing Yale as a “home away from home,” saying she has returned to campus time and again, including to deliver the 2001 Class Day address. Many of her most treasured friends and colleagues have been Yalies, and some of her most formative experiences took place on the campus, she said, including meeting her husband, fellow Law School graduate and former President Bill Clinton ’73 J.D. During her time on campus, she also heard a speech by Marian Wright Edelman ’63 J.D. that inspired her own work on behalf of children, Clinton recalled.
In keeping with a Class Day tradition of wearing distinctive hats or headgear, Clinton came prepared with one of her own. To the loud cheers and laughter of students, she showed off her choice: a furry, black Russian hat. Taking a jab at her former competitor, President Donald Trump, she joked, “If you can’t beat ’em, join ’em.”
Lightheartedness gave way to a more serious message. Clinton quoted from Charles Dickens’ novel “A Tale of Two Cities”:
“It was the best of times; it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, and it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of light, it was the season of darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair.”
While Dickens was writing about the time leading up to the French Revolution, Clinton said he could have been describing America today.
“We’re living through a time when fundamental rights, civic virtue, freedom of the press, even facts and reason, are under assault like never before,” she said. “But we are also witnessing an era of new moral conviction, civic engagement, and a sense of devotion to our democracy and country.”
Get back up again
She told the soon-to-be graduates that resilience, which they’ve already demonstrated in their college years, will be needed as they head into their futures as well.
“[I]t’s so important because everyone gets knocked down,” she told the seniors. “What matters is whether you get back up and keep going. This may be hard for a group of Yale soon-to-be graduates to accept. But yes, you will make mistakes in life. You will even fail. It happens to all of us no matter how qualified or capable we are. Take it from me. I remember those first few months after that 2016 election were not easy. We all had our own methods of coping. I went for long walks in the woods. Yale students went for long walks in East Rock Park.”
Clinton acknowledged that she is “not over” her election loss, saying, “I still regret the mistakes I made. I still think, though, that understanding what happened in such a weird and wild election in American history will help us defend our democracy in the future.”
Calling America more “polarized” than ever, she went on to tell the graduates that in addition to personal resilience, the nation will also need “community resilience” to heal from divisive rifts.
“There are leaders in our country who blatantly incite people with hateful rhetoric, who fear change, who see the world in zero-sum terms so that if others are gaining, well, they must be losing. … Our social fabric is fraying and the bonds of community that hold us together are fractured. This isn’t just a problem because it leads to unpleasant conversations over the Thanksgiving dinner table. It’s a problem because it undermines the civic spirit that makes democracy possible.”
“I believe healing our country is going to take what I call ‘radical empathy,’ as hard as it is,” she continued. “This is a moment to reach across divides of race, class, and politics to try to see the world through the eyes of people very different from ourselves and to return to rational debate, to find a way to disagree without being disagreeable, to try to recapture a sense of community and common humanity. When we think about politics and judge our leaders, we can’t just ask ‘Am I better off than I was two years or four years ago?’ We have to ask: ‘Are we all better off or are we as a country better, stronger, fairer?’”
Reason under attack
In her address, the former First Lady also decried the politicizing of what constitutes fact. “There are certain things that are so essential they should transcend politics,” she told the seniors. “Waging a war on the rule of law and a free press, delegitimizing elections, perpetrating shameless corruption, and rejecting the idea that our leaders should be public servants undermines our national unity. Attacking truth and reason, evidence and facts, should alarm us all.”
She called upon the near-graduates to help build “democratic resilience” by “standing up for truth, facts, and reason” after they graduate.
“It means speaking out about the vital role of higher education in our society to create opportunity and equality,” said Clinton. “It means calling out actual fake news when we see it and supporting brave journalists and their reporting. Maybe even by subscribing to a newspaper. Most of all, as obvious as it seems, it means voting in every election — not just the presidential ones.”
Cause for optimism
Clinton said that in some ways, she is more hopeful now than she was when Barack Obama was elected president, acknowledging that she was “ecstatic” when he won the election even though he beat her by becoming the Democratic nominee.
“It was such a hopeful moment. And yet in some ways this moment feels even more hopeful because this is a battle-hardened hope tempered by loss and clear-eyed about the stakes,” she said. “We are standing up to policies that hurt people, standing up for all people being treated with dignity. We are doing the work to translate those feelings into action. And the fact that some days it is really hard to keep at it just makes it that much more remarkable that so many of us are, in fact, keeping at it. It’s not easy to wade back into the fight every day but we’re doing it, And that’s why I am optimistic, because of how unbelievably tough Americans are proving to be.”
Clinton said her hopefulness also stems from the fact that more women are winning political elections and that women and men are now speaking out in large numbers about sexual harassment and violence.
“It will take work,” she told the seniors, “to keep up the pressure, to stay vigilant, to neither close our eyes nor numb our hearts, or throw up our hands and say, ‘Someone else take over from here,’ because at this moment in our history our country depends on every citizen believing in the power of their actions — even when that power is invisible and their efforts feel like an uphill battle — of every citizen voting in every election, even when your side loses. It is a matter of infinite faith.”
The members of the Class of 2018 leapt to their feet and clapped for several minutes when Clinton finished her speech
Celebrating classmates and an athletic icon
Also receiving a standing ovation at Class Day was Ivetty Estepan, who helped plan the 2015 March of Resilience and was one of two students honored during the ceremony with the Nakanishi Prize, given to seniors who have enhanced race or ethnic relations at Yale.
Each and every student who was honored at the ceremony had at least several classmates who rose from their seats to applaud them. Altogether, 11 students received prizes for their outstanding academic, athletic, or personal achievements. See the list of this year’s prizewinners.
After he presented the top athletic prizes to two seniors, Tom Beckett, who retires next month after serving for 24 years as director of athletics, was himself honored with a surprise tribute. A group of singers serenaded the outgoing athletic director with a song that featured a refrain of “Beckett, Beckett, bow wow wow” (modeled after the Yale “Bulldog” fight song). He, too, received a long-standing ovation.
Traditions, both heady and not
The Class Day ceremony began, as usual, with the parading of the students into Woolsey Hall according to their residential college affiliation. Some bellowed their college’s special chants as they took their seats.
In keeping with another long tradition, students donned all sorts of creative headgear for the special occasion, ranging from a Pepe’s pizza box to a straw hat featuring an array of Playbills. There were numerous architectural structures, from a lighthouse to a musical stage with flashing lights. There was an abundance of stuffed animals, including giraffes, lions, and giant squids. Hogwarts-style sorting hats, bicycle helmets, and even a Harvard baseball cap, were among the mix.
As students fanned themselves with their Class Day programs, the ceremony began with a greeting by Alexander Zhang, who told his classmates that if an astrophysicist from another galaxy were to peer into Woolsey, he or she would see a group of happy and shining faces and would marvel at the universe the students built during their time on campus. Alexis Gurganious and Joshua Hochman gave the official welcome, noting that their class represented many perspectives but shared a Yale identity. In a Class Reflection titled “To Build a Home,” Christian Rice recalled how he once felt alone and different as a first-year student, but four years later — as a first-year counselor — helped new students create their own sense of home. Noting that Yale students come from all over the world, Rice said, “We must find what binds us and hold fast to it. We must build a home with love, curiosity, and courage.”
Moving on, but first a wave
In a humorous Class Reflection titled “Moving On,” Ben Kronengold and Rebecca Shaw held a “break-up” conversation: the forward-thinking Shaw saying it was time to move on, while Kronengold, representing Yale, desperately attempted to hold on.
Adwoa Buadu recited the Ivy Ode, which she also wrote, titled “the fractal salutation.” Each line of her ode began with a “hail” — to unspoken words, to dreams that slipped out of reach, to pain, to forgiveness, and to all members of the class, who “learned to walk by light and truth.” She also offered a hail to the world that, she read, “we hope will soon be ready for us.”
The class history video featured a time-travelling student from 1978 entering the Yale of 2018, with the mission to save Yale from a giant black hole. At its conclusion, laughing soon-to-be graduates then pulled from their Class Day bags white handkerchiefs to wave during the singing of “Bright College Years,” a song dating back to 1881 that describes how quickly the undergraduate years pass, the strength of the bonds that are formed between friends during that time, and how bright the memories of their time together will remain as the years go by. As some students swayed arm in arm, others captured photos with phone cameras the fleeting moments of one of their final times together as members of the Class of 2018.
Invited to sum up her own feelings in a few short words, Lorellen Green, whose daughter Erika Lynn-Green won the Warren Memorial High Scholarship Prize at the Class Day ceremony, smiled widely as she said, “Joyful. Thrilled for these young people and for our world.” Then, tearing up, she added, “I am deeply thankful for all of them to have had this education and these mentors at this beautiful place. They are lovely young people.”