Sunlight and truth, and a few firsts for Yale’s 317th Commencement

The crowd filling in Old Campus on the Yale University campus during the 2018 Commencement ceremony.
(Photo credit: Michael Marsland)

Long-awaited sunshine and a gentle breeze greeted students and families on Yale’s campus the morning of May 21, the day of the university’s 317th Commencement. In the quiet moments before festivities began, students posed for cap-and-gown photos on Beinecke Plaza, and parents paused on Elm Street to buy flowers for their graduates-to-be. It seemed only the sound of bells from Harkness Tower heralded the celebration ahead.

It was a day of firsts. From the main stage on Old Campus, Penelope Laurans, a senior adviser at the university, and Eileen O’Connor, vice president for communications, delivered live commentary for parents and guests waiting patiently for the remainder of the 20,000 seats covering Old Campus to be filled with students.

Over a loudspeaker, Laurans and O’Connor shared facts about all things Commencement, from the inaugural ceremony in 1702, to the number of degrees earned this year — a total of 3,728 degrees to undergraduates and graduate/professional students.

Laurans, a former head of Jonathan Edwards College, described Commencement as “one of the most formal celebratory events of the year.” She detailed the many iconic symbols that have become part of the ceremony over time — the colorful banners representing the residential colleges, the intricate shields of each college and school, and the varied hues of the graduation robes and other costume elements. To maintain the complex choreography of the event, Laurans said there were even “marshals for marshals,” or faculty and students from the different schools leading the long procession.

Other firsts of the day included a new shield for Grace Hopper College, which was formally dedicated in the fall. And for the first time, the newest residential colleges, Pauli Murray and Benjamin Franklin Colleges, had seniors graduating, 90 in all.

A celebration of achievement and a note of gratitude

The sight of graduates entering the gates of Old Campus signaled the start of the Commencement ceremony. While most of the funny hats Yale’s celebration is known for are worn on Class Day, a few could be spotted in the crowd as students from the different schools filed in to take their seats. One mortarboard was decorated with a large blue Y, others with sunflowers, and yet another with the simple words “Thank you Mom and Dad!” in colorful letters on the black background.

The procession of residential college flag bearers at the Yale University 2018 Commencement ceremony.
(Photo credit: Michael Marsland)

Then came the procession of flags representing the United States, Connecticut, New Haven, the university, and colleges and schools, from the gate to the main stage. After each flag was mounted in front of the platform, Yale President Peter Salovey opened with a welcome to the students of the class of 2018, their parents, families, and friends. He noted the “extraordinary accomplishments of all of you who have worked so hard to complete your programs of study. We salute your effort, diligence, your talent, and intellect.” As in years past, he also expressed gratitude toward family, friends, teachers, and the Yale community members who contributed to the graduates’ success.

University Chaplain Sharon Kluger followed with a brief but inspirational opening prayer. She stated, “We stand in the dazzling beauty of this morning, as many expressions of one living mystery, a mystery beyond all telling. As students of your handiwork, we have gathered here from throughout the earth with exquisite ambitions, and have been blessed at this place of light and truth with the freedom to let them grow.” 

A marshal from School of Forestry & Environmental Studies descends the stage at Commencement with greenery on his mortarboard..
A marshal from School of Forestry & Environmental Studies demonstrates his green thumb as he descends the stage. (Photo credit: Michael Marsland)

Then came the moment the graduates had all been waiting for: The presentation of candidates for degrees. Starting with Dean of Yale College Marvin Chun, each of the deans of the Graduate School and professional schools came forward to state the number of degree recipients from their respective institutions. As Salovey conferred degrees with all their “rights and responsibilities,” student marshals from the schools came to the stage to accept the symbolic honors.

One marshal from School of Forestry & Environmental Studies particularly stood out as he crossed the stage with a tall piece of greenery affixed to the top of his mortarboard. Yale School of Nursing students also distinguished themselves by responding to their school being called with a shocking burst of confetti and noisemakers in celebration.

Honoring the curious and the creative

Once student degrees were conferred, Provost Benjamin Polak introduced each of the 10 honorary degree recipients, selected by the Yale Corporation. Three of the 10 already had Yale degrees, including recent faculty members Elizabeth Alexander ’84, the poet and playwright who received a Doctor of Letters, and jazz musician and educator Willie Ruff ’53M, ’54 M.M., who received a Doctor of Music degree. Another former Yale faculty member who was honored this year was Dr. Richard Lifton, the groundbreaking geneticist who received a Doctor of Medical Sciences.

Neil DeGrasee Tyson and Angela Bassett receive honorary degrees at the 2018 Yale Commencement ceremony.
Neil DeGrasee Tyson and Angela Bassett ’80, ’83 M.F.A. receive their honorary degrees from President Salovey. (Photo credit: Michael Marsland)

Generating the loudest applause were degree recipients Neil deGrasse Tyson and Angela Evelyn Bassett ’80, ’83 M.F.A. Of deGrasse Tyson, the famed astrophysicist who received a Doctor of Humane Letters, Salovey said, “You have led us on journeys through interstellar space, helping us comprehend the complexity of the cosmos. With you we have explored the wonders of the known world, and been humbled by what is yet unknown. No question is too vast, no problem too intricate for your curiosity.” Salovey thanked Tyson for “showing us how science can explain the splendors of our universe, and enlighten our minds.”

Angela Evelyn Bassett, who Salovey described as a “chameleon of film, television, and stage” received her third Yale degree, a Doctor of Fine Arts, for her work as an actress, director, and producer. She was honored for portraying icons such as Tina Turner and Coretta Scott King, among many others. After receiving her degree, Bassett turned to the crowd and appeared to flash the Wakanda symbol from the record-breaking film “Black Panther,” in which she starred.

Also receiving honorary degrees were biologist Frans de Waal, film theorist and professor Laura Mulvey, cognitive computing pioneer Judea Pearl, novelist and essayist Marilynne Robinson, and theologian Rowan Williams.

Imagining what is not yet dreamed

After a closing hymn, “Let Light and Truth Suffuse the Mind,” School of Divinity Dean Gregory Sterling led the graduates and guests in a quiet benediction, which said in part: 

May these graduates see the Divine in all. May they have the creativity to overturn entrenched injustices, and the magnanimity of heart to forgive. May they see what others have examined but not perceived. May they imagine what is not dreamed, and heal the incurable.”

As the Old Campus ceremony came to a close, the graduates gradually processed out to head to their respective residential colleges or professional schools where smaller, more intimate degree-granting ceremonies were held.

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Part of the In Focus Collection: Yale Commencement 2018: A campus-wide celebration

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