Envision the world you want, and be kind, author tells the graduating class

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie ’08 M.A.
Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie ’08 M.A. (Photo credit: Michael Marsland)

Just a day before they became official graduates, members of the Class of 2019 were urged by acclaimed novelist and essayist Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie ’08 M.A. to forget “from time to time” that they went to Yale.

That call — to not let the distinction and prestige of their Yale degree cloud their connection to all of humanity — was among the wide-ranging pieces of advice the alumna gave the soon-to-be graduates during Class Day festivities on May 19.

The students, clad in their black graduation gowns but wearing distinctive headgear in keeping with a Class Day tradition, sat transfixed as Adichie spoke to them about confidence, kindness, power, paying attention, charity, love, and more.

She called on them to engage with the world but with a “clear vision” of what they want the world to be, and urged them, in particular, to ask themselves: “What should America be?”

Sharing an Igbo expression that translates into English as “things are not standing well,” the Nigerian-born writer told the class that from her perspective, “things are not standing well” in America.

Wherever you might be on the ideological spectrum, things are not standing well if fear is in the air that Americans breathe,” she said.

She continued: “Should America be a country where fear is always an option for children in school? Where a child might never come home because that child has been murdered by another child with a gun? Should America be a country where black people live in fear of their lives because members of the police do not seem to think of them as full human beings? Should America be a country where women are in fear of not having full autonomy over their bodies?

… What should America be?” she asked. “Conceptualize that America and then make the case for that America, not only in obvious ways, such as how you vote, but also in smaller ways: how you treat other people, how you think of other people … the acts of kindness you do, the people you chose to listen to and to hear. And today, hearing people can often be the best way of showing them that they matter.”

 A degree that opens doors … and carries responsibility

Adichie went on to tell the graduates that if history is any guide, having a Yale degree will make the graduates more likely to become a U.S. president, senator, Supreme Court judge, or other person in power.

A Yale degree makes you more likely to become a person who in different capacities will be responsible for policies and actions that will affect the lives of millions of people,” she reminded the seniors, eliciting laughter from the audience when she added, “No pressure.” She said that while some might resent them for their Yale degree, most people will assume they are competent.

If your degree does end up propelling you to power, remember if power was a jacket, it is most flattering on all body types when worn very lightly,” said Adichie.

She asked that if they work for a nonprofit, they “remember that the best charity is that which does not perpetuate itself.”

She added, “Never forget that human beings — actual human beings with dreams and hopes and fears, with favorite foods and things they like and dislike — are the focus of your charity.”

To those whose futures will involve traveling around the world, she advised: “Remember that local knowledge is always best. Yes, read the country reports written by the CIA or whoever writes those reports, but place higher value on local knowledge: local newspapers, literature, the person who picks you up from the airport.”

To loud clapping and cheers, Adichie urged that if the graduates become corporate leaders, they “hire women executives and not just in human relations. Change the corporate culture. Have an on-site daycare. Make paid family leave standard and ordinary.”

To future journalists, she implored: “Banish forever the practice of false equivalence. Journalism should be about the truth, not about balance. If you are reporting on the fact that climate change exists, you don’t need to bring in a hack to show the other side, because there is no other side.”

Cheers again erupted from the audience when Adichie asked future journalists — and everyone else — to “learn to say ‘I’m sorry,’” which she claimed was difficult for some practitioners of that profession.

Knowing how to say ‘I’m sorry’ and mean ‘I’m sorry’ will serve you well no matter what course your life takes,” she told the seniors. “If you are one of those people who is unable to say those words, there is hope: Practice in front of the mirror. Don’t change the subject; don’t pretend that nothing happened. Don’t ride it out in silence hoping it will go away. Just say ‘I’m sorry,’ a few times if necessary, and only if you mean it.”

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie ’08 M.A.
(Photo credit: Michael Marsland)

But don’t apologize for being who you are

There is one kind of apology, however, that Adichie implored the graduating students to never utter.

Please do not ever apologize for taking up space in the world, or for having a well-considered opinion.”

That advice, she said, was especially important for women, “whose socialization teaches them — teaches us — to shrink ourselves, as if our responsibility is never first to ourselves but always to others.”

Each individual woman has to find her own balance, Adichie said. She offered, however, one “guiding principle” to women as they contend with the tension between serving themselves and serving others: “You do not need to make room in your life for people who wish you harm.”

Don’t silence, and honor the questions

Adichie told the Class of 2019 that she is especially fond of American liberal arts education for creating “brilliant and talented people,” but said she worries that these same people “are nonetheless afraid to say the wrong thing, even in ostensibly safe spaces.

If the world inside of college is safe, then you should know that the world outside of college is not,” she added. “And I urge you always, always, to honor the doubts that you have; honor the questions that you have. Don’t silence yourself.”

Adichie told the seniors that writing is her own platform for sharing what is important to her in the world, saying that she is especially committed to social justice and to the equality of women. Describing an encounter with a man who said that his wife needed to submit to him, Adichie said: “The world is full of people like that man. Is it necessarily my responsibility to educate them? No. Do I want to? Yes. Why? Because I think it’s worthwhile to give people the benefit of the doubt. Because I think it is worth trying to change a person’s mind if that would lead to a greater human good.”

Quoting a friend who told her that Americans don’t have friends because they work too much, Adichie offered this final advice to members of the Class of 2019:

Prove him wrong. Have friends. Many friends, or just one. Hold your family close. … Hold your friends close. Stand up for your loved ones. Tell the people you love that you love them. Tell them often. Find reasons to laugh. … Never admire quietly. If I admire something about someone, I let them know. We do not always recognize what is beautiful in ourselves, until somebody has pointed it out to us. … Be kind. Paying attention is one of the most beautiful acts of kindness.”

Adichie received a standing ovation for her speech and was honored with an honorary Doctor of Letters degree at the University Commencement ceremony on May 20. Listen to her speech in its entirety.

Cheers, prizes, and joyful tears

Members of the Class of 2019 cheered enthusiastically as some of their classmates were honored with Yale College’s top scholastic and athletic awards during the Class Day ceremony.

Director of Athletics Victoria Chun presented the Nellie Pratt Elliot Award to cross country and track star Andrea Masterson and the William Neely Mallory Award to baseball standout and captain Simon Whiteman.

Alanna Pyke cried tears of joy on the Class Day stage as she was named one of the winners of the Nakanishi Prize, which she shared with Jonathan Salazar. The prize is awarded to graduating seniors whose leadership enhanced race or ethnic relations at Yale. Their classmates gave them a standing ovation.

Winners of the top scholastic prizes are Jude Alawa, the James Andrew Haas Prize; Lily Mirfakhraie, the Warren Memorial High Scholarship Prize; Hannah Lawrence, the Russell Henry Chittenden Prize; Eren Orbey and Alexis (A.K.) Payne, the Louis Sudler Prize; and Devyn Rigsby, who won both the Alpheus Henry Snow Prize and the Arthur Twining Hadley Prize. Each prizewinner earned sustained applause from their classmates.

Century-old traditions and new features

The Class Day ceremony began with the parading of students onto the Old Campus by residential college. As they took their seats in the hazy afternoon sun, some bellowed out their college’s special chants. Others posed as family members lined up in the aisle to take their pictures.

Members of the Class of 2019 showed off all manner of headgear, including architectural structures, stuffed animals, flower garlands, and so much more atop their heads. These ranged from a sign that demanded “Vaccinate Your Children!” to a paper cutout of a bulldog atop a rainbow-colored bicycle to a wooden cube that proclaimed “Thinking In a Framework.”

"Thinking in a Framework" silly hat
(Photo credit: Michael Marsland)

Yannis Messaoui, Julia Tobin, and Rebecca Yan welcomed the Class of 2019 and their families to the ceremony, describing some of the things they won’t miss about Yale (library shifts, midterms, XL sheets for dormitory beds, and heavy campus gates) and those they will (spontaneity, meeting friends late-night at the Buttery, and chanting “Living on a Prayer” at 1 a.m.).

They expressed gratitude that Yale “allowed us to become the people we want to be,” and for the family members, friends, and faculty members “who helped us through.”

In keeping with a Class Day tradition, Dean Marvin Chun tested the exuberance of the graduating class by asking the seniors to cheer wildly to show how they’ll react during Commencement when he announces that they are graduates. As always, their first response didn’t cut the mustard with the dean, who asked them to jump, stand, cheer, and shout louder on the second try.

Making — and leaving — a legacy

In his Class Reflection, titled “How To Spot a Yalie,” Larry Fulton asked, “What is that makes us different as Yalies — more likely to stand out in a crowd?”

… Yale has always been a place that’s embraced sharp differences in opinion, where big ideas have clashed,” he said. What binds Yalies, he added, is “the training in analytical thinking. The instruction to value empathy and emotional intelligence and difference in opinion. … And more than that there is an ethos here — a spirit of acknowledgement — among all those who disagree. Cliché as it may be, Yalies strive to engage in the world and to make a difference. It’s simply in the air here.

For me, that’s Yale,” he continued. “It’s this weird, rowdy bunch of kids from all over the world, in one place, committed to lux et veritas and to each other, who believe that they can do anything.”

Read Fulton’s entire Class Reflection.

Lighthearted laughs and an ode to their time together

Seniors Raffaella Donatich and John Rosenbluth elicited nonstop laughter with their “Vows to the Class of 2019,” a comedic tale about how neither found love at Yale. But there was a plus side to that bad luck, noted Donatich, who said that even though she did not find her life partner, she “got practice taking care of the people I love.”

Following a tradition that dates back to 1852, when the first vine was placed near the wall of what is now Dwight Memorial Chapel, the ivy for the graduating seniors was planted near Phelps Gate, where a stone was engraved with the numbers “2019.” The ivy symbolizes the flourishing of the graduating class.

This year’s Ivy Ode, a spoken-word poem called “All our Names,” was written and read by senior Ashia Ajani. She described her class’ exuberant arrival through welcoming gates as first-year students, and reminisced about her own experiences — having a professor who looked like her, having her heart broken, how someone encouraged her not to give up — as well as the class’ collective experience. The ode read, in part:

What has changed since those first days
How our eyes and hearts have softened
How we have grown into even better versions of ourselves
And that does not come without this responsibility to one another
What will we make of ourselves beyond these bright college years.

Ajani continues by reminding her classmates of the support they received and gave during their four years:

Think of all the dawns and all the hands that
pushed you towards this moment
Think of the ways we were kind not only to others, but to ourselves
Carriers of light and truth
Leave our mark wherever we go
When the gates close and our time here
Has drawn its last breath
What will this campus remember you by?                                                

Years that were bright

Class Day festivities ended with the signing of “Bright College Years,” accompanied by members of the Yale Bands and Yale Glee Club, and the waving of their white handkerchiefs. On the large monitors that gave audience members a close-up look at the festivities, a slideshow of photographs from the Class of 2019’s four years at Yale played, capturing the passage of time through the students’ arrival to this day.

Sheneika Hall, the sister of graduating senior Eli Rami of Brooklyn, New York, who was attending the event with her mother and son, expressed an emotion that many in the audience were feeling during the Class Day ceremony and while watching the sea of waving white handkerchiefs. “I’m very proud that he’s here,” she said of her brother. “My mother and I graduated from college, but not one as prestigious as this. We’re very proud.”

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