Warmed hearts and radiant smiles at the 318th Commencement

Confetti flies at Yale Commencement 2019
(Photo credit: Michael Marsland)

As the Yale College Class of 2019 assembled on Cross Campus the morning of May 20, lining up for the procession to Old Campus and the university’s 318th Commencement, the graduates savored their few final moments together before embarking on the next chapter of their lives.

There were radiant smiles and perhaps a few nervous butterflies.

It feels surreal, to be honest,” said Sayonte Baldwin ’19. “There are so many emotions hitting me all at once.”

Baldwin, a music major, was lined up with her classmates from Pierson College. They had little yellow suns — a feature of the residential college’s shield — affixed to the tops of their mortarboards. As they arrived on Cross Campus they were greeted by Weili Cheng ’77 B.A., executive director of the Yale Alumni Association and former Pierson resident, who was also wearing the symbolic sun.

That really brought a smile to my face,” said Baldwin. “I’m going to miss my Pierson community and seeing how the spirit carries on after you graduate warmed my heart.”

Jackson Simon ’19 and Benjamin Wanger ’19 — residents of Saybrook College — reminisced about late nights studying at Bass Library.

We’ve done so much work over the past four years,” said Simon, who majored in economics, and statistics and data science. “To finally be here with our parents, who supported us along the way, is really meaningful. It’s great to be surrounded by all our friends at Saybrook College.”

Wanger, a pitcher and first baseman on the Yale baseball team, said he appreciated the opportunity to share the occasion with the university’s faculty and administrators.

They’re so dedicated to us and to helping us make the most of our experience here,” said Wanger, who majored in economics and environmental science and plans to play baseball next year at the University of Southern California as a graduate transfer.

As the time for the procession neared, a sense of excitement grew palpable. A drum circle beat a stirring rhythm at one end of Cross Campus while a bagpiper played “The Halls of Montezuma” at the other. Friends gathered for photos. The graduates chanted and laughed. Parents purchased flowers from sidewalk vendors on College, York, and Elm streets.

It’s been a fun and exciting four years, and it’s pretty crazy to see it all culminate,” said Paige Vermeer ’19, who was lined up with her classmates from Morse College. “Every highlight of the last four years is centered around people and that’s what they’ve tried to emphasize in a lot of the speeches over the weekend. It’s who you meet here and the friendships that you make that live on.”

The ‘dazzling beauty’ of morning

As the academic procession got underway, the crowd of families and friends at Old Campus were treated to color commentary from Penny Laurens, a senior adviser at the university and former head of Jonathan Edwards College, and Garth Ross, executive director of the Schwarzman Center. The pair shared historical facts and explained the various symbolism and regalia that have become part of the ceremony over the years.

As the graduates began to file into Old Campus, the Yale University Concert Band marched through the Phelps Gate, adding music to the affair. Chief Marshal Gregory Margulis, the Erastus L. DeForest Professor of Mathematics, carried the university mace — an emblem of the authority of the president and Corporation fellows — ahead of the members of the Yale Board of Trustees and University Cabinet. 

Marching through Phelps Gate
(Photo credit: Michael Marsland)

Next was a procession of flags representing the United States, Connecticut, New Haven, the university, and its colleges and schools. Once each flag was mounted in front of the main stage, Yale President Peter Salovey opened the ceremony by welcoming the graduates, their parents, families, and friends. 

We gather to recognize the extraordinary accomplishments of all of you, who have worked so hard to complete your programs of study,” Salovey said. “We salute your effort, your diligence, your talent, and your intellect. We also join you in expressing gratitude for all who have supported you in these endeavors.” 

University Chaplain Sharon M.K. Kugler offered an opening prayer.

We stand in the dazzling beauty of this morning as many living expressions of one mystery — a mystery beyond all telling,” Kugler said.  “We who share this beautiful but aching world. We who look at the same sun and the same moon are a people called to communal restoration. As students of your handiwork, we have gathered here throughout the earth with exquisite ambitions and have been blessed at this place with the job of seeking your light and your truth.”

After the invocation, Yale College Dean Marvin Chun presented the 1,347 candidates for undergraduate degrees, triggering a sustained ovation. Then 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 each school crossed the stage to accept the symbolic honors.

The graduates of the Yale School of Nursing — in what has become customary — unleashed a cannonade of confetti and a storm of silly string when Salovey conferred their degrees. Several graduates from the Yale School of Drama donned red clown noses. The mortarboards of graduates of the Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies bore tiny but lush forests and gardens. 

Honoring creativity, integrity, curiosity

After the student degrees were conferred, 11 individuals were awarded honorary degrees.

The 11 individuals we honor this morning serve as examples to you, our graduates, to encourage you to aspire to excellence; to value those elements of human character that they embody: creativity, curiosity, discipline, integrity, and a passion for public service,” Salovey said.

Provost Benjamin Polak introduced each honorary degree recipient.

Sister Helen Prejean received an honorary Doctor of Divinity degree in appreciation of her advocacy against capital punishment, which Salovey called “a mission of justice and mercy.”

In bearing witness and raising your voice, you have changed hearts, transformed catechism, and opened our eyes to the value of all human beings no matter who they are or what they have done,” Salovey said.

Writer and activist Gloria Steinem, a champion of women’s rights, received robust applause as Salovey awarded her a Doctor of Humane Letters degree.

Gloria Steinem receives an honorary Doctor of Human Letters degree from Yale President Peter Salovey
Gloria Steinem receives her Doctor of Humane Letters degree. (Photo credit: Michael Marsland)

You spearheaded a movement and changed our world, giving women greater freedom to chart their own courses in life, opening doors for generations to come,” Salovey said.

A smiling Steinem acknowledged the ovation by briefly raising her fist into the air. 

Author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie ’08 M.A., this year’s Class Day speaker, also drew hearty applause while being awarded a Doctor of Letters degree in appreciation for her “superb talent and leadership in literature and the public sphere.”

With courage and clarity, you call us to do better for women and girls, for ourselves and for future generations around the globe,” Salovey said.     

Also receiving honorary degrees were scholar and Harvard President Lawrence S. Bacow, diplomat and statesman James A. Baker III, classicist and author Mary Beard, actress and choreographer Carmen de Lavallade, artist Sheila Hicks ’57 B.A., ’59 M.F.A., businessman and philanthropist Strive Masiyiwa, conservationist and researcher Cynthia Moss, and PepsiCo chairwoman and business executive Indra K. Nooyi ’80 SOM.

Light and Truth

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

Bless these graduates with eyes to see what we have not seen; with minds to grasp what we have found incomprehensible; with hearts willing to risk failure to change what we have been unable to alter.”

Once the ceremony at Old Campus concluded, the graduates gradually filed out and went to their respective residential colleges or professional schools where more intimate degree-granting ceremonies were held.

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