‘This moment has finally come’: A Commencement unlike any other

In a series of ceremonies held across campus, Yale honored the Class of 2021 with a Commencement celebration for the history books.
Yale College graduates gathered on Old Campus on Saturday.

Yale College graduates gathered on Old Campus on Saturday. (Photos by Dan Renzetti)

Jubilant exclamations of “We did it!” echoed across Old Campus, along pathways, and through courtyards around Yale as members of the Class of 2021 fist-bumped and high-fived after being pronounced Yale graduates.

It’s a familiar triumphant refrain, and for these students — who adapted to new ways of learning and living necessitated by the pandemic — the chance to exult seemed especially hard-won.

Graduating is a great accomplishment, one of the most important of your life,” Dean Marvin Chun told members of the Yale College Class of 2021, who sat masked and physically distanced in one of three separate Old Campus ceremonies in their honor on Saturday. “If you think back to when you first arrived on campus, no one could have imagined that you’d live through a global pandemic. But you did, and thanks to your strength and perseverance, this moment has finally come.”

This year’s Commencement  — which continues through Monday — is one for the history books. In perhaps the most carefully choreographed celebration ever, ceremonies were planned to unfold over four days rather than the customary two, starting last Friday. Events were organized down to the smallest detail, with an eye toward campus and public safety, as Yale, like the rest of the nation, slowly begins to emerge from the pandemic. Each in-person event was limited to graduating students only; family members and friends were invited to watch ceremonies via Livestream.

The planning made for quieter ceremonies — but joyous ones all the same. Rather than hosting the traditional combined Old Campus gathering for all graduates from Yale College, the Graduate School of Arts & Sciences, and the 12 professional schools, separate, abbreviated ceremonies have been unfolding across campus.

In all, about 3,500 students are expected to graduate this year.

Graduates from the Yale School of Architecture in Yale University Art Gallery’s sculpture garden on Friday.
Graduates from the Yale School of Architecture in Yale University Art Gallery’s sculpture garden on Friday.

The Schools of Nursing and Architecture kicked things off Friday with ceremonies on West Campus and in the Yale University Art Gallery’s sculpture garden, respectively. On Saturday, there were three separate Yale College ceremonies on Old Campus, the second of which included the first class of seniors to graduate from Benjamin Franklin and Pauli Murray colleges; those colleges were established in 2017. And on Sunday, the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences celebrated, also on Old Campus.

Events continue Monday with ceremonies for the Schools of Art, Divinity, Drama (a virtual event only), the Environment, Law, Management, Medicine, Music (also entirely virtual), Public Health, and the Jackson Institute. The schedule, plus links to Livestreams, recordings, and other Commencement programming, are available at the Yale2021 website.

Subdued, but grateful for togetherness

The Yale College celebrations on Saturday took place under mostly sunny skies and warm temperatures (nearing 90 degrees by afternoon). They began with the procession of students by residential college to Old Campus, led by banner bearers carrying the flags of their residential colleges.

With family members watching remotely, the streets were free of traffic jams, but small numbers of parents lined the sidewalks in hopes of capturing photos of their graduates as the procession began. Trying to be as unobtrusive as possible, Cathy Jahrling of Massachusetts snapped a few shots of her son, Bobby Jahrling of Silliman College, while he and his classmates walked along College Street. Noting that Bobby, an economics major, missed out on his final season of heavyweight crew because of the pandemic, Jahrling said she was grateful that he and his peers could come together to celebrate in person.

I’m glad they have the opportunity to have some sort of closure,” she said. “They’ve been good sports during this year. I fully respect the university’s decision to limit the ceremonies to the graduating students in light of the pandemic.”

Yale College graduates gathered on Old Campus.
Yale College graduates gathered on Old Campus.

Once seated on Old Campus, students chatted quietly with their neighbors, erupting in cheers when they saw themselves or friends appear on a large monitor near the stage as a camera panned the assembly. Some waved foam shields or mini versions of their residential college flag. Others made peace signs. And a few could be seen mouthing messages for those watching remotely when the camera zoomed in on them: “Hi, Mom, I love you!”

President Peter Salovey entered with Dean Chun, the heads of college, and the residential college deans, as well as the bulldog puppy Handsome Dan XIX, Yale’s newest live mascot, who was attending his first Commencement. The procession was led by Kate Krier, associate dean for the arts, who carried a ceremonial mace depicting the mythic “Yael,” a beast that is part goat and part boar, with bright golden horns.

Kate Krier leads the procession with the ceremonial “Yael” mace.
Kate Krier leads the procession with the ceremonial “Yael” mace.

During the ceremonies, each head of college asked President Salovey to confer bachelor’s degrees on their students, and the deans then called each graduate by name to accept a symbolic degree on stage. (The actual degrees come later.)

Salovey congratulated students and their families, saying, “[W]e gather to recognize the extraordinary accomplishments of all of you, who have worked so hard to complete your programs of study. We salute your efforts, your diligence, your talent, and your intellect. We also join in expressing gratitude for all who have supported you in these efforts: your families, friends, teachers, and other members of the Yale community. Congratulations, Class of 2021!”

At each ceremony, a member of the Senior Class Council or Class Day Committee also addressed the graduating seniors, reminding them of such memories as first-year snowball fights, or the memorable 2019 Yale-Harvard football game (which Yale won in double overtime), or late nights spent studying in the library.

Although our senior year experience has not been a traditional one, the Class of 2021 has made the best of the situation,” said Bryan Owens, the class secretary. “When we leave Yale in just a few days, we will leave with memories of friendships that last a lifetime. Here’s to the Class of 2021. We did it!” 

In closing the Yale College ceremonies Chun reminded the students that while there is often some sadness in leaving Yale, the event marks a “commencement” — a beginning. “[A]s you look to the days and years ahead, think of the new achievements and opportunities in front of you,” he said. “And look around you as well to remind yourself of the excellent company joining on this new beginning, friendships formed at Yale.”

As she departed Old Campus, Coral Ortiz, an American studies major from New Haven, said she felt both grateful and relieved after the ceremony. “I made such good friends and had professors who were key to my adjusting to Yale,” said Ortiz, one of a number of students who took part in the ceremony but will return for one more semester because they a took a leave during the pandemic. “I’m excited for the future.”

Greg Lakey, a Yale parent from Los Angeles, said he struggled to come up with the right superlative to express the pride he felt in his son, Tahj Lakey, who majored in ethnicity, race, and migration and was a member of the singing group Shades for three years.

I’ve only cried twice — once when I dropped him off at Yale and today,” said the beaming father. “All of the sacrifices have been worth it.”

Paying it forward, in gratitude, and singing like birds

During the ceremony for the Graduate School Arts and Sciences (GSAS), held on Old Campus Sunday, graduates were addressed by Dean Lynn Cooley, President Salovey, and Akiko Iwasaki, the Waldemar Von Zedwitz Professor of Immunology and Molecular, Cellular, and Developmental Biology, who served as the first-ever keynote speaker during a GSAS Commencement, and University Chaplain Sharon Kugler. Iwasaki is a prominent figure in COVID-19 research.

Akiko Iwasaki delivers her keynote address to GSAS graduates.
Akiko Iwasaki delivers her keynote address to GSAS graduates.

The pandemic, Iwasaki said, was just one of several challenges students grappled with over the past several years. She noted incidents of police violence against Black citizens, recent hate crimes against Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders, and structural racism more broadly. She said she sees signs of hope, however, as people speak out against such injustices.

Iwasaki also shared with the graduates three “messages” that she said have helped her during life.

First, she said, “ignore the naysayers” and other advice-givers who try to steer you away from your path. “In college, I was advised not to pursue a career in science,” she said. “I’m glad I did not take it.”

Second, she advised them to reflect on the purpose of their lives. “It sounds cliché,” she said, but the pandemic forced her to “dig deep” in thinking about her own life’s purpose.

Finally, she urged them to “pay it forward.” With their talents, ambition, and Yale educations, they have gifts to offer the world, she said.

Let’s be kind to one another; let’s be generous… Being kind and generous does not have to come at the cost of excellence. You can be all of these things.”

The ceremony concluded with a benediction from Kugler, who shared a passage from the book “Wintering: The Power of Rest and Retreat in Difficult Times,” by Katherine May, which describes the hardships of a “long, disordered” season. “’But we are brave,’” Kugler quoted May, “‘and a new world awaits us, gleaming and green, alive with the beat of wings, and, besides, we have a kind of gospel to tell now, and a duty to share it. We, who have wintered, have learned some things. We sing it out like birds. We let our voices fill the air.”

Visit the Yale2021 website for information about Monday’s ceremonies and for recordings of ceremonies that took place over the weekend.

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Part of the In Focus Collection: Celebrating the Yale Class of 2021