‘Until we meet again’ — Baccalaureate and Class Day at Yale

U.S. Surgeon General Vivek Murthy, Yale’s Class Day speaker, and President Peter Salovey, in his final Baccalaureate address, offered messages of connection.
Students wearing festive hats processing with the Yale College Class of 2024 banner.

(Photos by Dan Renzetti)

Yale seniors took in twin messages of healing and human connection on Sunday — one from the nation’s doctor and the other from Yale President Peter Salovey, who gave his final address to students as head of the university.

During the Class Day ceremony on Old Campus, Vice Admiral Vivek H. Murthy, ’03 M.D., ’03 M.B.A., the U.S. surgeon general, urged graduates of Yale College’s Class of 2024, most of whom began their Yale lives during the first year of the pandemic, to fend off feelings of isolation and disconnection by embracing the transformative power of love and friendship.

Four years ago, many of you didn’t have an in-person high school graduation because of the pandemic. When you started at Yale, you had to take classes virtually and isolate from each other,” Murthy said to the thousands of students and families in attendance, sitting in rows of white chairs in the green, leafy courtyard.

Yet despite facing truly unprecedented circumstances, you persevered, you learned, you built meaningful friendships,” Murthy said. “The togetherness that has come to define your class didn’t just happen. You fought for it. It’s one more reason we are so proud of you today.”

Class Day, held the day before Commencement, is a Yale tradition dating back to the 19th century when soon-to-be graduates gathered on Old Campus to swap stories about their experiences. It has grown into a festive celebration featuring a notable speaker chosen with input from students, prizes awarded for academic, artistic, and athletic excellence, reflections from class members, and the continuance of Yale symbolic traditions such as Class Ivy and clay churchwarden pipes.

Students marched into the ceremony adorned in (mostly) silly hats — a veritable sea of pizza boxes, pirate tops, plushy toys, traffic pylons, and plants. Some were whimsical: lobsters and balloon antlers, cheese wedges and stuffed animals, dioramas and dragons. Others were political, satirical, or artistic.

Murthy said he’d briefly “borrowed” a student’s banana hat, fitting into the festivities and filling a “gap” in his own college finale (at Harvard), which apparently lacks the festive hat tradition.

Finding your people — at Yale

Vice Admiral Vivek H. Murthy
Vice Admiral Vivek H. Murthy, ’03 M.D., ’03 M.B.A., the United States Surgeon General

Murthy’s speech was a heartfelt prescription for finding health and wellness in a complicated world.

The nation’s first surgeon general of Indian descent, Murthy is a leading advocate for mental health and wellness and the author of the bestselling book “Together: The Healing Power of Human Connection in a Sometimes Lonely World” (2020).

As vice admiral of the U.S. Public Health Service Commissioned Corps, he oversees more than 6,000 dedicated public health officers serving underserved and vulnerable populations. Murthy is also the first U.S. surgeon general to host a podcast, “House Calls with Dr. Vivek Murthy.”

Yet, as he noted in his Class Day address, he too has known feelings of disconnection.

When I came to Yale in 1998 as a medical student, I was a shy, introverted young man who had gone through high school and college never quite feeling like I belonged,” he said. “But over eggplant parm dinners at Yorkside [Pizza], snowball fights right here on Old Campus, group sessions in the Starr reading room, and countless late-night conversations walking though campus, I found my people. Curious, quirky, and fiercely kind people who inspired me and made me laugh.

Yale blessed me with friends I loved and mentors I treasured. It was here at Yale that I finally found that elusive sense of belonging,” he said.

He also discovered during his time at Yale that the secret campus garden where he would steal away to study and relax was, in fact, the Yale president’s backyard.

Murthy said Yale’s greatest gift to him was his future wife, Alice Chen, a Yale College grad he met years later while working on health care advocacy. In 2015, Murthy and Chen returned to campus, where he proposed to her next to the lipstick sculpture at Morse College.

She has been my rock and my compass all these years,” Murthy said, briefly overwhelmed with emotion, as the audience cheered.

He also took a moment to consider the arc of his family’s experience — from the life of his grandfather, a village farmer in India; to his father and mother, physicians who made their way to the U.S. and opened a primary care clinic in Miami; to his own story.

Despite all our challenges and heartbreaks as a nation, I stand before you fully aware that in few other countries in the world could the grandson of a poor farmer from India be asked by the president to look out for the health of the entire nation,” Murthy said. “That is the power and promise of America. And I will forever be grateful for it.”

Slideshow: Scenes from Class Day 2024

(Photos by Dan Renzetti)

Being present, being real, and showing up

Murthy told his Yale audience that love, relationships, and honest personal connections are essential to finding fulfillment in a world of change.

He brought that message home with three personal stories about “being present,” “being real,” and “showing up.”

First, he said, was the time in medical school when a classmate’s father needed emergency surgery. Murthy was surprised to learn that the father’s favorite clinician was the surgeon who woke him up in the hospital each morning and only interacted with him for five minutes.

It was what he did in those five minutes that made all the difference,” Murthy said. “He sat on the bed next to his patient. He held his hand. He looked into his eyes. … Remember that your presence has the power to stretch time, to make five minutes feel like half an hour, and to leave someone else feeling seen and valued. In a world where so many people feel invisible, your presence can help others heal.”

Murthy talked about the abrupt end to his first tenure as surgeon general, in 2017 — and how he felt self-doubt creeping into his thoughts as he pondered what to do next in his life. He eventually found the courage to be vulnerable with a circle of close friends and find his way “out of the darkness.”

Lastly, Murthy shared the story of how, when he was an undergraduate, his parents lost their life savings and their medical office to a family friend who emerged as an international con artist. When his family went to retrieve items from the office, other true friends simply appeared with boxes to help them move out and move on.

They didn’t wait for an invitation. They showed up. They listened. They helped. Most of all, they just reminded us that we weren’t alone,” Murthy said.

Baccalaureate address: ‘Choosing love and compassion’

Yale President Peter Salovey
Yale President Peter Salovey

Earlier in the day, in his final Baccalaureate address as Yale’s leader, also on Old Campus, President Peter Salovey issued a similar call for compassion and kindness, weaving together moments of personal history with national flashpoints of forgiveness and grace.

Salovey spoke of his grandparents’ arrival in an America marked by promise and prejudice. He lauded philosopher Hannah Arendt’s notion of the “faculty of forgiving” as the opposite of vengeance. He marveled at the communities of faith that converged during the contentious Civil Rights era, such as when Rabbi Everett Gendler — father of Tamar Gendler, current dean of Yale’s Faculty of Arts and Sciences — marched with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in Selma, Alabama, in March 1965.

Several years later, in 1968, King spoke to Rabbi Gendler about his desire for a movement to “transmute rage into a positive, constructive force.”

Those words resonate today,” Salovey said in his address, “Love and Compassion.” “They remind us that we need to reject hate and rage — and instead find our common love for life, for community, and for peace.

Now, to be sure, the challenges before us — climate change, racial injustice, armed conflict, and extremism, to name only a few — stoke the indignation of any individual of conscience. And across this country, we’ve seen rising antisemitism, Islamophobia, and other forms of bigotry. Without anger, we would be reconciled to accept the unacceptable, tolerate the intolerable, and thereby consign ourselves to a status quo in need of repair. Without anger, we would be bereft of the fuel necessary to fight against prejudice and violence around the globe.

So, what, then, are the grounds that support the translation of outrage into compassion, as Dr. King advised?” Salovey asked.

Perhaps, he suggested, an answer may be found in the life and poetry of eminent Yale graduate and civil rights leader Pauli Murray.

Murray wrote:

But love, alas, holds me captive here

Consigned to sacrificial flame, to burn

And find no heart’s surcease until

Its more enduring uses I may learn.

In 1963, Salovey noted, Murray, an African American, defended the campus appearance of George Wallace, the controversial Alabama governor whose racist invectives and potential visit ignited controversy at Yale. Murray, a law student at the time, wrote to Yale President Kingman Brewster supporting Wallace’s right to speak at Yale.

By every cultural, spiritual, and psychological resource at my disposal,” Murray wrote, “I shall seek to destroy the institution of segregation…[but] I will not submit to segregation myself.”

Such moments of intellectual bravery and individual humanity are hallmarks of the Yale ethos, Salovey said.

Progress depends on our willingness to work together to solve common problems: to extend love and grace, compassion and cooperation, with one another, and, through these means, to build consensus.

By bridging differences — by daring to choose love and compassion over rage and hate — we can bring about the meaningful, sustainable change needed in society. We can bring the world you will soon enter a little closer to the one we desire.

Let’s get started together,” Salovey said. “Let’s get started today.”

Salovey, who this summer plans to yield the Yale presidency to a successor and resume a full time role as a faculty member, ended his address with the Hebrew phrase L’heit ra-oat — “until we meet again.”

Slideshow: Scenes from the 2024 Baccalaureate ceremony

(Photos by Dan Renzetti)

Prizes and goodbyes

The Class Day ceremony, which like the Baccalaureate was broadcast live online, additionally featured the conferral of prizes to outstanding Yale seniors, as well as speeches and reflections from members of the Class of 2024.

The event began with a live performance of an original song, “Beauty in the Leaving,” written by senior Khatumu Tuchscherer, and performed by seniors Tuchscherer, Natalia Artz, Anjali Wang Gupta, Rodrigo Ortiz Mena Martinez, and William Salaverry.

Class Day committee members Jad Bataha, Hedy Tung, and Olivia Zhang gave Murthy’s introduction; committee members Alex Ori, Molly Fallek, and Edmund Zheng presented background on Class Day traditions, such as the white handkerchiefs that members of the graduating class wave at the end of the ceremony and the Church Warden pipes (now filled with bubbles) that early Yale students would break as a symbol of the end of carefree college life.

Alanah Armstead, Daya Butler, and Rosie Rothschild requested a moment of silence for lost loved ones and introduced the “Class History,” a compilation of photos and video from the students’ time at Yale. Josh Atwater gave a class reflection on watching New Haven wake up each morning as he delivered copies of the Yale Daily News and witnessing the care and dedication of Yale dining hall and facilities staff. Rachel Brown and Adriana Golden performed a comedy sketch.

At the conclusion of the ceremony, as students strode confidently toward their futures, senior Mary Ben Apatoff did some reflecting of her own about the speeches she’d heard.

Apatoff, an environmental engineering student from New York City, sported a bike helmet adorned with flowers. She’d set her alarm the night before, so she wouldn’t miss President Salovey’s speech.

I liked it a lot,” she said, as students and families flowed around her on High Street. “President Salovey struck a tone that is salient to a lot of us, to a lot of people’s experience. It moved me. His speech, and the surgeon general speech, touched on things that any graduate can relate to.”

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Part of the In Focus Collection: Celebrating Yale 2024