COMMENCEMENT 2016 | OPINION
On Monday, May 23rd, Yale celebrated its 315th Commencement. Read thoughts and reflections from faculty, administrators and members of the Class of 2016 below.
NEWS’ VIEW: To the class of 2016
This time of year bursts with clichés. You’re probably hearing a lot of them right now, a running mantra of: “Bright College Years,” “Be the change you wish to see” and “This is not an end, but a beginning.” Clichés are clichés because they’re true, albeit incomplete.
We at the News would like to offer you a little graduation metaphor of our own. Because this is Yale, for better or for worse, our commencement cliches often come from the annals of philosophy — quotes from Plato, Confucius and Maimonides. But since you are the remarkable, passionate, irreplaceable class of 2016, our cliche for you is a little different.
Come with us to Athens, around 350 B.C.E., to Plato’s Academy — the ancestor of our modern university. Plato has just famously defined man as a “featherless biped.” He’s brilliant, he’s an intellectual celebrity and he’s establishing Western philosophy. Yet sometimes, even Plato’s analyses can be deepened with the help of a peer. One day, one such peer, Diogenes, barges into Plato’s classroom. Dirty, and likely smelly, Diogenes holds a live, plucked chicken before Plato’s shocked students and cries: “Behold! I have brought you a man!” Diogenes was testing the limits of Plato’s initial definition of humankind. Beyond being rude, Diogenes demanded a deeper analysis of life, forcing Plato to broaden his definition of man.
We’ve chosen this particular classical reference because it demonstrates the purpose of the liberal arts. What is Yale, if not an agora to facilitate reflection, disagreement and dialogue among its students?
Let’s come back to New Haven. You, the class of 2016, have spent four years at one of the greatest liberal arts institutions in the world. You first came to Yale already curious and talented, ready to rove over this campus with your relentless intellect and restless drive, eager to impress yet deeply humbled by your peers and professors. You came to Yale with dreams. You leave Yale with dreams.
Time has been kind to you. At Yale, you have sung in choirs, dripped sweat on the playing field and worked until 11:59 p.m. to finish prize-winning essays. You have ladled soup for the hungry, interviewed diplomats and glimpsed the future in a petri dish.
But college is no easier at Yale than anywhere else. In these four years you have lost friends, flunked tests and cried in courtyards when you realized life was more confusing than an admissions brochure made it out to be. You have turned tears into change as you held your Yale accountable. You have called for racial justice, environmental change, mental health reform, sexual consent, international human rights and so much more. From New Haven to St. Louis, college voices like yours are shaping the course of this country. And in expressing your experience of isolation and oppression, you found a community and a home here. Perhaps this is the most important lesson you have taught us: None of us are alone. And throughout it all, you have made friends that will walk with you for the rest of your lives. You have changed Yale just as Yale has changed you.
And sometimes, you did all this with three hours of sleep and three cups of coffee. You filled four years with discussion: in dining halls, across seminar tables, over text and over megaphones. And this was not chatter; this was dialogue — the lynchpin of the liberal arts. You asked questions. You demanded answers. And the vibrations of your conversation shook the intellectual mortar of this place.
So thank you, class of 2016, for the Yale you leave behind and for the lessons your journey has taught those of us who will remain. Thank you for your brains, for your brawn and for constantly chafing against incomplete definitions of Yale. You, like so many classes before you and so many classes after you, have asked questions of each other and of the University that have complicated, developed and changed our definitions about the world.
And after you leave campus, keep talking, keep dreaming and keep asking questions. Take heed from Diogenes. Storm through the agoras of your life. Demand more of your peers and yourself. And always, always pluck your own chickens. We know you will.
AKINDOJU: What to make of Yale
“Yale … it’s what you make of it.” I heard this statement over and over throughout my first few days on campus, walking around Yale in 2012 as a wide-eyed freshman. Whether it was freshmen counselors telling me to take advantage of my time at Yale, or my dean talking about how quickly college goes by, I always got a sense that my time at Yale was special. Something to be cherished, remembered dearly and leveraged wisely.
Writing this piece, at the end of what has been both an awe-inspiring and difficult four years, I have come to realize that these messages of guidance indeed ring true. Yale is more than just an institution; it represents a time and a place that unique in each our lives. Yale gives us the space to dream and to chase those dreams as wholeheartedly. We are surrounded by some of the most intelligent, talented and kindest individuals we will ever meet.
By no means is Yale perfect. As a campus, we still struggle with issues of race and class, gender and socioeconomic status. As a first-generation student, immigrant from Nigeria and black man on this campus, I have experienced the full spectrum of campus experience, from prejudice to triumph. As students, we can no longer claim ignorance or turn a blind eye to the problems of the world. Instead, we ought to see these challenges as an opportunity to engage in discussions and work to solve these issues.
With great opportunity, comes great responsibility. So to those that will return to campus in the fall, make Yale yours. And to my fellow members of the class of 2016, let’s us take what we have learned, the friends we have made and the experiences we have had, both good and bad, to move forward and make the world a better place.
TOBI AKINDOJU is a senior in Davenport College. Contact him at email@example.com.
AVERBUCH: Maybe they’ll call me
Three days into our senior-year beach vacation, Juliet proposes that we all get matching tattoos. She traces a line down the ridge of her nose, says, “Let’s get our house number — 272 — right here.” All of my housemates raise their glasses in honor of her proposal, as if we love each other so much that we could prick each other’s reddened faces with needles. Too much wine has spoiled us. We avoid the quiet time that will make us think about what’s coming.
Several of my friends have tattoos, and I am jealous of them. A tiger peers out from one’s bathing suit when she sunbathes on the beach. Three bees — an ankle bee, a wrist bee, a chest bee — circle another. A map of the world rests on the inside of an arm. A seashell curls across a shoulder muscle. These tattoos are sometimes hidden, and catching sight of one feels like seeing a private memento. I’ve never liked the idea of something inked on my body, but I still admire that my friends have figured out how to make something permanent out of themselves. I pretend they have paid for stability, for knowing what they’ll be years from now, although they’d laugh at me for saying so.
In less than a week, we will haul their suitcases into cars to make our way far from here. To prepare for the onslaught of sadness, I have been listing all the items in our house that I don’t care about leaving behind: a poster of Putin in a leotard on an outdated magazine cover on the fridge, insects from an entomology class in the freezer, black twists of hair in the drain, an out-of-tune Everett piano, essays piled under a fold-out IKEA desk, a bulbous-eyed stuffed animal perched in the living room, a hand-me-down coffee table book of men’s butts, the waning moons of toenail clippings. I’m counting these strange inheritances to make loss seem inconsequential, so that significant losses will make me less sad.
Here’s what’s left: My housemates are bickering about when our families will meet one another, and we do not know how to make tea for 27 people. I will take a road trip in Colorado with my best friend in the fall, but we don’t know the details because I’m bad at committing. I am reading “Teaching to Transgress” because a friend lent it to me on the beach, and I am feeling ignorant. Often, our private college life seems gluttonous, and this book is making me think about how I have been educated. The absence of these friends — some ready to escape from Yale in a year when the school has let people down — catches in my throat.
Perhaps if friends keep calling me, if they pass books thirdhand, if they say: What mistakes are you making, graduation will be merely a pageant of an ending. Lent copies of “Antwerp,” “Citizen” and “Bluets” are in my suitcase, “White Girls” and “Life Beside Itself” on my beside table. Friends can leave permanent marks, even when their inked selves are out of sight, or even if we later fall out of touch.
MAYA AVERBUCH is a senior in Berkeley College. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
BILDNER: Complicated college years
Soon, the cavernous Woolsey Hall will be filled with the voices of the class of 2016, their family, friends and mentors singing Henry Durand’s, class of 1881, “Bright College Years.” The Glee Club will croon Yale’s unofficial school song — the lyrical bookend of our undergraduate years — will fill the billowing, ornate ceilings above. At the finale, when we will wave our white handkerchiefs, warbling the closing lines “For God, for Country and for Yale!” just as we did almost four years ago in the same room, it is hard not to get swept up in a surge of raw emotion.
I expect that I, too, will be caught up in the ridiculous bliss that comes with waving a “Y”-emblazoned handkerchief above my head. Yet the song has also caused me some bemused angst — I have to laugh: “Bright college years, with pleasure rife / The shortest, gladdest years of life … Those happy, golden, bygone days!”
Let’s just call it what it is: canned collegiate euphoria! These years, for so many of us, have not been only bright. They have also been long, stressful, chaotic, tense, challenging, complex and exhausting. And the ethos of the song — fit in, love college and drink the blue Yale Kool-Aid — is only half the picture.
I’m proud to write that Yale has been a roller coaster. I’ve experienced soaring highs, crashing lows and everything that comes in between. This is normal. This is right. I’ve both fallen in love on Old Campus and had my heart broken on Hillhouse Avenue. I’ve walked out of William L. Harkness Hall in tears and raced to the Hall of Graduate Studies to turn in my senior thesis a minute before the deadline. Sophomore year, I started work at the Yale Farm and had the best start to the semester I can remember, only to get a year-altering concussion just a short time later. I’ve laughed so hard with my housemates that our rickety house feels like it’s about to crumble from the weight of our giggling bodies. Yet after one of these joyful meals, I walked down Elm Street, tears streaming down my face, minutes after learning that my grandparents had passed away.
So what I really wish I could belt at the top of my lungs in Woolsey Hall (ideally to the tune of “Bright College Years,” which I do find very pleasing) would be the following, explicitly corny, yet deeply true line: “These have been the most up-and-down four years of my life, but man oh man, am I so grateful!” This is what, to me, is worth holding on to, during this last week of my undergraduate years: the “attitude of gratitude.” Gratefulness, while in the darkest of times can be challenging to hold on to, is a prime source of continuity and stability. I hope that — for all of us — these four years mark the beginning of a meaningful and productive life to come. Despite what our lovely lyricist Henry Durand wants us to believe, Yale is not the pinnacle of life on earth. And the greatest cure for the range of emotions we are all experiencing right now is without a doubt, gratitude.
The great 20th-century scholar Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel wrote, “It is gratefulness which makes the soul great.” I know come this weekend, my mind is going to be all over the place. When I hear “Bright College Years” in Woolsey, I’m going to be comforted by knowing that I am grateful for all that I have learned, experienced and encountered over these four years: both good and bad. These were bright, yes, but more than anything, they were complicated college years. And for that, I’m grateful.
RAFI BILDNER is a senior in Davenport College. Contact him at email@example.com.
FEINZIG: Memories and moments
Some friends and I drove from Myrtle Beach, South Carolina to Woodstock, New York last week, a funny point-A-to-B pairing that I’ll probably never have reason to do again. The trip was long, strange and beautiful, marked by the warmth of friends. Sunburnt and sleepy, I found myself in a little Woodstock store with a couple other visitors, surrounded by the kinds of Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young tchotchkes and Richie Havens memorabilia my 16-year-old self would have loved. I opened a book filled with musicians’ stories and reactions to the concert that some cool aunt might buy. In the book, Jerry Garcia described the 1969 concert as a moment with “swollen historicity.” Garcia seemed sure that everyone at Woodstock had already predicted its momentous and historic legacy, as if the people of the future had traveled back in time as invisible ghosts to see things for themselves.
Yale is rife with similar (albeit perhaps smaller) “swollen” moments. Here, when experience and reflection coexist, we tell ourselves — if only for a second — “I’m going to remember this forever.”
Some of these Yale moments may be elevated to the level of public history and memory. Others might remain personal and private. Yet both will shape our identities and futures. Privately, I had this “swollen” sense when my suitemates and I converted our sophomore-year common room into a restaurant for our friend’s anniversary, and when 50-something students showed up to play four square in our backyard earlier this spring.
So too have we all shared in this sense together countless times for both celebratory and tragic reasons, during the March of Resilience and naming (in)decisions, national sports championships and the presidential inauguration. These moments swept us up in some great oceanic consciousness and invigorated our search for togetherness. Some of these collective memories might crumble out of public history and disperse into privately held stories. But it’s up to us to insist on which memories will benefit from interactive engagement and upkeep, and remain alive.
The other day, a friend and I recounted a funny story from sophomore year in different ways — disagreeing over trivial details of who had said what in an amusing encounter with an administrator. Although minor, it troubled me that the details of that story may have been obscured and reworked through time. On the one hand, I want the stories of the last four years preserved, like insects in amber, waiting for me to return to them. But it’s clear that these memories will change and evolve, reflecting our own subtle transformations.
Over time, we’ll see our stories through new prisms, and perpetually reopen and rethink our relationship to this amazing anthropological experiment called “Yale.” We will keep tabs on campus politics and happenings and voice our opinions as alumni, perhaps to the mild chagrin of a future batch of current Yale students. We will meet up for drinks and tap into our memories, which will include those moments “swollen” in addition to the mundanities and conventions we’re not quite far enough away from to miss. And when we reminiscence with friends, we will be present.
JOSHUA FEINZIG is a senior in Calhoun College. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
GELBFISH: Pride and humility
A “Bildungsroman” is a coming-of-age story in which the main character undergoes moral and psychological growth throughout the narrative. If Yale were a Bildungsroman, we seniors would be poised to complete our narratives this Monday, when we accept our diplomas. We’re ending our Yale careers, but the ceremony is called “Commencement” — the beginning of our lives in the “real” world.
Comparing Yale to a movie or novel is fruitful, and not just because the visual landscape here recalls a storybook. Yale has been a Bildungsroman for me because I’ve changed so much during my years here, the main character in my own coming-of-age story. And as the Talmud says in Sanhedrin 4:5, “Every individual is required to say to oneself: The world was created for me.” As brand-new Yale grads, we can become artists, scientists, statesmen, doctors, lawyers, pretty much anything we want. At Commencement, Yale hangs a metaphorical key around our necks, a key to the world.
But while that impression is true, it’s also incomplete. Graduating from Yale is a huge accomplishment, but we risk hubris by thinking that it’s everything. The dictum from the Talmud seems to contradict Abraham in Genesis 18:27 of the Bible: “I am nothing but dust and ashes.” Compared to the infinitude of existence — or even the institution of Yale itself — we are each specks of dust. We’ve done nothing, changed nothing, accomplished nothing. It would be arrogant to claim that our service trips, our late-night philosophical arguments and above all the eyebrow-raising prestige we get back home actually portend an accomplishment. In reality we’re humans who are barely hatched, still figuring out the world, day by day.
If you were to show my high school self a picture of me at Yale graduation, he would be ecstatic at my accomplishment. In high school, we view a Yale diploma as a fixed pennant on our lapels, a shield against insecurities. Yet, if you showed that same graduation picture to 40-year-old me, he might laugh at how ignorant I was at Yale Commencement.
So which of the rabbis’ aphorisms is true — was the world created for us, and us alone? Or are we just specks of dust? How much can we pat ourselves on the back for graduating from Yale?
Perhaps it’s obvious: Both sentiments are simultaneously true. We should be unbelievably proud of our classmates, and ourselves, while also humbled by all those who helped get us here. We should be astonished by our growth over the past four years while simultaneously realizing that the majority of the work lies ahead. And we should view Yale as a Bildungsroman while also realizing that life isn’t like a movie or novel. There is no single totalizing lens, no overriding climactic change. Instead, our lives are a continuous series of localized narratives, a shelf full of Bildungsromans that doesn’t end in college.
With luck, we’ll have many other adventures. And we’ll view each as an entire world, a totalizing lens blocking out all other stories. It’s time to close the Bildungsroman of Yale, to replace it on the shelf and open another volume. Like a book of Talmud, we should kiss the spine as we put it away, realizing how large its knowledge is. But we should also step back and realize how narrow it is compared to the entire bookshelf. And how small our bookshelf is, in turn, compared to the whole of Sterling Memorial Library, or to all of the libraries the world over. So when we accept our diplomas, remember: We are all dust and ashes. But also remember: The whole world was created with our purposes in mind.
EZRIEL GELBFISH is a senior in Davenport College. Contact him at email@example.com.
GILMORE: What you taught Yale
“An individual is no match for history,” Chilean author Roberto Bolaño wrote, but the class of 2016, some 1,356 individuals who came together four years ago, would dispute that. In your senior year, you proved that individuals make history. And the history that you made changed the University.
Arriving in 2012, a record 40.6 percent of admitted freshmen — today’s graduating seniors — were citizens or permanent residents who identified as a student of color. An independent admissions consultant lauded such diversity as “good PR” for Yale.
Although you came to campus ready for Yale, Yale was not yet ready for you. Among tenured professors, only 7 percent were underrepresented minorities. Among term faculty, that percentage fell from 10 percent in 2012 to 8 percent by 2015. Cultural houses suffered from lack of funding, despite student appeals to the University. Despite the generations of minority students who have attended Yale since the 1960s — some activists of color in the class of 2016 are third-generation Yalies — after almost half a century, few landmarks on campus honor any of Yale’s minority students. Yale expected you to conform to tradition, but you expected to shape Yale in your own image.
This year, many non-minority students joined their minority classmates to respond to University President Peter Salovey’s 2015 freshman address in which he challenged students to debate renaming Calhoun College: “Class of 2019, here is your first hard problem. Welcome to Yale!”
And after this year of campus dialogue, most undergraduates find it unconscionable that students live in a residential college named for John C. Calhoun, class of 1804, who was one of the chief architects of the states-rights system that fostered Jim Crow discrimination in the former Confederacy and who touted slavery as “a positive good.”
The debate changed many minds. As a historian, I once believed that racist symbols like Calhoun College should remain to underscore past wrongs, if the institution added an explanation of the harm their namesakes had caused. But in my 20 years at Yale, Calhoun College endured and no anti-racist monument appeared: Retaining a racist symbol as an anti-racism teaching tool rarely works. Student debate this past fall reversed my opinion; honoring Calhoun in perpetuity does no one any good.
Joining a national debate that marked the end of color blindness, some chafed at the term “master” for the faculty head of a residential college, considering its history in American slavery. Others found it shocking that an associate master advocated countermanding a Yale College dean’s call for sensitivity to ethnic slurs embodied by Halloween costumes. Instead, she urged students to be “a little bit obnoxious … a little bit provocative or, yes, offensive.”
The class of 2016 taught us valuable lessons about free speech, amid a national firestorm erroneously blaming them for suppressing it. Naming a college “Calhoun” and calling a head of college “master” were speech acts long ago, as is writing a letter encouraging students to be obnoxious. Yet the right to free speech does not exempt the speaker from criticism. When Yale students and their allies marched through New Haven streets, chalked slogans in courtyards and renamed a residential college “the college formerly known as Calhoun,” they too exercised their right to free speech.
And the students spoke convincingly. As a result of their actions, Yale administrators replaced “master” with “head” and named one of the two new residential colleges “Pauli Murray College” after a queer woman of color. Further, Yale began a diversity initiative to remedy its recent backward slide into a racially homogenous faculty.
Yet despite overwhelming campus sentiment, the Yale administration has refused to rename Calhoun College — so far. Last week the faculty wrote to Salovey and the Corporation members “to urge you to reverse your decision to retain the name of Calhoun College.” Over 360 Faculty of Arts and Sciences members signed, including 215 full professors. Without the student protests that we have shared this year, such a high number of signatures would have been inconceivable.
At a packed meeting on April 28 in Battell Chapel with Salovey, students poured out their frustrations over the decision to retain Calhoun. To paraphrase one student: Everyone says I’m lucky to go to Yale, but I’ve decided that Yale is lucky to have me here. And she was right: Yale University has indeed been lucky to have the class of 2016, who awakened a tradition of protest that has already made Yale a better place. You were out there, you are leaving, and you are loved.
GLENDA GILMORE is the Peter V. and C. Vann Woodward Professor of History. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
HOLLOWAY: This is where you start
Campus has come to life with the annual pageantry of Commencement. The gowns, the caps, the banners, flags and regalia that have sat in storage all year, waiting for their big moment, finally have their day. This is only my second Commencement as dean, but I have been part of eighteen Yale Commencement ceremonies — as a former head of a college, a member of the faculty and even as a Ph.D. student in 1995. It never gets old. The effect is always dazzling.
For this occasion, Yale pulls out all the stops. And with good reason: You have reached a major milestone, one of the biggest ones that come along in life. You have worked hard to get here, and you’ve started some of your life’s most important work in your years here — not only in your classes, but also in searching for your path in life and in finding some of the friends who will walk it with you, all the way to the end. You’ve asked hard questions of yourselves and of us who tend this place, starting a dialogue with good will and the shared goal of making Yale, and the world, better for everyone.
And your families are bursting with pride. Some of your relatives are going to be here this weekend to celebrate with you, but not all of them, either because they aren’t able to travel or because they have not lived to see this day. All of them are part of your journey, in the sacrifices they have made for you, the obstacles they have removed for you and the love they have shown you. As you celebrate with friends, think of the people who made it possible for you to be here, and honor them with your thanks and your remembrance. It is their day as much as yours.
We on campus are just as proud of you. You came here as strangers to all of us, but along the way you have shown us a light that you brought and kindled here as you prepared for lives of consequence. In so doing, you have made us part of your journey as well. From the day you first got here all of us wondered, just as you did, who you would one day be. And we are beyond impressed, although not at all surprised, to see that you turned out Just Fine. Great, in fact, with great things ahead, even if those great things are great questions.
In the pageantry of Commencement, we show our pride in all the things you’ve done. At the same time, we share your familiar pang of sadness knowing that you are getting ready to leave. It’s all part of the same moment — the pride as well as the sadness. But so is the excitement of what is still to come. If you’re feeling a little anxious, not quite sure of where these next steps will lead, remember that you are not alone. Beside you are your classmates, ahead of you are the thousands of Yale students who have come before you and behind you are the thousands who will follow you. In the days ahead, we welcome you into this excellent company and charge you with the rights and responsibilities that come with the education you have just received.
You have important work awaiting you, and you are ready to commence it. Enjoy the days ahead for what they are: a beginning.
JONATHAN HOLLOWAY is the dean of Yale College and the Edmund S. Morgan Professor of African American Studies, History and American Studies. Contact him at email@example.com.
JOHNSON: The core of Yale
I have this friend, a fellow senior, who will ask intense, what-is-the-meaning-of-life questions at any moment. Most others and I, however, don’t consider it to be off-putting, but welcome the challenge of these “wild” inquiries.
On a drive down I-95 to South Carolina, she asked one of these questions. She said: “Do you feel like the core of who you are has shifted over the last four years? Or do you think you’re the same human with different opinions and preferences and perspectives?”
I guess road trips and “the end” on the horizon warrants a question like this, but I still wasn’t expecting it, nor prepared to think about who I have become and whether I like that person.
My three friends in the car and I stumbled for an answer. We said that we felt this paradox of “the core” of ourselves being mostly the same, but also immensely different in certain ways.
All of us have different opinions, preferences and perspectives. There is very little color in my wardrobe. I think about superdelegates, black Twitter memes are the main form of media that I consume and I cry almost every time that Bon Iver and James Blake harmonize on “I Need a Forest Fire.” That’s just me. The list goes on.
As my core is concerned, my obnoxious Midwestern foundation remains unbroken. What I believe has shifted, because of Yale, is the capacity to really have deeper, more developed emotions than I ever thought I was capable of having. Don’t interpret that as, “I was not an unfeeling polyp for my first 18 years of life.” But, I read my white moleskin (LOL) from freshman year and could tell how I now experienced emotions differently than before.
Love. I have had a gross amount of friendship and romantic love for more people than I thought possible. Some of you I just met this year, but you all mean a lot to me.
Hate. I don’t think I have actually felt pure hatred toward an individual. But I do hate certain aspects of human nature or the world, which assaulted our collective campus conscious this last year. There was not a day last November where I did not cry about the permanence of racism or have frustrating conversations about gender and sexual assault.
Passion. (Most) museums are dope. Ask me about my thesis.
Fear. I’ve sang “Bright College Years” with the Baker’s Dozen, my a cappella group, too many times to not wonder if we will ever experience more happiness than the happiness of these four years. This fear daily pushes me to question whether something has made me happy. If it does not, then I leave it or quit it. I also fear for others, who have despised their time here. That’s hard to hear. I wanted Yale to be that place of happiness for you, but that didn’t happen. And I have faith that it gets better after this.
At the beginning of this year I did not know if I could leave Yale, because this is the first place in my life that has actually felt like I could claim it as home. This year, friend drama, assault, racial strife, a lack of people on any “side” trying to understand my perspective, made it a lot easier to leave Yale. But that does not mean it won’t be hard.
Now, I find myself again walking through the New Haven Green to Caseus crying because I did not know life could be this good, even when I never buy Lactaid pills and someone will yell at me for party-ruining farts. Things will get harder in a more “real adult” fashion, but Yale taught me well, albeit sometimes too well.
Four years is enough. It forced most of us to appreciate every small moment in this short time frame. I hope you like what this experience has done to your core and I hope for the best for all of you well-intentioned, good-nature(d market) homies.
AUSTIN JOHNSON is a senior in Pierson College. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
LAURANS: Why I love Yale
As I retire after 43 years, the News has asked me to write something, and I have chosen my love for Yale. True, I, like many of you, have always loved schools, from first grade on. And life in a great research university has always seemed a kind of paradise to me, for obvious reasons. But Yale is and always will be special in certain ways.
During most of my years here, I taught my favorite course, “Versification,” in one of the great places to study poetry in the world. Imprinted forever on my mind are the moments of discovery when students finally see that poetry evolves over time, and learning about its formal aspects enables you to identify precisely how and when that historical evolution took place, and that it unlocks the door to deeper understanding and appreciation.
As head of Jonathan Edwards College for seven and a half years, I have come to understand at close hand that there is something about the intensity of community here, recognized from the 19th century on, that is almost unique. The quality of the relationships I have formed with impressive young people from around the globe, ready to break old categories and place their mark on the world, has made me one of the lucky few. JE — you have my heart.
A few years ago, I had a public back and forth with a faculty friend at another Ivy League school. He wrote of how he loved visiting Yale, but in the end preferred the pleasures of being a “country mouse” at his great university, since Yale seemed the more “stressful and competitive” place. I took issue this way:
I’m happy to be the “city mouse” visiting the country. I have always liked the atmosphere that keeps Yalies in a state of exhausted and edgy excitement. I like the hum and drive of the city, the four schools of the arts where young people are painting and making music and building and acting and pushing the boundaries of creative experience, the pop and fizz of Chapel Street on Friday evening before two or three openings at the Rep and the Dramat. I like the Galleries and Museums, those gorgeous entities, where something is always going on in front of ageless beauty.
I like the wild heterogeneity in the international world of the Center for the Study of Globalization and the MacMillan Center, the film festivals and conferences at the Whitney Humanities Center, the residential colleges with their quirky flags and cheers and hometown spirit, the walls in the Law School where dissenting opinions are posted, the engineers making things in the Center for Engineering Innovation and Design, the passionate environmentalists who fill opinion columns with lectures on sustainability, the plethora of journals and periodicals and even scandal sheets that emerge in the colleges, sitting there and practically daring you to question their options for free speech.
I like the Dwight Hall participants reminding you of worlds at your doorstep and beyond your own limited vision that need your help, the voices that expect you to answer to a world beyond your own privilege, and the people thinking nonstop about how we can improve education, feed the hungry, help the sick.
There is often din. But most of the time, even when I am frustrated by it, I like the fact that ideas always roil, standards are high, nothing is ever calm, no one is ever fully satisfied, few ever entirely agree, something big is at stake at every instant, and Yalies are constantly duking it out on opposite sides of everything. The scale and clamor helps to test big ideas, gives a representation of what it might be like to achieve something credible in the real world and allows a vital background for change and growth.
And then the place itself: courtyards with flowering trees, the spring walk up Hillhouse Avenue, flags waving from the Yale Bowl on an autumn afternoon, the sight of the shells coming down the river from the Gilder Boathouse, nooks and crannies in the colleges, the brutalist Rudolph Building — an acquired taste I have acquired — and, of course, Old Campus at any season. Who, who could resist these? People in civilizations old and new have died fighting with the vision of such a place before them.
My appreciation does not mean that Yale is a place where I have always succeeded. Like most people, I learned a great deal here about my capacities, but also my limitations. I did some things well and others not so well; but there is more I might have achieved, and other things I feel sure I might have contributed, had I been different in personality and temperament.
Still, I gave every ounce of whatever is in my nature. Why? Because it seems to me that life is only worth living if you are trying to give yourself to something worthwhile beyond yourself — and it was always in my mind and heart that Yale was that.
Yale situates you at a vital center and offers a place that fulfills the Aristotelian definition of happiness by asking of you at every moment “the full use of powers along the lines of excellence.”
As Samuel Johnson said, “When a man is tired of London, he is tired of life.” And it is at the point when I am tired of life, and only at that point, that I expect to be tired of Yale.
PENELOPE LAURANS is the Head of Jonathan Edwards College and the Special Assistant to University President Peter Salovey. Contact her at email@example.com.
RICO: It’s in the past
Despite all the life I’ve lived, I never seem to get better at saying goodbye. Right now, my mind is straining to capture all the facets of my friends. I want to remember how they strut, the look on their faces before they break into laughter, their soft drunken voices calling out for another Chance song. It will never be like this again because we will never live so close, be so young, wild and unsleeping. We will lose our naivete and love of all things uncommitted. We will actually grow up, become the butt of little kids’ jokes, receive international wedding invitations and watch our friends become the aunts, uncles and godparents of our children.
As I write this I am sitting in the back seat of an overly cramped car. I’m watching the painted mountains of upstate New York slide by, listening to Kendrick Lamar after smoking cigars on Rick James’s grave with my closest friends. I am making it a habit to count the blessings that fall upon my lap.
A few times when nobody was looking I forced the tears back. Crying feels stupid when everything is alright. But I’m upset that I cannot hold onto these moments forever. My best friend is sleeping quietly on my shoulder, waking if the car hits a bump. The driver wears a crown of flowers we gathered at the cemetery while the navigator harmonizes with Green Day. Next to me in the backseat, my friend sleeps on the memory of blowing his money at the casino. Why is it so hard to keep holding these tears back?
I know that we are still going to be friends, that better days are waiting and that the real world is the inevitable end of college. I also know that everyone has to grow up. Nothing lasts forever and that we all have important work to do. However, I am not sure my heart is ready for another year of magic to end.
I want to be 10 years old and throw a tantrum. I want to scream and cry until my parents tell me that I can visit my friends tomorrow. I want a lifetime of good tomorrows and an eternal supply of road trips. I want every new Beyoncé album to give us a new anthem and to dance to bachata until our hips grow sore. I want to stop chasing this feeling of unconditional love and sit down with it. I want these people to be mine forever. And I will gladly give my vows to cherish them always. I want at least 100 more silly-face contests and 1,000 bottles of Amaretto and I want to stop tearing up every time they bless me.
But as Rick James once said “I’ve had it all, I’ve done it all, I’ve seen it all, it’s all about love” and if my heart aches from the pure quality of my relationships and I loved so hard it hurts, well, I guess in the end, I didn’t do Yale that badly at all.
DAVID RICO is a senior in Branford College. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
ROSEN: Bigger than Yale
I’ve told a number of people that my senior year at Yale has felt like a series of existential conversations. With each passing day, my friends and I have discussed our hazy futures in increasingly dramatic terms. Our questions range from the minute: Why did I never learn to code? Am I still financially independent if I stay on my family’s cell phone plan? — to the consequentially unanswerable: What am I supposed to do with my life? Will I stay in touch with any of my friends after college?
Among these questions, one particularly cynical query has risen to the top: Do Yale students authentically care about anything?
Sure, we’re all involved in time-intensive extracurriculars and spend too much time writing theses, but maybe only to build up our resumes. Around a third of our class will work in finance or consulting because it pays well and because we’re not sure what other options we had for next year anyway. Although we wrote about global inequalities and disparate impact in our seminars, it’s not like we can do anything about it. We’re only 22 and, save for the couple of us who learned how to code, graduating with just as few hard skills as the liberal arts intended. Right?
In his commencement speech at Howard University earlier this month, President Barack Obama gave some advice that should resonate from D.C. to New Haven: “Yes, you’ve worked hard, but you’ve also been lucky. That’s a pet peeve of mine: people who have been successful and don’t realize they’ve been lucky. … We must expand our moral imaginations to understand and empathize with all people who are struggling.”
We are all so, so lucky. Although, surely, extreme inequalities within our class persist, all of us — from the first-generation college student to the third-generation Yalie — have been granted an immense privilege. Our four years here have opened doors, shattered expectations and challenged opinions. We have a responsibility to understand that privilege, and to make sure we don’t waste it.
“Change is the effort of committed citizens who hitch their wagons to something bigger than themselves and fight for it every single day,” Obama told Howard. As graduates, we have the ability to latch onto something bigger than us — a political cause, a field of scientific inquiry, an artistic form — and leverage the power we’ve been given to create change.
We’ve already had some practice. We’re leaving Yale a very different place than it was in August 2012. Student advocacy on issues from financial aid to mental health to sexual violence has led to concrete policy change. This year, our campus mobilized in defiance of racism and hostility perpetrated within our own walls. I challenge you to watch more than 1,000 students confidently march down High Street and still think Yalies don’t know how to care authentically and intensely.
I’m not convinced Yalies have a problem caring about issues or ideas; I think we’re scared of failing to find solutions. We’ve spent our entire lives being successful, at least according to the metrics considered by the undergraduate admissions office. Many of us spent our college careers pursuing prototypical “success” — taking the famous classes, meeting the right people and attending the most photographed events. With our nearly perfect records of success, we’re afraid to risk failure on problems that cannot be solved easily.
I don’t claim to know exactly what I’m supposed to do with the diploma I’ll be handed on Monday. But I do know that the class of 2016 has potential to be both successful professionals and successful people, and I want to see it met. We have ideas and passions. We care about fixing the broken pieces of the world. It’s time to turn our degrees into something bigger than us, something bigger than Yale.
DIANA ROSEN is a senior in Pierson College. She is a former staff columnist and Opinion Editor of the News. Contact her at email@example.com.
STANLEY-BECKER: The risky splendor of Yale
I never expected to find clarity about Yale’s purpose in the far Willoughby’s, the one on the corner of Grove and Church. But I was there with a professor, going over the beginning of my term paper for her class, when our conversation changed course, and we began discussing a professor who’d met an early, unexpected end. Bent over my loose-leaf draft, my professor cried — there, before me, in a cramped coffee shop on a Wednesday afternoon, on one of the first truly cold days in December.
She cried just for a few seconds before drying her eyes, and then we went back to discussing my introduction.
This interaction stands as one of the most formative in my time here. In my most personal view, it is an example of the risky splendor of Yale: a moment of earnest human understanding, built on the bedrock of an intellectual union, a teacher-student relation, that exceeded its own rigid limits. The rituals and formalities of that relation, of which my professor and I had been devoted servants all semester, didn’t suit our purposes in that moment, as a doleful memory suddenly surfaced between us. So we reached for coordinates more profound than the ones the etiquette of office hours could provide. I became a witness to her unguarded sentiment, as we both bore the risk of vulnerability.
Isn’t this the lesson of a liberal arts education? To use the tools of interpretation we learn in the classroom, the ones that form the basis of humanistic inquiry, to make sense of the ambiguity of human relationships? The gaps and the pauses in poetry are in fact the spaces where every passion can be discerned; the same is true for the dialogues we enter with one another. Historical records are imperfect, subject to bias and faulty recollection; the same is true for acts of self-invention we undertake for ourselves or encounter as we aim to understand other people and their pasts.
What I’ve learned at Yale is that nothing is beyond question, and that everything can be responded to and reconsidered. Even something as well-tried as the teacher-student relationship.
Of course, this is an aspiration; often there isn’t time for such radical scrutiny. But Yale at its best beckons us to upend the expectations that have been set for us — academic, personal or relational, in the classroom, in the intimate spaces of our dorm rooms and apartments or even in Willoughby’s. At its worst, Yale cultivates only conformism and complacency.
We need this lesson now more than ever, as complacency sets in about some of the most vexed problems we face as a society: falling incomes and rising poverty levels that test our values at home, and a global terror network bent on subverting freedom and democracy abroad. On so many issues — from the environment to gun violence — there isn’t just a difference of opinion about priorities but a disagreement over the factual claims and interpretive mechanisms that make common understanding and collective action possible. So we appear bereft of means for even understanding these problems and our own power to address them. All of this is abetted by a national political culture where spectacle has replaced substance, where ideas have little currency.
We didn’t choose the conditions underlying this reality, and so we must refuse them as normal, searching for a new set of conceptual coordinates, and therefore new ways of relating to one another.
The university is the ideal place for this sort of experimentation — it promises us insight, adventure and mirth in exchange for our devotion and gives us the space to test new ideas against the concerns that become acute to us as we become adults.
There is something about Yale in particular that makes these concerns seem vital. I would submit it has much to do with the city that surrounds us, small enough that we can see it legibly but large enough that what we see includes situations of grave public concern. Our self-conception as citizens of New Haven helps meld life within and without the classroom, calling on us to view our education as simultaneously a speculative and worldly endeavor, with a purpose higher than mundane memorization, office-hour appointments and email salutations — all rivals to genuine insight and intimacy.
The best sort of education teaches us what’s at stake, and that there’s too much at stake simply to accept the world as it’s given to us. We have to look deeper — in each text, in each idea, in each person — even when this involves risk.
I think this is the reason why we are always asking more of Yale, why we debate each question as if it were a matter of life and death, and why the University by turns delights and enrages us. It’s why I’m not quite ready to let go, even now. It’s why I’m writing in the present tense.
ISAAC STANLEY-BECKER is a senior in Jonathan Edwards College. He was the Editor in Chief of the Yale Daily News Managing Board of 2016. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
SLEEPER: Let go and begin again
In conversations with seniors last month I learned that many of you are leaving here with an unusually shared sense of history and foreboding. Although you don’t all agree on the meaning of what’s happened at Yale and beyond, you’ve learned that a useful disagreement needs agreed-upon practices and premises, such as listening well to opponents.
In finding courage to negotiate that common ground, you find your identity as a Yalie. This college was established to save the world from being flattened by commerce. Its founders insisted that the world has abysses, opening suddenly at our feet and in our hearts, and that students need to face the demons in them and sometimes even to defy worldly power instead of just facilitating it.
That’s true even now, when students arrive here with distinctive commitments, talents and burdens. Inevitably, contestations ensue. But Yalies still learn to cultivate enough common ground to make disagreements possible. They learn to weave the arts, graces and disciplines of public trust into messy, even dangerous situations.
Not everyone does it well. “To a remarkable extent, this place has detected and rejected those who wear the colors of high purpose falsely,” former University President Kingman Brewster Jr. told my class of 1969. “This has not been done by administrative edict … [but] by a pervasive ethic of student and faculty loyalty and responsibility … which lies deep in our origins and traditions.”
If that sounds like a boast about the Yale in crowd, Brewster insisted that “Anyone who is himself willing to listen deserves to be listened to. If he is unwilling to open his mind to persuasion, then he forfeits his claim on the audience of others.” He also called for a “generosity of spirit which assumes the best, not the worst, of the stranger.”
Has Yale strengthened that spirit in you? In 2014, former Yale English professor William Deresiewicz claimed that “the exhaustion … the fearfulness and cynicism” in elite-college life produce “the spectacular failure of leadership” of a new aristocracy. Conservative critics blamed political correctness, even as market pressures subordinated liberal education’s public mission to private careerism and debt, which diminish social trust.
But such “spectacular failures” are widespread beyond campus gates. Students have sought protection and guidance here, sometimes too rigidly, but sometimes beautifully, as in last fall’s March of Resilience.
Yales’s public sphere has showed you that while the American Constitution rightly protects freedom of speech, civil society rightly modulates it, not “by administrative edict” but by shared understandings. As Austin Bryniarski ’16, proposed, make whatever you say, however impassioned, helpful, not incendiary or self-indulgent (“The Helpful Test,” Nov. 06, 2016).
The late Marina Keegan ’12 went further, observing that although “We don’t have a word for the opposite of loneliness,” it’s “what I’m… thankful to have found at Yale…. It’s not quite love and it’s not quite community; it’s just this feeling that there are people… who are in this together…. We won’t have [that] next year” (“The Opposite of Loneliness,” May 27, 2012).
You won’t have that next year, either. But you can cultivate the “opposite of loneliness” with strangers — perhaps those whose own loneliness is prompted by economic forces driving them to desperation and demagogues. Spurring economic growth alone won’t reweave trust if it “grows” inequality and hardness of heart. “Diversity” certainly won’t do it if it yields only a colorful managerial class answering to no democratic polity or moral code.
Your college expects something more of you: that you’ll help to “free the oppressed in such a way that the oppressor, too, is freed,” as Yale Chaplain William Sloane Coffin Jr. ’49 put the challenge at my own commencement. It’s your commencement now. But has the challenge changed? If anything, I think it’s more compelling.
JIM SLEEPER ’69 is a lecturer in Political Science and teaches a seminar on “Journalism, Liberalism and Democracy.” Contact him at email@example.com.
VERNOIT: Of rights and responsibilities
This May, as we say our farewells and don our caps and gowns, our thoughts turn inevitably to contemplating the future. We cannot know for certain what the coming decades will hold for us, our communities or our world. What future generations will make of 2016, we likewise cannot say with certainty.
What we do know is that there are a great many challenges facing our world today. We have discussed these challenges in dorm rooms, dining halls and classrooms. We are encouraged to honor ideals of public service. To cap it all, in time-honored Commencement parlance, Yale will confer upon us our degrees with “all their rights and responsibilities.”
This tradition embodies a recognition that the freedom to work for change is often a privilege, a freedom that, perversely, is often least accessible to those who need it most.
There are a great many challenges facing our world today, but there is one that threatens the fabric of the world itself. That challenge, climate change, is one where those who have done the least to create the problem are precisely those who are most at risk.
Climate change threatens to destroy gains of development and render the goal of poverty eradication infeasible. It worsens threats such as disease and conflict. It correlates with matters such as ethnicity and gender. And it transcends boundaries, ranging from the bayous of Louisiana, where members of a Native American tribe have now become the first official climate refugees in the United States, to the drought-stricken regions of the Middle East, where vulnerable communities understand the link between precipitation and domestic stability all too well.
During our time in college, global atmospheric concentrations of carbon dioxide crossed the threshold of 400 parts per million for the first time in the history of human civilization. Climate change is here, and 2016 is on track to become the hottest year in recorded history. In 2016, however, the world’s governments joined together to sign the Paris Agreement, the first-ever universal international agreement to combat climate change. The event was the largest single-day signing of an international agreement in the history of diplomacy. While the Paris Agreement alone does not guarantee that its stated goals will be met, it commits the international community to achieving an emissions-neutral global economy by the end of the 21st century.
We graduate in an extraordinary year. We live in extraordinary times.
A great deal hangs on the course of the coming decades, and therefore, as we embark on our careers, the ethos of assuming rights and responsibilities is made all the more important. Wherever our careers take us, we will all have something to contribute; the world has embarked on an unprecedented transition, and it will take everything — from politics and policy to science and engineering, from economics and market forces to humanities and the arts — to successfully make this transition happen.
These circumstances raise difficult questions. What does it mean to graduate in 2016? One way or another, it means coming of age in an age of climate change. It means that when our children graduate into their careers, the world they enter will be, for better or for worse, significantly different from our own. We have an opportunity to contribute to the making of that future world.
In the spirit of Commencement, this opportunity entails a responsibility. Our four years here, hopefully, have taught us to be restless and maladjusted in the face of our society’s problems. The danger of false complacency is real; we must face the future and face up to our responsibilities.
Come, class of 2016! Let’s build a sense of agency and rightful urgency. Let’s work together toward the brighter future that is imperiled but still within reach. Let’s grapple and collectively come to terms with the enormity of the world’s challenges in 2016. Let’s remember 2016 not as an end but as a beginning. We can start by seeking each other and having the necessary conversations — conversations we have already begun in these four full years, conversations to last us the rest of our lives.
ALEXANDER VERNOIT is a senior in Saybrook College. He is the former president of the Yale Student Environmental Coalition. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
YAO: The good can endure
I never intended to make writing a habit.
Last semester, I diligently wrote essays and grant proposals for the Fulbright Fellowship, a scholarship that funds a year of research in the country of one’s choosing. For months, I poured my heart into the application, dreaming of pursuing my research project and all the future exposures I would experience abroad. But more often than we’d like, things sometimes do not work out the way we want — sometime last January, the Fulbright Commission notified me that I had not advanced past the first round.
It may seem strange that I am using this space to share a relatively unpleasant story. Yet despite the deep disappointment, I remember making a very determined decision that I would not allow rejection to define my application process.
Through all the application essays, I began to appreciate how narrative writing could be used as a space to process my thoughts and make some sense of the larger world. I had applied to the Fulbright on the premise of pushing myself outside my comfort zone and bettering society in any small way I could. Even in the absence of an external fellowship, there was absolutely no reason why I couldn’t continue aiming for these goals.
My five years on this campus have at times come frighteningly close to suffocating the idealism with which I first came to Yale. There was a time in my adolescence when I had only wanted to see the best in everything. Admittedly, sustaining such sanguine beliefs has been more strenuous as I’ve gotten older. And yet, some part of me has still sought to return to this state of mind.
Finding my passion for writing in the ultimately disappointing Fulbright process is an example of one of Yale’s most valuable lessons to me: grit. Although my actions can often feel meaningless and arbitrary in the vacuum of time, writing has reminded me that with an underlying foundation of values and a conscientiousness capacity for persistence, progress can be measured, and a greater design slowly reveals itself in unforeseeable ways. In turn, our work can create ripples of effect the impact of which we might never fully comprehend.
I witnessed these ripples from the fifth row of a spoken-word show earlier this year. After the performance, the underclassmen in the group revealed to the graduating senior how much she had positively touched all of their lives in seemingly ordinary and mundane ways. The younger members of the group promised to spread benevolence and warmth to others just as this senior had extended to them. Just as one flame can kindle another, so too can one person illuminate another. The moment spoke to what’s best in us — the categorical compassion I believe we all enjoyed in our youth. Something special happens when we capture these sentiments and emanate them. Heart by heart, community by community, the glow from this light can ignite an entire society.
Our time at this place is both perfect and imperfect — incredibly privileged, yet marred by inevitable disappointment. We have accomplished so much as individuals and together as a group, and yet, we will always strive for something greater. That’s the nature of the work we seek to do, the impact we aim to make. But even in the never-ending quest for that perfection, we can still find our ideal. Our ideal exists throughout our narrative, and it is there if you know how to look. It is in those moments, in those ripples of benevolence, that we are kinder, sincerer, stronger — perhaps better people than we actually are.
Time is fleeting, but the moment was real. And in that truth — if we can remember it — the good can endure.
JOHNATHAN YAO is a 2015 graduate of Jonathan Edwards College and is now graduating from the School of Public Health. Contact him at email@example.com.