Walters to grads: ‘Follow your bliss’

Barbara Walters addresses members of the class of 2012 at Sunday's Class Day, sharing wisdom from her career interviewing world leaders.
Barbara Walters addresses members of the class of 2012 at Sunday's Class Day, sharing wisdom from her career interviewing world leaders. Photo by Jacob Geiger.

In a 24-minute speech at Sunday’s Class Day exercises, journalist Barbara Walters encouraged members of the class of 2012 to follow their bliss — even if they are not sure what that is yet.

Graduating seniors donned colorful hats and faculty members and administrators broke out their academic robes on Sunday as crowds descended on Old Campus to hear Walters and other speakers celebrate the accomplishments of the class of 2012. Walters’ speech drew on interviews with actress Katharine Hepburn, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton LAW ’73, President Barack Obama, the Dalai Lama and the late actor Christopher Reeve, looking at the various ways in which these individuals followed their bliss.

At one point in the speech, Walters asked students to raise their hands if they thought they had found their bliss — a few hands shot up. But when she asked students to raise their hands if they were not yet sure of their bliss, nearly every hand in the class of 2012 went in the air.

“Don’t be afraid,” Walters said. “Most of us don’t… One of these days, to your own surprise, your bliss will find you.”

Walters filled the speech with anecdotes from her career, sharing stories about the time she asked Hepburn what kind of tree she would be, how the most difficult moment in Clinton’s life was deciding to stay married to husband Bill Clinton LAW ’73 and how Christopher Reeve learned — after a horseback riding accident left him quadriplegic — that in the game of life “you play the hand you’re dealt.”

“Sometimes you get a lot of face cards, sometimes you don’t,” Reeve told Walters in an interview. “But I think the game is worthwhile.”

When Senior Class Treasurer Ben Schenkel ’12 and Senior Class Secretary Kevin Adkisson ’12 announced Walters as the Class Day speaker in April, seniors interviewed had mixed feelings about the selection. But all 10 seniors interviewed Sunday said they liked Walters’ speech, noting how Walters surprised the audience with her humor.

Adding to her humor was the festive hat Walters wore on Sunday — a wide-brimmed beige hat that she had borrowed from Jonathan Edwards Master Penelope Laurans and that was decorated with flowers of many colors.

Walters’ hat was one of hundreds on Old Campus on Sunday. One senior was spotted wearing a recycling bin filled with cans, and another wearing a ‘solar system-themed’ hat with planets hanging down. Still others sported ‘thinking caps’ while others donned bowling pins and decorated themselves with various stuffed animals — including a whale, turtle and flamingos.

Sunday’s Class History video, “The Ideal Yale Experience,” brought the humor away from Old Campus and even Planet Earth. Directed by Hunter Wolk ’12 and Chloe Sarbib ’12, written by Mark Sonnenblick ’12 and Brendan Ternus ’12 and produced by Carina Sposato ’12, the film speculates on how Yalies would prepare for an incoming asteroid and the University’s impending demise — suggesting that Yale would build a satellite campus on the Moon and transport students with Payne Whitney Gymnasium, a supposedly hidden spaceship shuttle. Various celebrities, including politician Jimmy McMillan, “Modern Family” actor Jesse Tyler Ferguson and actor and writer James Franco GRD ’16, made cameos in the video.

Beyond the celebrities, the spotlight remained on members of the class of 2012. Two students delivered prepared addresses on Sunday. Phillip Kaplan ’12 stayed serious in a speech called “Comfort and Fear.” Drawing from Odysseus’ journey in Homer’s epic poem “The Odyssey,” Kaplan said that although he thinks seniors fear leaving Yale, the journey of leaving “tests the durability of this home, the people, the stories.”

“In leaving, we arrive,” Kaplan said to close his speech.

Lauren Oyler ’12 delivered this year’s humorous Class Day address, speaking on the slew of useful skills she’s learned as an English major, including a knack for reading the first 75 pages of many books. Oyler’s speech, titled “Calm Down, You Guys,” addressed her concerns about getting a job — even addressing potential employers in the beginning of her speech — but ultimately told her classmates not to worry.

“What I’ve learned most of all is not to let the uncertainty after Yale bother me,” Oyler said.

In addition to Sunday’s speeches, members of the class of 2012 earned recognition through the Yale College prizes, announced by Yale College Dean Mary Miller, Director of Athletics Thomas Beckett and Morse Master Frank Keil, who served as the chair of the Council of Masters this year.

Benjamine Liu ’12, an intensive biology major and member of Phi Beta Kappa, won the Snow Prize, awarded each year to the student who, through intellectual achievement, character and personality, has “done the most for Yale.” Liu’s research has involved public health projects in China, the Dominican Republic and Uganda. He will pursue degrees in computational biology and neuroscience next fall at Cambridge.

Brett Smith ’12 received both the Amanda Walton Award — given to an athlete for overcoming challenges — and the David Everett Chantler Award, for exemplifying courage, strength of character and “high moral purpose.” Smith was seriously injured in a 2003 car accident that left four students dead, and though doctors said Smith would not return to graduate, he came back to Yale in 2008. On Sunday, as he accepted his first award, the audience gave Smith a standing ovation.

Joseph Carlsmith ’12 received the Warren Memorial Scholarship Prize for top scholarship in the humanities. Jordan Cohen ’12 and Carmen Lu ’12 won the Hadley Prize for top scholarship in the social sciences, while the Chittenden Prize for top scholarship in the natural sciences went to Nimit Jain ’12. These four prize winners have never received a grade lower than an A.

The Elliot and Mallory awards for sportsmanship went to Taylor Cramm ’12, who captained the women’s volleyball team this season, and Brian O’Neill ’12, who captained the men’s hockey team.

In addition, Eliot Kim ’12 and LaTisha Jeanette Campbell ’12 received the Nakanishi Prize for their leadership in “enhancing race and/or ethnic relations” at Yale, while Katherine Miller ’12 and Sam Vesuna ’12 received the Roosevelt L. Thompson Prize for their commitment to public service.

Joan Gass ’12 was awarded the Haas Prize for her academic accomplishments and social work, and Emily Cooley ’12 and Naomi Woo ’12 won the Sudler Prize for the performing and creative arts.

As the ceremony came to a close, Caroline Chang ’12 delivered the annual Ivy Ode, reading a poem she wrote titled “Note to Self.” Roman Catholic Chaplain Robert Beloin led the audience in a moment of silence for two deceased members of the class of 2012, Andre Narcisse ’12 and Ralph Verde ’12.

Seniors will assemble on Old Campus at 10:30 a.m. Monday for commencement exercises.

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