After converging from their respective residential colleges on the newly opened Cross Campus and processing down Elm Street and through the New Haven Green, 1,336 Yale College seniors marched Monday through Phelps Gate onto Old Campus for Yale’s 306th Commencement. Two hours later, they walked through the gate as alumni.
Monday’s exercises, officiated by University President Richard Levin, marked the close to a weekend of colorful ceremonies, including a Class Day speech by Newsweek International editor and Yale Corporation member Fareed Zakaria ’86 and Levin’s China-focused Baccalaureate Address. 2,409 graduate and professional students also earned degrees from Yale on Monday.
Some of the degree candidates processed onto Old Campus on Monday in style, updating their medieval academic attire with modern and sometimes goofy accoutrements. Saybrook College seniors wore grapes on their mortarboards, while School of Forestry & Environmental Studies students wore elaborately arranged foliage on theirs. Morse College students carried large red foam hammers.
Besides the end of their “Bright College Years,” the class of 2007 had another reason to celebrate: Their senior gift, which exceeded $27,000, was the largest in Yale history.
Class Day, held Sunday on Old Campus, also proceeded with good weather and headgear-focused festiveness. Following Class Day tradition, the seniors blew bubbles from churchwarden pipes and wore hats variously adorned with golf courses, a platter of red drinking cups, Ivory Towers and Noah’s Ark to hear Zakaria speak.
Zakaria, who started his speech with a self-deprecating jab at the News article describing the mixed reaction to his selection as speaker, called in strong and sometimes laugh-provoking terms for the United States to “keep itself wide open” to immigrants and unfamiliar ideas.
“We should be proud of this new world we have built,” Zakaria said. “It is one that America has worked to build for decades. But now that other countries, near and far, are following America’s lead, it would be a tragedy and an irony if as the world was opening up, we, out of fear and nervousness and insecurity, began closing down.”
Zakaria, who was president of the Yale Political Union as a member of the Party of the Right while in college, is generally considered a right-leaning centrist. But his message Sunday often transcended party lines.
He called for optimism in the face of global “political turmoil” and despite a growing sentiment that the United States is becoming “fat and lazy” as other countries surpass its technological prowess. He said that “for 100 years, America has invented the future,” and that even now, it is “inventing the first universal nation, made of different races, castes, creeds and religion, with an array of strange names and backgrounds like mine.”
“You have [of the] serious contenders for the American presidency a woman, an African-America, an Hispanic, a Mormon and a Catholic,” said Zakaria, who is considered a possible candidate for Secretary of State. “Joe Lieberman should get into the race just to complete this mosaic.”
Zakaria also spoke of his own rise to prominence, detailing his transition “from being a geek to becoming a wonk.”
In India, Zakaria said, social expectation called for him to become a scientist or engineer. At first, he followed the trajectory. Soon, though, he said he realized his passions lay with politics, international affairs and journalism: He said he enjoys helping the “average-educated citizen make sense of the world.”
“Stay open to new people, new ideas, new experiences, new possibilities, new cultures, new ways of doing things, and you will grow, in your mind and in your heart,” he concluded, telling the Yale graduates that they can learn even from a New York taxi driver. “You can learn something from anyone.”
Perhaps the liveliest portion of the speech came at the beginning, when Zakaria described some of the reactions to his selection as Class Day speaker.
“On IvyGateBlog.com, one of the posts by Yalie ’09 said, ‘Fareed Zakaria is definitely low hanging fruit,” Zakaria said. “Considering that he is a member of the Yale Corporation, Y07 agreed … it’s like talking about your backpack on Show and Tell Day because you forgot to bring something more interesting. It has two zippers and empty pockets.”
Zakaria also confessed that although he does not know “exactly how or why…though it had to do with an extended celebration the night before,” he missed his own Class Day in 1986. The self-deprecation earned raucous applause for Zakaria, who is editor of Newsweek International, a best-selling author and a television commentator.
Class Day also included the first-ever class video , the Class Ode by David Griswold ’07 called “Between the Chances” — which was read in Chinese to recognize the recently-completed Yale 100 trip to China and according to tradition that the Ode be read in a language besides English — and the distribution of awards.
Six instructors were honored for their teaching: Robert Thompson, Alicia Schmidt-Camacho, Keith Darden, Mark Johnson, William Yu Zhao and Richard Lalli. To honor Lalli, about a dozen of his students materialized on stage to sing “Richard Lalli!” to the tune of Handel’s Hallelujah.
Nearly a dozen students won prizes as well. Two received multiple awards: Ed McCarthy ’07 for his performance on the football team as well as his public service, and Daniel Winik ’07 for ranking as the top humanities major and top social sciences major. Maya Shankar ’07, a Rhodes Scholar, received the Alpheus Henry Snow prize for having “done the most for Yale” out of all the members of the Class of 2007.
Zakaria’s was not the only speech seniors heard over the weekend. Levin’s Baccalaureate Address, given at three services over the weekend, focused on Yale’s relationship with China and reflected on the Yale 100 trip to China, which returned Friday.
In the speech, Levin discussed Yale’s ongoing transformation during the seniors’ four years into a “truly global institution,” describing the trip to China in colorful detail.
“In a curious way, this trip, which provided such a rich education for faculty and students alike, reminded me of the experience that all of you have had during your time here in New Haven,” Levin said. “Just as you were challenged by new ideas in the classroom, those encountering China for the first time were challenged by a relentless barrage of new ideas and new experiences.”
Levin also addressed concerns that Yale’s close relationship with China comes at the cost of indirectly endorsing the country’s recent human rights violations.
“Chinese citizens remain subject to arbitrary arrest and detention, and, though the press is noticeably freer than it was a few years ago, the Internet is heavily censored,” Levin said. “Some of China’s problems are unique, but some are so inextricably bound up with those facing the United States that neither nation can succeed without the other.”
Of the thousands on whom Levin conferred degrees Monday, only 10 of those — the honorary degree recipients — were identified individually. Honorary degrees are traditionally conferred at Commencement on individuals whom the Corporation deems have made significant contributions to Yale or to society.
The 10 included pianist Emmanuel Ax, South African Chief Justice Pius Nkonzo Langa and author Peter Matthiessen ’50.
—Judy Wang contributed reporting.