On Thursday night, the 150th anniversary of the year Yale awarded North America’s first doctoral degree, five distinguished alumni praised Yale’s “collaborative” research environment and highlighted the value of a graduate education.

Approximately 400 alumni returned to campus for the Association of Yale Alumni’s 71st Assembly to attend a series of talks and presentations centered around the evolution of graduate education. At one of the Assembly’s panels, “Doctorates without Borders,”Yale doctorate holders spoke to a crowd of over 100 alumni at the Yale University Art Gallery about how experiences at the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences proved useful in their careers outside of academia.

“You learn to wonder, you learn to question, you learn to learn, you learn to think, and, most importantly, you learn to serve,” said panelist Ernesto Zedillo GRD ’81, former president of Mexico and director of the Yale Center for the Study of Globalization.

Although he said he arrived at Yale “underprepared,” Zedillo said that all good decisions in his professional and political life were influenced by the knowledge and experience he gained at Yale.

All five panelists said their support from professors and peers that made their time at Yale particularly rewarding. Eric R. Fossum GRD ’84, inventor animage sensor used in digital cameras, said that unlike in other universities where he has taught, including Columbia University and Dartmouth’s Thayer School of Engineering, Yale fosters an environment that encourages collaboration and intellectual support.

“Yale was a nurturing environment, rather than a more Darwinian one,” he said.

The panelists said that the lessons they learned while in graduate school guided them into success in their later endeavors, particularly in public service.

Despite the financial difficulties currently faced by graduate schools across the country due to the recent economic recession, the panelists all said that an advanced degree is useful not just in academia but in many other careers.

Jonathan Fanton ’65 GRD ’78, a former chair of the Human Rights Watch, called graduate education an strong investment that help students build leadership skills. But Zedillo countered that Yale taught him not how to lead, but instead how to better understand public service.

Graduate School Dean Thomas Pollard discussed in his opening remarks the University’s strategy for improving education at the Graduate School. Pollard, who released a comprehensive review of the doctoral program Aug. 25 along with recommendation for better mentoring, said he and his fellow administrators are trying to expand their students’ opportunities by exposing them to work outside of academia, while simultaneously insuring that students benefit from supportive learning environment.

Three alumni interviewed after the talk called the panel informative and engaging. Jim Hartman ’72, a former Yale Varsity Football player, said he was struck by the frankness and humor of the panelists, adding that the panel made him realize the value of a graduate degree even though society seems to increasingly devalue them.

“It didn’t come off as a canned pitch,” Hartman said. “It was heartfelt.”

George M. Camp GRD ’67 said listening to the panelists reaffirmed to him the value of a Yale education, though he wished more graduate students had been present because the topic was more relevant for students about to embark on their careers.

The other panelists were Ann Temkin GRD ’91, chief curator of painting and sculpture at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City, and Joan Hinde Stewart GRD ’70, president of Hamilton College in Clinton, N.Y.