Before a crowd accented with whimsical hats and black graduation robes, Yale Class Day speaker and 47th Vice President of the United States Joseph Biden challenged the Class of 2015 to “break out of the bubble of your own making.”
After waiting for over 30 minutes in the heat, a crowd of thousands — made up of graduating seniors, faculty, administrators and families — listened as Biden offered his address as part of the Commencement Weekend exercises on May 17. Biden, wearing his signature black aviator sunglasses, spoke about finding “the sweet spot” between happiness and success, sharing a collection of anecdotes from his family life and decades of public service.
“Don’t forget about what doesn’t come from this prestigious diploma,” Biden said. “The heart to know what is meaningful and ephemeral and the head to know the difference between knowledge and judgement.”
Biden was introduced by Class Day co-chairs Jeremy Hutton ’15 and Akinyi Ochieng ’15, who described him as a leader that “time and again advocated on behalf of the American people.” As a photo of Biden in a convertible appeared on the large screen, Hutton singled out one of Biden’s traits: “serious swag.”
As Biden took to the podium, he began by urging the Class of 2015 to stand up and applaud those who love you “no matter what you are wearing on your head.” Biden repeatedly referred to the wide variety of hats on display, which ranged from a cheesehead to a viking cap and even a replica of the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, throughout his speech.
“You are willing to look foolish in the service of what matters to you — remember that,” Biden said. “Some of the things your heart will tell you to do will make you, among your peers, look foolish or not smart of not sophisticated, but we will all be better off for people of your consequence to do it.”
Throughout his remarks, Biden shared jokes that displayed a wide range of Yale-specific knowledge, invoking lines from “Overheard at Yale,” making fun of Kiko Milano’s name, and even joking about Yale’s long losing streak in the annual football game with Harvard — a line that drew many laughs.
But Biden’s remarks took a serious tone as he shared the details of his own personal tragedy, when his wife and one-year-old daughter were killed in a car accident weeks after his election to the Senate. He stressed that compassion, above all else, helped him through this time.
“When you know how much it meant to you, you know how much it matters,” Biden said. “It is not hard to be compassionate.”
Drawing from his decades of political experience, Biden discussed the time he learned to questions other’s judgement — rather than question their motives. Despite partisan differences with other members of Congress, Biden said this advice has helped him resolve disputes on Capitol Hill and always see the humanity that exists in others.
At age 29, Biden was one of the youngest people to be elected to the Senate. Since entering the vice president’s office alongside President Barack Obama in 2009, he has been a key player in discussions surrounding infrastructure spending, the taxation deadlock of 2010 and has most recently focused his efforts on tackling gun violence across the nation.
He encouraged the seniors to maintain perspective as they pursue individual paths after graduation. Biden further acknowledged the challenges each graduate has faced in their journeys to and through their undergraduate studies at Yale, urging seniors not to let their diploma go to waste.
“The pressure and the anxiousness as well to take this job, make that much money, live in this place, hang out with people like you, take no real risks, and have no real impact, while getting paid for the false sense of both,” Biden said.
Biden’s references to his own stances on gay marriage, violence against women and racial profiling received applause throughout Old Campus. Upon the conclusion of his speech, Biden received a standing ovation from the crowd.
Following tradition, the University presented prizes to high achieving members of the senior class. The nine prizes marked individuals for their dedication to academia, sports and service. Notably, Michael Hopkins ’15 was awarded both the Arthur Twining Hadley Prize for the highest scholarship in social sciences and the Russell Henry Chittenden Prize for highest scholarship in the natural sciences.
Interspersed with the awarding of prizes came remarks from members of the graduating class. In the Class Day reflection, Emefa Agawu ’15 spoke of current protests both at the University and across the nation, encouraging her peers to consider the definition of human progress and how it is measured. From these images, she reminded her peers that tackling the world’s issues is a duty of the graduating class.
“Compared to the other seven billion people on the planet, we’ve collectively been awarded an enormous and disproportionate amount of love,” she said. “Somehow, each in our own way, we owe that, proportionally, back to the world.”
Cody Kahoe ’15 and Caleb Madison ’15 then provided a comic reflection on the day’s event. Wearing matching hats sporting American flags, Kahoe and Madison shared an allegory of the creation of Yale and even serenaded the vice president with a riff on Simon & Garfunkel’s “The Sound of Silence.”
“And here we stand, over 300 years later, at the end of the most important four years of our lives,” Kahoe and Madison said. “Nay, the most important four years in the history of Yale. Nay, the most important four years in the United States in America!”
Before Class Day came to a close, the co-chairs of the Senior Class Gift presented this year’s gift to the University. According to Evi Steyer ’15, the Senior Class Council raised $36,396, which will be donated to the Yale Alumni Fund. Following a boycott of the gift by a group of students protesting the University’s mental health policies, the participation rate for the Class Gift fell below to 78 percent — the first time participation has fallen below 80 percent since 2008.
Despite this lower student participation, the class still presented a sum of $116,655 to the University through matching contributions from alumni.
The afternoon closed with a spoken word poem from Alex Nguyen ’15 reflecting on the undergraduate experience at Yale. His speech was a twist on the traditional “Ivy Ode,” in which a graduating senior performs a poem of Latin Sapphic stanzas.
The annual Class Day video, a short film created by the graduating class known as the “Class History,” was produced by Catherine Chiocchi ’15 and former YTV editor Raleigh Cavero ’15. The film included a cameo appearance from Arianna Huffington, as well as familiar figures such as University President Peter Salovey and Yale College Dean Jonathan Holloway. The film closed with video memories submitted by students, which provided the audience with snapshots of road trips, a cappella concerts and other favorite moments from their time at Yale.
Class Day concluded with the traditional singing of “Bright College Years,” as students waved white handkerchiefs, just as they had done at their freshman address four years earlier.