For the past two years, I’ve worked as an usher at Yale’s annual commencement ceremonies. It’s Yale at its most manicured and best: The weather is sublime and there are no more exams to be taken. A handful of nerds get awards, everyone is slightly more tan and there is something called the “Last Chance Dance.” Think Camp Yale, but instead, you know everyone.
I won’t spoil too many of the details, but one mainstay of the commencement weekend has stuck with me since I first witnessed the three-day ordeal my sophomore year and the phrase bears repeating. When a student receives a degree at other schools, that student receives all of the “rights and privileges” that the degree entails. But at Yale, we’re different. Instead, we are “admitted” to our degree with all of its “rights and responsibilities.” The person who says it changes — sometimes it’s the dean and sometimes it’s the president — but the phrase is tradition.
I’ve always loved the idea that the Yale degree involves responsibilities. Instead of a golden ticket, degrees are bestowed upon Yale students with the understanding that they’ll use them wisely and with intention.
Even though today marks the last week of classes, the last ever for the class of 2016, our degrees come with the explicit suggestion that our work is never done. I savor the thought that soon I may never have to sit at something called a Harkness table ever again, but I know that the critiquing and the analyzing I’ve done won’t end with reading period and will serve me well in serving others well into the future.
With the end of college in sight, I’ve often returned to this idea of Yale conferring responsibility upon its students to help cope with the inevitability of graduation. Since the beginning of the school year at least, seniors have been wistfully looking upon quotidian events as momentous “lasts,” and naming them as such. But this week, the sentiment around nearly every circumstance reaches critical mass. The last master’s tea. The last seminar meeting. The last laundry load. The last Woads.
Other senior columnists have marked the finality of their columns, using them as a site for reflection. I’m writing this last column of mine in Phelps Hall, minutes before it is due, and there is cheering emanating from a Bernie Sanders rally at the New Haven Green that I desperately want to be at. True to form, the column is a victim of a bout of procrastination, just like every other column I’ve written. This pervasive fixation on lastness reinforces the myth that Yale ends. It doesn’t.
When I think about what life after Yale might be like, I think about the alum who spontaneously let me live in her home in Boston for a summer when I needed housing. I think about the interviewer I met as a high school senior, a member of the Branford class of 1955, who told me recently that after 50 years of running a business, he is finally planning to reduce his workload in his mid-80s. I remember the painting of Harkness Tower behind his desk, which he said he came across in Germany. I think about the man who stood in line in front of me in security last year in Cartagena, Colombia, who introduced himself after overhearing me mention New Haven and promptly recounted the particularities of Yale’s punk scene in the 1980s.
Without the Yale association, this cast of characters is random and arbitrarily connected. But maybe that’s the point: that they’re only linked by a certain je ne sais quoi that is a Yale degree, all bearing out some sense of obligation that they may or may not have heard about at their graduation.
The saying goes, “Yale is at once a tradition, a company of scholars, a society of friends.” I would like to add that Yale is forever.
Austin Bryniarski is a senior in Calhoun College. His column usually runs on alternate Fridays. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org .