Two days before graduation, Yale seniors gathered together one last time in Woolsey Hall to listen to University President Peter Salovey urge them to empathize with people both within and beyond their communities and welcome strangers as they depart Yale to begin a new chapter in their lives.
Salovey and Yale College Dean Jonathan Holloway addressed roughly a third of the graduating seniors in Commencement Weekend’s opening event. Both administrators’ speeches focused on themes of respect, openness and decency, and the roles they play in community and society.
“I urge you to take these experiences out into the world,” Salovey said. “A world that desperately needs your service, your curiosity and, yes, your empathy. I hope you identify with the plight of ‘the other,’ walking a mile in the shoes of a stranger. By welcoming guests, by doing good to strangers, by knowing the hearts of others, you may well entertain angels.”
Holloway briefly welcomed the students, calling the day the “closing bookend to the late summer of 2013 where you opened up your freshman year” — an allusion to the the Freshman Assembly, where students first heard from Salovey and other administrators.
Despite the continuation of many traditions and speech themes during this year’s Baccalaureate ceremony, there was one noticeable change from past services. Guests were not allowed to pass through Beinecke Plaza to enter or leave Woolsey Hall. Instead, the audience used the College Street doors, as the University barricaded the entrance on Beinecke Plaza — where Local 33, a group of graduate students pushing the University to negotiate with the eight departments that voted to unionize in January, has erected a temporary structure to protest Yale’s decision to challenge those results in court.
University Chaplain Sharon Kugler opened the ceremony with a prayer. Four students then read texts from four religious traditions: Hinduism, Judaism, Christianity and Islam. The texts centered on Yale’s motto, light and truth.
Following the service’s religious component, Holloway took to the podium to share readings and his thoughts about developing and curating community. He read excerpts from Yale history professor Timothy Snyder’s “On Tyranny: 20 Lessons from the 20th Century,” Elisha Cooper ’93’s “Falling: A Daughter, a Father and a Journey Back” and from the works of Lucille Clifton and Frank O’Hara. Holloway stressed the importance of preserving institutions and sharing the lessons gathered from student’s communities to other communities.
“[Community] is made up of memories, values and the unacknowledged,” Holloway said. “It is also made up of you. When I look at you, I see many things: love, contestation, ideology, zaniness, pride, brilliance, insecurity, creativity, psets, essay deadlines, Wenzels, more psets, Woads, chicken tenders and cape shark … as you leave this place, remember these things. Remember what you have given to this community and it to you.”
Following Holloway’s address, Salovey asked the crowd to join him in congratulating Holloway for his move to Northwestern University, where he will become the provost this summer. After the applause, Salovey met Holloway with a hug and then asked guests and students to congratulate and thank one another for reaching this point in their Yale career.
Salovey built on Holloway’s themes during his own address, describing his family’s Passover ceremony and how the themes of freedom, slavery and welcoming strangers that provide the foundations for the holiday resonate today just as strongly as they did millennia ago.
“We are reminded because we were strangers in the land of Egypt, we must welcome strangers to our own seder,” he said. “Let all who were hungry enter and eat, let all who are distressed come in and celebrate with us.”
He emphasized that this obligation does not exist only on Passover or solely in Judaism, and he read passages from other religious traditions that underscore the importance of treating strangers kindly and with understanding.
Showing empathy, Salovey said, is of the utmost importance, though he acknowledged it does not always come easily.
“No group, no religion, has ever lived up to its own ideas regarding outsiders,” he said. “When we are feeling loss, threat or fear, it is hard to put ourselves in someone else’s shoes. It is not only the immigrants and refugees among us who are strangers in a strange land.”
Salovey spoke about the increasing number of Americans who feel lonely and isolated; he said that the number of Americans who do not have any friends has tripled in the last 30 years. While he acknowledged that it is easier to text, tweet and maintain a hyperactive Facebook presence, the internet may get more blame than it deserves. He posed the solution of love, saying, “Love comes with community. Without community, without empathy, we cannot see ourselves in the eyes of the strangers among us, at best they are ignored, at worst demonized.”
Despite religious teachings, Salovey argued that we no longer invite strangers to our tables, but seek to build walls. He quoted the epitaph of former Yale President Kingman Brewster Jr., which ends by expressing a desire to hold “the expectation of what is best, rather than what is worst, in the other.” He then broke into a stirring rendition of Bright College Years to thunderous applause.
He concluded by imploring the graduates to apply these lessons to life after Yale.
“Bring to that world all that your Yale education has given you: the ability to appreciate complexity, even while seeking simplicity, to engage critically even while listening respectfully, to recognize your responsibilities, while finding pleasure in your new communities and to welcome into these communities the strangers among us,” he said.
The remainder of the class of 2017 will attend one of two ceremonies tomorrow morning. Class Day also takes place tomorrow at 2 p.m., where Theo Epstein ’95, the Chicago Cubs’ president of baseball operations, will address the graduating class.