On the afternoon of May 29, Yale-NUS held its first-ever commencement ceremony, marking a significant milestone in the development of the college, a joint venture between Yale University and the National University of Singapore.

Dressed in academic gowns complete with colorful sashes designed by the graduating students, 119 members of the Yale-NUS class of 2017 received their degrees from the president of Singapore and NUS chancellor Tony Tan in a two-hour ceremony. More than 1,000 family members and guests attended the event, as well as college donors, faculty members and representatives from the governing boards of Yale, NUS and Yale-NUS.

“You, the members of the inaugural class, gave life to what was for the first four years of our journey an inspiring idea: a community of scholars from around the world, brought together in this island nation,” said commencement speaker and former Yale President Richard Levin, addressing the crowd. “You have been pioneers in extending the ‘Great Conversation’ of Western civilization … to a conversation among cultures with different origins, different histories and different perspectives on human experience.”

This graduation capped an eventful five years of development at the nascent international school. In the years since the joint venture was unveiled in 2012, Yale-NUS has hired more than 100 new faculty and has begun awarding tenure. Since the first class arrived on campus, the school has seen an approximately sevenfold increase in its student body, transitioned to a newly built campus within the NUS complex and has completely overhauled its senior leadership team. The college has also faced criticism from skeptics of the venture — many of them Yale-affiliated — who have questioned whether a liberal arts college can thrive there, given that Singapore’s laws give the government a broad mandate to curtail free expression.

“We did indeed all take a risk together when we started out on this journey,” said outgoing Yale-NUS president Pericles Lewis during his commencement address. “You could say that we have steered the ship of Yale-NUS College safely into harbor, but in fact the ship is fully afloat and headed out on a journey whose final destination none of us can entirely foresee.”

Following a rendition of the Singaporean national anthem and Lewis’ introductory remarks, attendees heard speeches from Levin, as well as the Singaporean Minister of Higher Education Ong Ye Kung and incoming Yale-NUS President Tan Tai Yong.

According to Yale-NUS Director of Institutional Affairs Sohini Brandon-King, Levin was chosen as commencement speaker for his central role in the founding of Yale-NUS, and his continued contribution to higher education as a member of the leadership team for online course provider Coursera.

In his speech, Levin recounted the many years of hard work that led to the creation of Yale-NUS, and indicated that Yale’s decision to collaborate with NUS was influenced, in part, by the legacy of its earlier graduates, who “founded a substantial fraction of liberal arts colleges in America during the 19th century.”

Levin also expressed his concern with what he termed “anti-globalist populism” around the world, citing as evidence the reversal of liberalization in Russia and Turkey, increasing nationalism in China and India, the Brexit vote in the United Kingdom and the election of President Donald Trump. With a brief reference to the work of Yale historian Timothy Snyder Levin compared the rise of “populist and anti-globalist” forces to the rise of fascism in Italy and Germany in the early 20th century.

“Four years at Yale-NUS College have taught you that the claims of the new anti-globalist populism need to be subjected to critical scrutiny, just as the claims of globalist, free trade ideology must also be,” Levin said. “As citizens of the 21st century, you need to take this responsibility seriously — the stakes are too high. Disengagement is not an option for those, like you, who have benefited from the privilege of superior education.”

By graduation day, more than 60 percent of the class of 2017 had either received job offers or offers of admission for graduate study. Members of the class of 2017 will be working in disparate sectors, including fashion retail, investment banking and Singaporean government ministries. Those pursuing further study have been accepted into programs at universities based in China, the UK and the U.S., including Yale.

The commencement ceremony also marked the last major responsibility of Lewis as Yale-NUS president. Lewis served as president for five years, and has since returned to Yale, where he was a professor of English and comparative literature from 1998 to 2012. He begins his new role as Yale’s vice president for global strategy and deputy provost for international affairs today.

“We have all been privileged to be the beneficiaries of the generous support of the government of Singapore, and of parents, families and benefactors,” Lewis said at the ceremony. “I do not know what causes and communities you will serve, but I hope you will associate your days at Yale-NUS College with the responsibility to be of service.”

Ishaan Srivastava | ishaan.srivastava@yale.edu | @ishaansriv