Acclaimed actress and filmmaker Jodie Foster ’85 received the 2018 Yale Undergraduates’ Lifetime Achievement Award in front of a packed audience of nearly 800 at Battell Chapel on Thursday afternoon.
Established by the Yale College Council in collaboration with the President’s Office in 2015, the award recognizes Yale College alumni for outstanding work in a particular field and brings them back to campus with the aim of cultivating dialogue between current students and alumni. The YCC began accepting student nominations for this year’s award in January, approximately 1,000 Yalies voted for the award in an online poll this February. John Kerry ’66, Samantha Power ’92, Paul Krugman ’74 and Fareed Zakaria ’86 were the other nominees this year.
YCC President Matt Guido ’19 announced Foster would be the recipient of the award in an email to the student body on Monday. At the event, the star of Hollywood blockbusters such as “Silence of the Lambs,” “Flightplan” and “Taxi Driver,” spoke about her Yale career and offered advice to current Yalies.
“I don’t remember one thing I learned at Yale,” Foster said. “But I feel like I learned more lessons as a human being than I would’ve learned anywhere else.”
Foster, who has received multiple Oscars and Golden Globes for her acting in “The Accused” and “The Silence of the Lambs,” said she never expected to become an actress after graduating, as she never considered it a “grown-up job.” Speaking to aspiring actors in the audience, Foster advised them to be their authentic selves, adding that figuring out one’s true self by portraying different characters is a “lifelong pursuit.”
Already an accomplished child actress by the time she arrived at Yale, Foster said she struggled at times with her lack of privacy on campus. She said her anonymity was “totally shattered” when she was stalked during her first year at Yale by John Hinckley, Jr., the man who later attempted to assassinate U.S. President Ronald Reagan.
Foster also candidly recalled feeling anxious about her future as an undergraduate and said she experienced more suffering and heartbreak at Yale than during any other time of her life.
“When I graduated, I was truly depressed … It seemed like every avenue was open to me but I wasn’t good at anything,” Foster said.
Still, Foster described her college years mostly with fondness: reminiscing about her favorite party spot, Anchor Bar — which is now Anchor Spa; her off-campus house on Park Street, where she enjoyed hosting barbecues with friends; and her favorite literature and African-American Studies classes. She also acknowledged that after studying madly for her “Biology for Poets” final exam, she froze during the test, ripped it up and left — earning her first-ever “F” in a class.
Reflecting on her distinguished career, Foster said she attributed much of her success to dumb luck and being a child actress who had connections with other actors in the male-dominated entertainment world. Asked about the #MeToo movement sweeping through Hollywood, Foster said she could not describe the current moment “in a sound bite,” but that she is excited about the heightened awareness of sexual harassment.
Guido had lunch with Foster before the event and interviewed her throughout the ceremony, asking questions submitted by students. He said he thought Foster was a great speaker, storyteller and person, and that Yalies had much to learn from her. He added that hearing high-profile alumni like Foster discuss not only their professional careers but also their Yale careers and their lives after Yale is a “very special” opportunity.
“Jodie Foster’s an incredible Yale alumna and actress, so I was really excited that she was here and [the YCC] was really excited to host her,” YCC Vice President Nick Girard ’19 said. “Hearing her just showed how down-to-earth she is. I really respected her candor throughout the whole conversation.
Girard added that he could relate to Foster’s feeling that she was an “imposter” as an undergraduate at Yale and said it was uplifting to hear someone with as distinguished a career as hers talk about her insecurities.
“I thought Jodie Foster was a wonderful speaker,” said Claire Kalikman ’21, who attended the event. “Her college experience was so different than mine has been. Needless to say, I didn’t have a career before I came here. Most people figure that out once they come to college. I think she handled her college situation with grace and aplomb.”
Ryley Constable ’21 said he appreciated being exposed to the “wisdom” of someone who has been out of Yale for 30 years. He added that his biggest takeaway from the talk was that what students do at Yale may not have much of an effect on what they go on to accomplish and that developing skills and abilities is much more important than memorizing information for exams.
The Yale Undergraduates’ Lifetime Achievement award is the only award in Ivy League history decided and administered entirely by students.
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