On May 22, the Yale College class of 2021 and graduating students from all of the professional and graduate schools participated in Yale’s 320th Commencement.

The University conferred a total of 3,395 degrees — including 1,142 degrees for the graduating seniors of Yale College — and nine honorary doctorates. Yale College graduates donned in caps, gowns and masks proceeded into Old Campus for the Commencement ceremony. Due to the coronavirus pandemic, guests were not allowed to attend, and the conferral of degrees was streamed online.

In a prerecorded address released Monday morning, University President Peter Salovey spoke to the unusual year during the coronavirus pandemic, but to the enduring meaning of the University’s traditions. He shared personal experiences of what he took away from exceptional teachers, and his hope that each graduate had found their own teachers with whom they connected.

“Graduates of the Class of 2021, you are ready to face the future with optimism and determination,” Salovey said in his address. “You are ready to repay the gifts your teachers have given you and share the joy of discovery with others. You go with our best wishes and our admiration.”

At the start of Saturday’s graduation, Dean of Yale College Marvin Chun acknowledged that Yale sits on the land of Indigenous peoples and nations. He then congratulated the seniors for earning their degrees despite the year’s challenges.

“Today is a day for looking back with pride at everything you have accomplished and all the goals you have reached,” Chun said. “Of course it brings some sadness too, now that you are ending your bright college years.”

In an hour-long ceremony, Salovey conferred Yale College degrees to members of the Class of 2021. After each graduate had received their diploma, they filed out the Old Campus gates while waving residential college flags and cowbells.

During his address to the graduating class, Salovey told of his high school years at Williamsville North High School in Buffalo, New York. The address was at times lighthearted — when he told of earning a varsity letter for his work in the drama club — and at other times introspective.

He spoke to the gifts two high school English teachers had given him. While a student, Salovey joined a poetry club that met at the teachers’ home, and participants read and discussed poems over coffee. During the pandemic, club members reconnected over Zoom. Again, they discussed prose and drank coffee together.

“We found, in the midst of so much grief and loneliness, a way to connect,” Salovey said. “My hope for each of you is that you have made a friend here at Yale, perhaps a few friends, who will be there for you in 46 years. That is no small thing.”

Salovey also conferred nine honorary degrees in a virtual address, praising each recipient for their contribution in their sphere of influence.

“These degrees are the most significant distinction conferred by the Yale Corporation … to signal pioneering achievement in a field or conspicuous and exemplary contribution to the common good,” Salovey said. “Collectively [the honorary degree recipients] represent Yale’s highest aspirations as a University dedicated to light and truth.”

The recipients included comedian Stephen Colbert, writer Judy Blume, filmmaker Ava DuVernay and astrophysicist Nergis Mavalvala. In addition, professor of African American Studies and the history of art Robert Thompson ’55 GRD ’65 received a Doctor of Humanities – his fourth Yale degree. Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks, who died in November 2020, was posthumously awarded a Doctor of Divinity. 

University Chaplain Sharon Kugler also shared a blessing for this year’s graduates in a separate prerecorded video. 

“Although this day is not what any of us thought it would be when you began this journey, even if bittersweet in part, it is a day to be cherished,” Kugler said. “You are to be cherished. In the uncertainty, in the hard work, in the failures and in the thriving, you have persisted through it all and today you must allow yourself to simply sparkle.”

Salovey closed his address to graduates with verse, as is traditional. He most often reads from John Milton’s “Paradise Lost”, but the words did not feel apt to describe campus during the pandemic, Salovey said. Instead, he quoted Emily Dickinson on hope.

“‘Hope’ is the thing with feathers – that perches in the soul – and sings the tune without the words – and never stops – at all,” Salovey read.

The ceremony was Salovey’s eighth as president.

Julia Brown served as University Editor on the Managing Board of 2023. Previously, she covered the University's graduate and professional schools as a staff reporter. She graduated cum laude from Yale University with a B.A. in Economics & Mathematics.
Rose Horowitch covers Woodbridge Hall. She previously covered sustainability and the University's COVID-19 response. She is a sophomore in Davenport College majoring in history.