Dear class of 2023,
When you participate in a treasured Yale tradition and march in the Commencement procession this weekend, I encourage you to reflect on a quotation you may have encountered on campus: “I wish to be useful.” You will find Nathan Hale’s words etched on the base of Harkness Tower. This timeless sentiment is echoed during Commencement when, in defiance of convention, Yale dispatches its graduates out into the world not with “rights and privileges” but “responsibilities.” We do so with the expectation that you will be known as much for your curiosity of mind as your generosity of spirit.
My wife, Marta, and I have proudly called New Haven home since we walked past Hale’s words as students four decades ago. The commitment we share for our home city and neighbors was deepened by the ethos that permeates this campus. So, as young Yale graduates, we immersed ourselves in the work of civic betterment on our local ward committee and later a Special Olympics program serving Hamden and New Haven. In more recent years, we have experienced the joys of working alongside community members, as you have, in classrooms to promote literacy, organizations such as United Way to uplift our neighbors, federally qualified community health centers to help improve access to care and soup kitchens to offer food and fellowship. We rely, as I suspect you will, on the life skills learned from these activities to become better educators and leaders.
Although not formally codified in our curriculum, service to others is every bit a part of what makes a Yale education distinctive. Here, through Dwight Hall and scores of venerable New Haven nonprofits, you have exemplified anew the spirit of service inscribed in the university’s founding documents — and maintained faithfully over three centuries by generations of undergraduates. You collectively have committed over 150,000 hours each year you were at Yale to local projects. I am certain, meanwhile, that your contributions as students will reverberate in this community long after you leave. And now, I call on you to retain your sense of civic obligation as you prepare to join the ranks of Yale alumni.
Of course, in addition to the great personal dividends that service yields — you will gain more than you give — Yale’s call to dedicate ourselves to the welfare of those around us has a broader purpose. For several years now, we have seen in this country a steady breakdown in community engagement. The hours donated annually by volunteers in the United States, for example, halved between the start of the century and your first year at Yale. And the national volunteering rate dropped an additional seven percentage points by the time you became a junior. More than an exception to this trend, the class of 2023 is its antidote. More than a counterforce as college students, you carry the legacy of civic leadership that links you to Yalies across time — and can help to reweave a frayed social fabric in ours.
With the approach of your commencement, I offer my most heartfelt congratulations on your myriad academic achievements and my admiration, too, for the many ways you have exercised your consideration for others — indeed, your wish to be useful. I trust you will again mobilize the public motivation you have demonstrated during your time on our campus to enrich wherever you go next as alumni.
Peter Salovey is the President of Yale University.