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Baccalaureate Address

Richard Levin ’74PhD is president of Yale University. This speech was delivered three times, to three different groups of graduating seniors and their families, May 22 and 23 in Woolsey Hall.

Joshi Radin

Joshi Radin

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Let me elaborate on the congratulations that we all just offered you with our warm and heartfelt applause. You certainly have made something of your Yale College experience. First and foremost, you excelled in the classroom. At Class Day exercises, when you listen to the citations for those winning academic prizes, you will be dazzled by their accomplishments. But it is not merely a few of you who have excelled. The cutoff grade point average for the cum laude honors awarded to 30 percent of your class was an astonishing 3.78, the highest in the history of the college.

You have excelled outside the classroom, too. Your artistic talent is stunning. One of you, born of African parents and trained in the classical repertoire, has revolutionized performance on the cello, creating a sound that sings like Aretha Franklin or Beyoncé, and learned Chinese along the way. Another, a junior Phi Beta Kappa majoring in the history of art, has starred in baroque and classical opera while singing in Mixed Company and Whim ’n Rhythm. And yet another has recorded ten songs with between 5 and 26 million views on YouTube.

You have achieved excellence in your athletic pursuits as well. This year, Yale teams won seven Ivy League championships, for the first time in 21 years, and only the fifth time ever. Women’s squash won the national title, and our men’s ice hockey team thrilled us all with their explosive play and their number-one seed in the NCAA tournament.

You have explored the world: 741 of you have taken advantage of Yale’s abundant opportunities to learn languages, take courses, conduct independent research, or work as interns, in more than 84 countries around the globe. And 64 of you have received fellowships for overseas study next year.

More than 1,000 of you have demonstrated your commitment to service by participating as volunteers in the New Haven community. You have tutored schoolchildren, engaged them in science fairs and service projects, assisted in the provision of care for those with glaucoma and diabetes, and raised funds for the Boys and Girls Club of New Haven. You have encouraged the use of sustainable products by departments of the city government, and campaigned to make New Haven more bicycle-friendly by educating cyclists, motorists, and pedestrians to share the streets safely.

Many of you have participated in a flowering of entrepreneurship on campus. Ten of you won seed grants from the Yale Entrepreneurial Institute to explore the possibility of starting companies. One of you started a recycling business in Science Park that now has 30 Fortune 500 companies among its clients. Two of you founded a rapidly growing business for local online advertising. And yet another has already created 30 jobs in New Haven by founding the very popular Blue State coffeehouse, which now operates five retail stores in three states.

Some of you have overcome tremendous obstacles to get here. One of you grew up in a Chicago housing project. Encouraged by her grandmother to avoid the streets and read relentlessly, she won a scholarship to an outstanding private school, where she was, in turn, encouraged to apply to Yale. Educated, poised, and fearless, she will return to Chicago with Teach for America to a charter school in an area much like her old neighborhood, to help others gain the advantages she earned for herself by her hard work and determination.

When I greeted you in this hall four years ago, I spoke to you about the lessons taught in a book I had just read by Anthony Kronman, Sterling Professor of Law and the Humanities, and a former dean of the Yale Law School. Professor Kronman’s central argument is that liberal education should encourage you to wrestle with the deepest questions concerning the course of your lives. What constitutes a good life? What kind of life do you want to lead? What values do you hope to live by? What kind of community or society do you hope to live in? And how should you reconcile the claims of family and community with your individual desires? In other words, Professor Kronman argues that an important component of your undergraduate experience should be seeking answers to these questions that matter.

Over the past few months, as many of you have reflected upon what’s next for you as you leave Yale, I imagine that some of Professor Kronman’s questions have been on your mind. Some of you—a minority, I suspect—have found answers that satisfy you, and you are ready to pursue careers that seem entirely right for you—in medicine, or science, or business, or teaching, or public service. The rest of you are still searching for answers. Some of you are still searching for a job. Let me reassure you, and your parents: this is fine. Over the next couple of years, you will test jobs or courses of study to see if they truly lead you where you want to go. You will have a much happier life if you can find a calling that truly excites and inspires you. Take your time, and find your passion.

And let me reassure you in yet another way. The work you choose in the next few years need not limit your ability to pursue other passions over the course of your life. Yes, we all hope that you find callings that you love, but one of the most remarkable things that I have learned about Yale graduates is their extraordinary ability to move from one passion to another. Let me give you an example.

Two weeks ago I met with one of our most devoted West Coast alumni, a graduate of the Class of 1955 who has had a successful career in banking and finance, and who has been an important civic leader in his community. But his first love at Yale was American history. Intrigued by stories of the pioneers who settled the American West, and inspired by his mentor—the former dean of Yale College, Howard Lamar—he decided a few years ago to take on a truly ambitious piece of historical and, indeed, archeological research—to discover the route taken by the famous “Lost Wagon Train” that left the Oregon Trail in 1845 to attempt a shortcut across the desert of eastern Oregon. Many perished for want of water, and although several journals survive and have served as the basis for a number of historical monographs, no one has ever managed to find the exact route taken by these pioneers. The precise location of the route is of particular interest because, according to the journals that survive, the pioneers found gold nuggets in a dry riverbed. At the time, water was more precious than gold, and so the settlers moved on, abandoning the site but marking it with a blue bucket.

Our intrepid banker decided to find the route, and he engaged a geologist, an archeologist, two museum curators, an aerial photographer, and a gold prospector equipped with metal detectors to work with him. Using the survivors’ diaries, he retraced the route, moving from one site to another on the anniversary of the dates recorded in the diaries. He found aerial evidence of the route, and many buried artifacts. It took parts of five years to complete the fieldwork. Now, his account of the route of the Lost Wagon Train is being reviewed for publication by a major university press. He has yet to find the gold deposit, but he thinks he knows where it is.

This story is by no means unique. One member of the Class of 1953 returned in midlife to his passion for learning and founded the Chicago Humanities Festival—an annual civic event that offers scores of lectures and performances all over the city. A member of the Class of 1969 took up photography more than 25 years after graduating; he has since published an extraordinary series of books with the National Geographic Society. And a commodities trader from the Class of 1973 recently created a brilliant Tony-nominated Broadway musical based on the life and work of a great Nigerian musician, singer, and songwriter. There are many more such stories.

Important as it is for you to fulfill your personal aspirations, and we truly hope you will, there is more that is expected of you. Tomorrow at the commencement exercises, Dean Mary Miller will ask me to confer upon you the degrees in Yale College that you have earned. In the curious tradition of Yale College, you will then inexplicably cheer wildly and exuberantly—even though the dean has only asked a question, and you will not yet have graduated. After you settle down, I will in fact confer upon you your degrees. But what I will say to you differs significantly from what college presidents all around the country will be saying to their graduates. At many schools, students are awarded the “rights and privileges” of their degrees. Not at Yale. Here your degrees will be conferred upon you, and you will be “admitted” to all their “rights and responsibilities.”

The “rights” are simple enough. You will be entitled to have an alumni e-mail address forever, to vote in elections for fellows of the Yale Corporation beginning five years from now, to participate in a wide variety of alumni events and interest groups, and to receive frequent solicitations to support your alma mater. The “rights” conferred by other institutions are much the same as yours. What is distinctive about Yale is that we do not confer upon you “privileges,” but “admit” you to “responsibilities.”

You have been here for four years, and you know what I am talking about. For four years, you have been free to explore as you wish, but you have also been part of a community. You have learned not simply to excel as individuals, but also to support and encourage one another, to work in organizations to accomplish common purposes, and to help those in need through voluntary service.

The citizenship and service that you have modeled here at Yale have prepared you for your lifelong responsibilities. Whether working in community soup kitchens or working at the highest levels of government, whether your contributions are part-time and voluntary or at the core of your chosen vocation, you can make a difference in the lives of others. And history gives me confidence that you will. All around this country, Yale graduates serve disproportionately on the boards of local charities, hospitals, civic and arts organizations. Yale graduates lead most of the major environmental organizations in the United States, and nine of one hundred U.S. senators and three of the last four U.S. presidents have Yale degrees. The Yale tradition of service and leadership is one of which we are justly proud. It is your responsibility to maintain it.

Women and men of the Class of 2011: today we celebrate your amazing accomplishments, and we rejoice in contemplating your potential. Take the time to find your passion. Choose a life’s work that you love. And remember that the world is now your community. Serve it well.  

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