Under clear skies and before a sea of zany headwear, acclaimed Nigerian writer and Class Day speaker Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie GRD ’08 urged the class of 2019 to be both “idealistic” and “pragmatic” as they move beyond Yale’s ivy-covered walls.
Adichie, who received a Master of Arts in African Studies from Yale and has written numerous bestselling books, spoke about her time at the University, the present state of public discourse in America and the importance of interpersonal relationships. She also offered advice to the outgoing class on how to adhere to their personal principles while seeking to understand other perspectives, saying that “puritanism” is “too expensive to afford.”
“What should America be?” Adichie asked the crowd. “Conceptualize that America, and then make the case for that America. Not only in obvious ways, such as how you vote, but also in smaller ways — how you treat other people, how you think about other people, the things you refuse to condone, the people whose grievances you refuse to dismiss … the people you choose to listen to and hear.”
Adichie began her speech with an apology.
“Last year, the Class Day speaker was Hillary Rodham Clinton [LAW ’73] — this year, you got me,” she joked. “Considering the last three years, I imagine it must have been refreshing for last year’s class to hear from a politician who is an actual adult.”
Adichie characterized the state of the U.S. today as one where “things are not standing well.” While she noted that “to say that things are falling apart, or have fallen apart” may sound like the product of “melodramatic exaggeration,” issues such as police brutality and restriction of female reproductive rights create a national climate where there is “fear in the air.”
Adichie reminded the Class of 2019 that going by historical precedent, a Yale degree makes you more likely than other graduates to become president, a senator or a Supreme Court Judge. She added that this precedent serves as proof “of how fair America’s unimpeachable meritocracy is — not.”
“A Yale degree makes you more likely to become a person who in different capacities will be responsible for policies and actions that will affect the lives of millions of people — no pressure,” she said.
Adichie also advised students to use their influence for good, adding that “if power were a jacket, it is most flattering on all body types when worn very lightly.” She encouraged graduates to “place a higher value on local knowledge” when they enter the global workforce.
Adichie specifically told those who will one day be “enrobed in corporate power — as many of you will be,” to “please hire women as executives and not just in human relations” — a piece of advice that drew both laughter and applause from the audience.
In the new social media age, she also spoke about the necessity of fully understanding issues before getting involved in discourse. One lesson that Adichie said she learned at Yale was to always look at primary sources first. She told the graduating class to remember that “context is always queen” before they “jump in the fray” of debates.
She also encouraged the audience to learn how to say “I’m sorry” when it is necessary, while advising women in particular to not apologize for “existing or for taking up space in the world.” She urged the graduates to “clarify, do the work, cite statistics .. and bring the damn receipts” to debates and arguments rather than greeting opposition with “self-righteous sneer[s].”
“I worry that spaces occupied by the educated in this country are places where curiosity has become passe,” Adichie said. “It is now an environment where everyone is supposed to know, supposed to get it. And those who don’t are seen as morally lacking.”
In some of her last remarks, she told the class of 2019 to value the other human beings around them, advising them to “never admire quietly” and to let people know if there is something admirable about them. She emphasized that “people will hardly ever forget small acts of kindness,” and that “paying attention is one of the most beautiful acts of kindness.”
As a final note before congratulating the graduates, she told them, “As you navigate the world, it might be helpful — from time to time — to forget that you went to Yale.”
Following Adichie’s speech, Director of Athletics Vicky Chun, Chair of the Council of Heads of College and Head of Grace Hopper College Julia Adams and Dean of Yale College Marvin Chun presented Class Day awards to Andrea Masterson ’19, Simon Whiteman ’19, Alanna Pyke ’19, Jonathan Salazar ’19, Eren Orbey ’19, Alexis “a.k.” Payne ’19, Jude Alawa ’19, Lily Mirfakhraie ’19, Hannah Lawrence ’19 and Devyn Rigsby ’19 for various athletic and academic achievements, as well as other contributions to the Yale community.
During the course of the afternoon, several seniors read their own writing. In his class reflection “How to Spot a Yalie, ” Larry Fulton ’19 reminisced on the wave of change his class experienced and participated in at Yale. And in the comical piece “Vows to the Class of 2019,” Raffaella Donatich ’19 and John Rosenbluth ’19 joked about the “digital dating age” at Yale, reflecting on the ups and downs of their college years.
“Yale is not naive in choosing a class,” Fulton said in his reflection. “Like Yalies from many generations, we don’t just study history. You can spot a Yalie at the edge of history.”
The ceremony ended with the Yale Bands and Yale Glee Club’s rendition of “Bright College Years” — the same song that the Class of 2019 sang together in their first days of college in 2015.
On Monday morning, the University’s twelve graduate and professional school graduates will join the Yale College Class of 2019 for the official Yale Commencement ceremony.
This article orginially appeared in the Yale Daily News.
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