For the Class of 2009, senior year was marked by economic turmoil. A few days after fall classes began, Lehman Brothers failed, markets plummeted, and job prospects on Wall Street and elsewhere began to vanish. On the morning of Class Day, near the academic calendar’s other bookend, the soon-to-be-graduates gathered for a few hours of levity on Cannon Green while executives in New York announced the bankruptcy of General Motors.
So it was no surprise that when 1,121 graduating seniors and 753 Ph.D. and master’s degree students gathered for Commencement June 2, two of the prominent speeches mentioned the recession’s impact.
President Tilghman said she suspected that everyone in the audience had been touched by the economy’s decline, but she offered some comfort to graduates, assuring them that they could thrive in uncertain times. A Princeton education, she said, “does not prepare you for one job, but for many jobs.”
Valedictorian Holger Staude ’09, an economics major from Frankfurt, Germany, told his classmates that “while you may lose your job, your car, and your house, your ability to ask the questions and subject the answers to a healthy dose of skepticism is yours to keep for life.”
Staude’s statement might sound hyperbolic, but it is rooted in family history. In 1980, his parents made a circuitous, illegal journey from East Germany to West Germany, leaving everything — their families, their careers, and their possessions — in hopes of finding a better life. Education helped to make that new life a reality. “It was academics that ultimately enabled them to find work as high-school teachers,” Staude explained.
The day’s third featured speaker, salutatorian Stephen Hammer ’09, devoted his remarks to the ideals of democracy, faith, and righteousness, borrowed from a quotation that is carved above a doorway at McCosh Hall. “With the journey having been begun, finish the race,” said Hammer, in a translation of his address, which he gave — in keeping with tradition — in Latin. “Love justice, shun vice, and exhibit integrity to the republic and compassion to all men.” Hammer, a classics major and ROTC graduate, will pursue a master’s degree at Oxford as a Rhodes Scholar before beginning service in the U.S. Army. He was one of four seniors to receive a military commission after graduation.
Tilghman, in her speech, urged the Class of 2009 to take on challenges after college, noting a few daunting but important areas like creating green alternatives to a carbon-based economy and advocating for tolerance among religious and ethnic groups. She also celebrated “the exploration of ideas for their own sake,” particularly in the creative and performing arts. The University’s Lewis Center for the Arts received its founding gift in 2006, midway through the Class of 2009’s freshman year, and Tilghman said that if the center has succeeded, this year’s graduates someday would be patrons of the arts. “In difficult times like these, we must be doubly protective of the arts,” she said.
Artists were well represented among this year’s five honorary-degree recipients: Academy Award-winning actress Meryl Streep; actress, activist, and author Ruby Dee Davis; community organizer and civil-rights proponent Ernesto Cortés; chef and sustainable-food advocate Alice Waters; and mechanical engineer Irvin Glassman, an emeritus professor at Princeton and an authority on combustion in energy production and propulsion.
Four current faculty members received the President’s Awards for Distinguished Teaching: Mitchell Duneier (sociology), Eddie S. Glaude Jr. *97 (religion and African-American studies), Sharad Malik (electrical engineering), and Valerie Smith (English and African-American studies). The University also honored four exceptional secondary-school teachers from New Jersey.
Commencement was the culmination of a series of graduation events, most of which took place in the two preceding days. Seniors celebrated at Baccalaureate May 31, where Gen. David Petraeus *87, commander of the U.S. Central Command, was the featured speaker; Class Day June 1, headlined by CBS Evening News anchor Katie Couric; and the senior prom June 1. Academic hoods were presented to advanced-degree recipients June 1. Other campus gatherings included the senior step sing; the lavender graduation co-sponsored by the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender Center and the Fund for Reunion, May 9; a ceremony for Latino graduates May 31; and the Pan-African graduation May 31, where Georgetown sociology professor Michael Eric Dyson *93 delivered the keynote address (see page 52).
Before the graduation ceremony, as seniors lined up for their procession, some reflected on the things they were about to leave behind. Emily Norris ’09 described the emotions of Commencement as “euphoria, with undertones of nostalgia.” Jennifer Visconti ’09 said she would miss the serene mornings, walking among gothic dormitories on the way to class. Beau Thomas ’09 said he enjoyed being surrounded by so many intelligent and talented peers.
The Class of 2009 shared a range of experiences, from storming the field at the Yale Bowl in 2006, after the football team secured its first Big Three bonfire in a dozen years, to closely following the presidential election of 2008.The angst of being a job seeker during an economic downturn was a frequently cited bond. Fewer opportunities meant intense competition for jobs, graduate programs, and internships with service organizations, according to Navin Bhatia ’09, who will be a Princeton Project 55 fellow in the coming year. Said Bhatia: “In that sense, we’ve had to be more resilient.”