During his Class Day address, Sen. Cory Booker of New Jersey tapped into a theme that carried over into Commencement, touching on the importance of gratitude, kindness, and small acts of goodwill.
“Your first language must always be kindness,” he said. “The definition of patriotism isn’t about how loud you sing the national anthem ... patriotism means love of country. And you cannot love your country unless you love your countrymen and -women.”
The senator, a Democrat, eschewed thorny, divisive political topics, instead telling the audience about a white lawyer who helped Booker’s parents move into a segregated neighborhood in New Jersey after watching the brutal assault on civil-rights protesters at the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Ala., in 1965.
Booker drew an inspirational message from the lawyer’s commitment to help African Americans gain access to equal housing: “One decision — in a world where we are so much more intricately interwoven than we know — one decision by one person on one day ripples out into community,” he said. “Never forget that the biggest thing you can do every day is often just a small act of kindness, decency, love, and caring.”
At Commencement on Tuesday, a picture-perfect day, valedictorian Kyle Berlin ’18 returned to the theme of kindness. “What if we gave up greatness for quiet compassion?” he asked. “What if we were No. 1 not in excellence ... but in compassionate listening or repeated forgiveness or radical love? And if we can’t figure it out together — if we can’t ask the right questions ... can’t practice kindness as a deliberate ethos and a knowledge — then who can?”
Berlin interrupted his address to ask audience members to speak to their neighbors for two minutes about what they thought people should know or feel “in this moment of farewell.” Turning to President Eisgruber ’83, Berlin assured him he had timed the break from his address before rushing off the stage and toward his class, eagerly engaging in conversation. He then returned to the podium to wrap up his talk and declare this “The Compassionate Class of 2018.”
Eisgruber urged the graduates to take part in the national debate over the value of higher education. “We need you to help others to achieve in the future what you achieve today,” he said. He offered three suggestions to help ensure more Americans attain college degrees, “a rocket booster for students seeking social mobility”: Advocate the importance of completing college, support public universities and colleges, and promote access to higher education for low-income students.
“Princeton’s Great Class of 2018 graduates today as the most socioeconomically diverse class in the 272-year history of this University,” Eisgruber said to enthusiastic applause, before adding: “You will not hold that distinction long. Other classes already at Princeton will break your record.”
At Baccalaureate on Sunday, Eduardo Bhatia ’86, minority leader and former president of the Senate of Puerto Rico, spoke passionately about the beleaguered island and how governmental apathy has hindered its restoration after Hurricane Maria. He beseeched graduates to rail against “alternative facts,” embrace equality, and carry Princeton values into the world.
“Silence is not an option,” Bhatia said. “Class of 2018, denounce what needs to be denounced; fix what is broken; right what is wrong, and do not allow anyone, regardless of their agenda, to use false data and pretenses to confuse citizens and weaken democracy.”
At Commencement — Princeton’s 271st — 1,281 degrees were awarded to members of ’18 (943 A.B. degrees and 338 B.S.E degrees), as well as three degrees to members of other classes who completed their requirements this year. Additionally, 563 graduate degrees were conferred, including 396 Ph.D. degrees.
Princeton also awarded five honorary degrees to individuals who have made distinguished contributions to architecture, education, the humanities, and public service.