At Commencement, the Class of ’17 joins in “Old Nassau” for the first time as Princeton alumni.
Beverly Schaefer
Class of ’17 Commencement events take inspiration from Bowen, Gatsby

This year’s graduation events highlighted the legacies of two noted Princetonians — F. Scott Fitzgerald 1917 and former University President William G. Bowen *58.

Fitzgerald was the focus of Class Day, with the keynote speaker, film director Baz Luhrmann, recounting his journey to understand and channel the legendary author in preparation for his 2013 film adaptation of The Great Gatsby. Even President Eisgruber ’83 picked up the theme, appearing in a short video shown at the event in which he stood on the boathouse dock and reached toward a glowing green light across Lake Carnegie — a re-creation of a famous Gatsby scene.

Luhrmann, who arrived in Princeton a few days before his speech to attend Reunions and visit Fitzgerald’s old eating club, compared his life’s journey to Fitzgerald’s: Both went from confused college dropouts to discovering their true selves after many years of making mistakes and self-revelation. 

“And that is your mission in life — to reveal who you really are,” Luhrmann told the seniors gathered on Cannon Green. “What is the movie of your life? What is your character? How will you play out the play of your life? ... The world needs you: your truth, your play, your superpower.”

In a video shown at Class Day, President Eisgruber brings to life a famous image from The Great Gatsby as he extends his arm toward a green light glowing across Lake Carnegie. The video can be viewed at
Danielle Alio and Nick Barberio/Office of Communications
Despite gray skies over Princeton’s 270th Commencement ceremony the following day, the rain held off until the singing of “Old Nassau.” In his remarks, Eisgruber praised Bowen, who served as Princeton’s president from 1972 to 1988 and went on to write a number of acclaimed books on higher education before his death last October. 

Eisgruber called Bowen a “model worth emulating” for his scholarship, leadership, values, compassion, and optimism. He urged graduates to approach the world’s challenges with empathy, one of Bowen’s distinctive traits.

“Overcoming the fractious politics and bitter disagreements of our day will require empathy; it will require friendship and love; it will require an ability to connect and collaborate together,” Eisgruber said. “It is all too tempting to complain about our institutions’ failures — whether on environmental protection, health care, education, or international affairs. ... They are not even close to perfect, but they are the best means we have to address shared problems and pursue shared aspirations.” 

He concluded his speech with Bowen’s favorite exhortation — “Onward!” — before the graduates proceeded out through FitzRandolph Gate. 

Delivering the Baccalaureate address in the Chapel on Sunday was Anne Holton ’80, former secretary of education of Virginia and an advocate for children and families. Holton — whose husband, Sen. Tim Kaine, was Hillary Clinton’s vice presidential running mate — recalled the challenges she faced as a Princeton freshman learning linear algebra and the Democrats’ “excruciating” failure to win the 2016 presidential election. 

“I learned crucial lessons of humility and appreciation of differential human talent,” she said. “I hope that life and Princeton have dealt you an instructive failure or two. They won’t be your last — hopefully your future ones won’t be of the nature of losing a presidential election!” 

Holton’s message was a highlight of the weekend for Broderic Bender ’17. “To have somebody step up and say, ‘At this point you’ve all succeeded, but it’s also important that we look back on our failures and think about what we’ve learned from them,’ that was pretty cool,” he said.

Members of the Class of 2017 created a time capsule with memorabilia and letters to their future selves; it will be opened at their 25th reunion.

Princeton awarded 1,268 degrees to members of the Class of 2017 (960 A.B. degrees and 308 B.S.E. degrees) and another three to members of previous classes who completed degree requirements this year. In addition, 520 graduate degrees were awarded, including 358 Ph.D. degrees. 

Among the five honorary-degree recipients were former NBA player and social activist Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Juliet Villarreal Garcia, who became the first Mexican American female president of a U.S. university when she was selected to head Texas Southmost College in 1986.