Graduates of the Class of 2020 and Class of 2021, family members, and friends.
It’s rare for a university president to have the opportunity to speak formally with you twice to celebrate your graduation. Looking at all of you now and knowing so many are also with us online, I am deeply grateful for the chance to do so.
None of us could have predicted when we first met at your Opening Assemblies that the culmination of your “bright college years” would coincide with the onset of a once-in-a-generation pandemic. You gave up big moments and missed out on quieter ones.
But the challenges posed by the COVID-19 pandemic did not define your time at Yale. Instead, you are remembered for your compassion, strength, and character.
Former university president Kingman Brewster Jr. once distilled the selection of our future students as a “combination of looking for those…with a zest to stretch the limits of their talents, and those with an outstanding public motivation.”
Indeed, it was with this outstanding public motivation that you accommodated what this moment in history asked of you. And it was with this zest to stretch the limits of your talents that you asked how you could serve others.
Of course, commencement weekends are traditionally occasions for those of us on the platform to impart wisdom as graduates prepare to enter the world. Yet as members of the Class of 2020 and 2021, you have flipped this proposition entirely. You are no ordinary group of graduates. And this is no ordinary ceremony.
So, instead, we gather today to commemorate all you taught us. We gather today to applaud your masterclass in resilience and in resolve.
Class of 2020, you may recall that at your Opening Assembly, I concluded my remarks with an expression of confidence that you would, on your “first day of school,” “begin immediately to seek out what is best about this place: the faculty and staff and peers who will both inspire you and prepare you to become the investigators, visionaries, and leaders the world so sorely needs.” “None of us here can hope for a better world, or even for a more inclusive and exhilarating learning community at Yale,” I continued, “unless we succeed at this mission. You are in fact what gives us hope.”
Now, on this ceremonial “last day of school,” you are still a source of hope—not only because we succeeded at our mission, but also because you succeeded at yours; not merely because you sought out what is best about this place when you arrived, but also because you exemplified it when you left.
In his book, The Dignity of Difference, the late Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks—who was awarded an honorary degree from Yale—describes a subtle, yet insightful distinction between optimism and hope.
“Optimism,” he writes, “is the belief that things will get better.” “Hope,” meanwhile, “is the faith that, together, we can make things better. Optimism is a passive virtue, hope an active one. It takes no courage to be an optimist,” Rabbi Sacks asserts. “But it takes a great deal of courage to have hope.”
Over the last two-plus years, somber realities around the world have threatened to diminish our sense of optimism.
But your response to these crises has provided reason for hope.
With a great deal of courage, you have both believed in a better world and worked toward it. Crisis has catalyzed the progress it could have hamstrung.
I think, for instance, of Margaret Kellogg, a 2020 graduate of Yale College and current member of the SalivaDirect team. At the outset of the pandemic, her Yale School of Public Health colleagues began work on easy-to-collect, low-cost, high-quality PCR tests to deploy in communities, school districts, and businesses across America. Under the leadership of principal investigator Anne Wyllie, millions of SalivaDirect tests have been administered. And the initiative can become a blueprint for how society improves access to affordable infectious disease testing.
I think, too, of Margaret’s classmates, Christina Pao and Paul Gross. Christina says the inequities made more visible by the pandemic stoked an existing ambition to “make the world a fairer place.” She has since launched a research project to examine the haunting rise of xenophobia. And Paul’s start-up to capture carbon emissions from semi-trucks was founded during the earliest stages of the pandemic. Neither Paul nor the global crisis he is combatting could wait for the return of in-person operations.
As I look out on Old Campus, I see a force for progress and positive change. Leaders who stepped up at a critical time to help nourish the hungry, ensure the most vulnerable had access to essential services, and collect PPE for frontline workers.
I see in you, simply, the compassion of the human spirit.
Members of the Class of 2020 and Class of 2021: you have demonstrated that the call to serve society inscribed in our founding document can endure—and indeed can be ignited by—hardship.
You have demonstrated that Yale, in the end, is not its oldest books or its newest laboratories—it is not even the sum of its sweeping Gothic buildings and their sharp modernist complements. You have demonstrated that Yale is simply us and our best effort to realize our mission to improve the world today and for future generations.
By force of an emergency, we all had to pursue that mission differently. But we worked together as a community to pursue it with conviction.
You have my deepest appreciation for the selflessness with which you safeguarded public health as a student and for the tenacity with which you have worked to repair our world as a graduate.
More than for having your college years coincide with a pandemic at its worst, you will be remembered for representing Yale at its best. More than reinvigorating our optimism, you have allowed us the courage to hope.
Today, we salute the sacrifice that has solidified your rightful place in history. And we celebrate your display of high moral purpose that will build the future we so desire.
 Peter Salovey, Countering False Narratives, Freshman Address, Yale College Class of 2020, Yale University, August 27, 2016.
 Jonathan Sacks, The Dignity of Difference (London: Bloomsbury, 2003).