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Our Yale Citizenship

The Yale College Opening Assembly Address

Peter Salovey ’86PhD is the president of Yale University. This speech was delivered twice in Woolsey Hall on August 25 to first-year students and their guests.

On behalf of my colleagues here on stage, I extend a warm welcome to all the family members with us today. And to the first-years, transfer students, and Eli Whitney students: Welcome to Yale!

Today is a day of pageantry and excitement. Many of you bring members of your extended families to cheer you on, celebrating this milestone with justifiable pride and just a little anxiety.

Today is also a day of Yale traditions. You will encounter countless wonderful rituals here, some recent and some quite old. Many are steeped in history yet remain popular, even beloved, among Yalies. (And remember, you are now a Yalie!)

One of our Yale traditions is singing an old song, “Bright College Years.” Written in the late nineteenth century, it is our unofficial, but widely acknowledged, alma mater. You will hear it at many campus events, often sung by the Yale Glee Club and other Yale groups, and played by the Yale Precision Marching Band after football games.

Now, I am not a singer. I am a bluegrass bass player. But I hope you will indulge me for a moment: “The seasons come, the seasons go, / The earth is green or white with snow, / But time and change shall naught avail / To break the friendships formed at Yale.”

These couplets are some of my favorites from “Bright College Years,” and, in my experience, they are truthful. I suspect they will prove accurate for you as well. But it is the song’s final lines, popular at alumni gatherings and always sung with gusto, complete with the waving of handkerchiefs, that I want to use to launch my topic for today: “Oh, let us strive that ever we / May let these words our watch cry be, / Where’er upon life’s sea we sail: / ‘For God, for Country and for Yale!’”1

“For God, for Country, and for Yale.” A member of the Yale College Class of 1881 named Henry Durand wrote this ballad, and the final lines were meant to be a rallying cry. It made sense in those days to presume, as Durand did, that most Yale students shared, or at least professed to share, the same god and the same country. Most Yalies, until recent decades, were white, Protestant, and American. And of course, until 50 years ago in Yale College, they were all men.

Today, Yale is a different place from the college Durand knew. We welcome people from around the world, from every background and from every walk of life.

I am proud to be a Yale graduate. I received my PhD in psychology from Yale in 1986. A hundred years earlier, I may have been less likely to have been admitted to Yale, on account of my background; I am Jewish, with roots in Eastern Europe. My wife Marta, another proud Yale graduate, received her master’s degree in public health in 1984; her family is from Puerto Rico. Our stories are not unique. Over the past decades, Yale has opened its doors wider and wider. We have expanded the circle of belonging.

Yet despite our differences and diversity, we have at least one very important thing in common: we all share Yale. No matter where you are from, or who you are, or your path to arriving here, now you are—among other things—a member of this community. You belong here. You are citizens of Yale.

 

In our country and our world today, questions about citizenship and immigration are hotly contested. But at Yale, we share none of this uncertainty about the critical importance of immigrant and international students and scholars. The work of the university—education and research—requires the free movement of people and ideas across national borders. On behalf of this university, I advocate for policies that will allow us to welcome students and scholars from around the world to our campus.

Our Yale citizenship, however, is not based on national origin. Our students hail from 121 countries. Nor is it based on our adherence to a certain set of beliefs or dogma, as we bring an enormous range of viewpoints and perspectives to this campus. Instead, we are citizens of Yale because we share a desire to know, understand, and create. We are members of an academic community dedicated to Urim v’Thummim, lux et veritas, light and truth.2

We are poets and psychologists, historians and scientists, physicians and deans, and yet we all share the same fundamental goal: to expand the horizons of the known world. To ask questions that shake the foundations of knowledge and to rebuild them again with new answers.

Our world is desperate for new ideas and solutions. We need to understand the human condition and our planet. We need insights into the genome. We need breakthroughs in our ability to fight disease, alleviate suffering, and find justice. We need answers to urgent and long-standing questions.

You will tackle this important work at Yale. The experiences you have here will shape the rest of your lives, and you will have opportunities that most people only dream of. And because a Yale education is a great privilege, it comes with certain obligations. I want to speak today about some of the most important obligations of Yale citizenship. I will delineate four of them: the responsibility to be curious, constantly; the duty to listen to others, even those whose thoughts you despise, and to exchange ideas freely; the obligation to create a culture of respect here; and the requirement to use the gifts you have been provided to serve others and the world.

The first obligation concerns our intellectual and scholarly work. Our campus must be a place conducive to deep study that will motivate both a lifetime of learning and the development of character that will serve you well as future leaders.

Yale will demand much of you. There will be times when you don’t understand an assignment or you struggle with a problem set. You may do poorly on a midterm. At least I hope so! Those failures—as much as your successes—mean you are doing something right. Be kind to yourself, and remember that you have come to Yale because you don’t know everything—not yet.

The faculty will be alongside you, as teachers and mentors. This is my 33rd year on Yale’s faculty, and I know that working with students is one of the great joys of this profession. Go to office hours. Get to know your professors, and they will help you deepen and expand your expertise. Most of all, allow your curiosity to take wing—to take you in unexpected directions and lead you to new areas of study, practice, and discovery.

I enrolled in courses in college that I hadn’t planned to take, and they changed the way I see the world now, 40 years later: a course in the history of theater styles, a course in writing poetry, a course in real-world (applied) sociology, a course in geology that involved fascinating fieldwork. Make sure you explore the great range and diversity of academic experiences available to you here.

 

Second, as citizens of Yale, we are obligated to listen carefully to others. Sometimes this means we must listen to ideas we find objectionable. You don’t have to agree, but each of us must enjoy the opportunity to express thoughts and opinions. We work hard to safeguard this right on our campus. I hope you will have many opportunities to think deeply and speak honestly and courageously about difficult issues during your time here.

Discourse is the heart of the academic enterprise. So find times and places for conversation, whether in a classroom or dining hall, or on the athletic field.

There are many impediments to meaningful conversation, including technology. I am not going to try to persuade you to stop texting or tweeting altogether. But I would urge you to put down your phones whenever possible, and seek out face-to-face interactions. We are happier and our relationships are stronger when we do. (Just ask anyone who took Psychology and the Good Life with Professor Laurie Santos last year!)

You will meet people of remarkable talent, promise, and integrity here at Yale. In the days and weeks ahead, I would urge you to seek out a wide variety of friends and associates. As I said to last year’s graduating class,3 draw a larger circle to include people who might look, talk, act, or think differently from you. Introduce yourself to staff members; get to know your neighbors in the city of New Haven. Your ability to speak but also listen, to reach beyond what is familiar and easy, will be one of the great measures of your time here at Yale.

Third, as citizens of Yale we strive to support a culture of mutual respect on our campus. To do this we must accord each person the dignity and recognition they deserve.

Claudia Rankine is the Frederick Iseman Professor of Poetry at Yale. In her powerful work Citizen: An American Lyric, she explores what citizenship and belonging mean in contemporary America, often by describing mundane situations. I would like to read you a passage:

In line at the drugstore it’s finally your turn, and then it’s not as he walks in front of you and puts his things on the counter. The cashier says, Sir, she was next. When he turns to you he is truly surprised.
Oh my God, I didn’t see you.
You must be in a hurry, you offer.
No, no, no, I really didn’t see you.

Who do we see—or not see? In our residential colleges and classrooms, in restaurants, on vacation and at work, in our country and in our world? Who do we see, and who do we look past?

Your lives at Yale will be busy and full. You will study, work, volunteer, socialize, and—I dearly hope—sometimes sleep. But make sure you take time to see the people around you. Try to imagine the world through their eyes; bring empathy and imagination to all that you do. I am counting on each of you. Together we can ensure that Yale is a community where each person feels valued and welcomed.

Finally, your obligations as citizens of Yale extend beyond this campus. Our alumni are perhaps the greatest illustration of Yale’s tradition of service. Five Yale graduates have served as US presidents, four as secretaries of state, and eighteen as justices on the US Supreme Court, representing viewpoints across the political spectrum. Yale alumni have served as heads of state of several foreign countries, including Italy, Mexico, Malawi, and South Korea. Many others have improved their neighborhoods and cities as teachers, philanthropists, and mentors. Still others have built businesses that created jobs. For generations, our students and alumni have contributed to the common good. I urge you to carry on this vital Yale tradition.

“For God, for Country, and for Yale.” This is still the promise of “Bright College Years” (and I enjoy singing those words as much as anyone): that even if we worship differently or not at all, even if we are citizens of different nations or people without a country, we all share Yale. We take pride in our “rights and responsibilities” as members of this community. In return for the great privilege of a Yale education, we look beyond this campus to pursue a larger purpose, to “improv[e] the world today and for future generations.”4 This is what we share in common.

I am convinced that our Yale citizenship is just as vital today as it was 317 years ago when this college was founded. The world needs light and truth as much as ever. It needs your leadership and your service. It needs the meaning you bring to the world and the questions you ask. Most of all, it needs your best efforts—your successes and your failures.

As citizens of Yale sharing a common purpose—the pursuit of knowledge and understanding—let us start today to begin the work we have come here to do: to ask new questions, to listen carefully and speak honestly, to see with new eyes, and to contribute to our communities and our world. Most of all, leave this hall today with a commitment in your hearts to be exemplary citizens of Yale, building the future we hope to see.

Today, as I look out onto this room, I am optimistic about the future of Yale and the future of our world. Good luck, Class of 2022!

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