184th Commencement Sees Graduates Reflect on the Past, Look to the Future

Darren Walker encouraged the students to ask themselves how they can extend the ladder of opportunity to those in need.

Yankee Stadium had its pinstripes turn violet for just a few hours on the morning of Wednesday, May 18, as graduating students, friends and families filled the stands of the ballpark for NYU’s 184th commencement.

NYU flags hung from the poles atop the stadium, the first time the ballpark has allowed that. Thousands of graduates sat in the seats behind home plate and spreading all the way out to right field while proud parents and friends looked on from above. All told, the almost 30,000 in attendance were the most that NYU has had for commencement.

Following a procession of school representatives, faculty members and special guests to the stage set up on second base — a procession which even included bagpipes — Darren Walker, president of the Ford Foundation, addressed the students, emphasizing their achievements in the past and the achievements yet to come.

“Never ever stop asking yourself the question: what can I achieve that goes beyond myself?” Walker implored the graduates. “These are the questions of our time. How can we extend the ladder of opportunity so that more people can sit in these bleachers in the years ahead — an experience that you have all experienced.”

Walker was among those receiving an honorary degree from NYU, alongside actor Billy Crystal, House Representative John Lewis, former Massachusetts Chief Justice Margaret Marshall and microbiologist Emmanuelle Charpentier.

Walker noted in his speech that, despite their different career choices, the paths each of his fellow honorees have taken in their lives have all led towards justice.

“How will you change the world? What night you achieve that goes beyond yourself? What sacrifices will you make? What service will you render in the cause of justice in the world?”

President Andrew Hamilton also spoke to the graduates in his first all-university commencement. It certainly seemed that the few hours in Yankee Stadium were not lost on Hamilton, who presided over Oxford University’s commencements prior to this one, and he paused to take it all in.

“As I look out at the brilliant sea of violet before me, and catch the scent of hot dogs and popcorn, and hear the subway rumbling behind me, the thought that springs to mind is: nothing could beat this,” Hamilton said gleefully.

Hamilton commended the students on the diversity of their accomplishments so far, from founding start-ups to writing plays, a process that has seen the graduates develop the grit needed to overcome future hurdles.

“You have dived into the world and gotten messy. So that, should you stumble somewhere along your journey, you will be able to learn from the experience and relaunch yourself in a direction you never imagined.”

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The last to address the students before each school was presented with their collective degrees, Gallatin senior Robert Clinton encouraged his fellow graduates to continue to defy expectations and not let them define the future (WSN profiled Clinton as part of our influential students feature).

“We have the power to decide what our NYU experience — and degrees — mean, but must do so living through the conflicts of our time — perpetually contested civil rights for people of color, women, Muslims, the trans and queer communities, and other systematically marginalized groups,” Clinton said.

“We must accept the responsibility of using this education to build upon — not abide by — the dogmas of the past.”

He recognized the collective frustration of a student body itching for change in the world, and he encouraged the group to channel that frustration into concrete action.

The sun broke out and the air was electric with the excitement of thousands of no-longer-students who realized their journey at NYU had come to an end. But alas, the only thing lacking from the day’s festivities was thousands of hats being thrown up into the air in celebration — students had to give the violet garments back by the end of the afternoon.

Email Alex Bazeley at [email protected].