On Being a Citizen at Yale
– Yale College Dean Jonathan Holloway’s Freshman Address
August 26, 2016
President Salovey, Provost Polak, Dean Cooley, Dean Gendler, Secretary Goff-Crews, Chaplain Kugler, residential college leaders, honored guests, and, lest we forget, women and men of the Class of 2020 ... good morning and welcome.
I want to extend my welcome to the parents and grandparents, siblings, and aunts and uncles who are with us today. As I welcome you, I also want to acknowledge your hard work and sacrifices. Without you, those of us on stage and our colleagues throughout the campus – the librarians, dining hall workers, professors, custodians, groundskeepers, coaches, lecturers, religious leaders, tutors, and administrative assistants – without you, we would not have the honor of guiding these young adults, our newest Yalies, through their undergraduate years. Thank you for trusting us with this duty.
As for you, Class of 2020, I would like to start things off by giving you your first homework assignment. What I want you to do today is to take a quiet moment to acknowledge your privileges and your blessings, and be sure to thank someone who is not here for his or her commitment to your success. You have all been blessed numerous times over with remarkable abilities. You might excel at interpreting or running or coding. You might have a gift to conjugate or titrate or swim. Maybe you sing or debate. (I’m also guessing that more than a few of you are level 5 or higher in Pokémon Go and have already discovered that this very place where you are sitting is a massive Pokémon Gym.) That aside, these blessings brought you here … but only in part. But what you also have to realize is how others, beyond your family, had a role in your success. I’m sure that with little effort you all can make a long list of people who deserve some recognition and appreciation: Neighbors, best friends, calculus teachers, guidance counselors, cafeteria workers, chess club instructors, bosses, yearbook advisers, principals. On this special day that is all about you, do the proper and generous thing and make someone else’s day special by thanking them, in writing.
As you count and share your blessings, reflect for a moment on who you are and how far you have traveled to get here. You hail from small towns in remote places and high rises in megacities; you’ve spent endless hours on the family farm, helped your parents in the family restaurant, and volunteered at social service agencies trying to help families in dire straits. You are from public schools (mostly), parochial schools, and private schools. You are from every state in the United States and from 50 other countries. You are from Potomac, Scarsdale, Capetown, Fayetteville, Coral Gables, Waban, Singapore, Carmel, Guilford, Branford, New Haven, and too many other places to mention. You have come from everywhere and you bring with you your own stories. But now you are here. What are you supposed to do now, you might be asking yourself? Who are you to become?
Ultimately, you’re the only ones who are going to be able to answer these questions, but you are also going to have a lot of help along the way from the people you are going to meet over the next four years, including me. Let me start by telling you a story that speaks to this moment.
A few years ago, my family loaded the car and drove up to Maine. We were taking our daughter to her first sleep-away camp and figured we would turn the first part of our trip into a vacation. My wife booked a hotel for us in Portsmouth, New Hampshire, a beautiful, coastal town known for its Fourth of July fireworks. We planned to get there early so that we could see them, then continue on our way the next day.
After we checked into the hotel, we set out on foot and soon found ourselves at Strawbery Banke Museum, a 10-acre site that recounts over 300 years of American history. At Strawbery Banke, visitors stroll around painstakingly recreated gardens and houses and get to speak to costumed role players. As a historian of the United States who specializes in the African American experience, these kinds of places usually give me pause as they tend toward oversimplified narratives of this nation’s rich and complex past. Thankfully, and to its credit, Strawbery Banke did not hide from the challenges of its particular past. But this is not actually why I share this story.
I mention Strawbery Banke because, as fate would have it, I had come on a day when the museum was hosting a naturalization ceremony. On that day, the Fourth of July, the anniversary of this country’s declaration of independence, a few hundred people from around the world, from all different life circumstances, had gathered on that site to present their requisite paperwork, to declare their allegiance to this country, and to become legal citizens. The cumulative and completely unexpected significance of this moment caught me off guard, and when the magistrate declared, en masse, that the assembled were now citizens, tears rolled down my cheeks. Sure, my emotions were fueled by a romantic patriotism – a naturalization ceremony on July 4th at a living history museum that tells an uplifting story of a colonial past? I mean, really. But I was mainly moved by the over-arching narrative: So many strangers had come to this place – the United States, New Hampshire, Portsmouth, Strawbery Banke – they’d come to this place, believing in the possibilities afforded by full citizenship. They made a collective leap of faith that they would find, through citizenship, a place to realize their ambitions. For some, this meant access to certain jobs; for others, this meant uniting a family; for still others, this meant finding refuge. All, I am confident, believed that they were ready to make substantive contributions to their new community.
Now, today, I am looking out at you, strangers who have come to this place, believing in the possibility afforded by the full citizenship that was bestowed on you last night when you signed your registration forms. I will not claim to know all of your histories before this moment, but I do know that you are here, and I believe that you are here because you have some sort of vision of what possibilities will accrue to you through your relationship to Yale.
That is this day.
In four or five years, you will be receiving a diploma from this institution. When the president confers the degrees upon you, he will also admit you to the “rights and responsibilities” that are associated with being a member of the Yale alumni community. But why wait until that moment to talk about your responsibilities as a Yale citizen? Given that we are in the final months of a tendentious presidential campaign and given the local, national, and global events that are testing us to our core, I feel it important to talk about your responsibilities as citizens of this community at the moment of your becoming. I want, specifically, to talk about your responsibilities to each other.
I return to who you are.
You have come from everywhere and until yesterday, most of you were strangers to one another, but you are Yalies now; you are now part of a tradition that reaches back over three centuries. But this is a tradition that is also about change. For example, if you were to consider the entering Yale class from 75 years ago, you would learn that 25% of the class came from five prep schools, and within that group, almost half from Phillips Academy. Most undergraduates came from five states, the furthest away being Ohio. And when I say “most,” I mean this literally. Imagine, the total number of students from the rest of the country: Thirty-two. African-American students were an extreme rarity in that general era. In fact, there were none in that class. There was, however, one Filipino.* Every undergraduate, of course, was male.
The Yale to which you belong, the one that I hope you have already started to call your own, looks different in the most obvious ways. Yours is a more complex Yale, and it is one that presents you with challenges that your predecessors could not then have imagined. This complexity, however, does not free you from a responsibility to discover. It is our expectation, in fact, that you will embrace the challenge of so much difference.
Writing on what he called the “Encountered Other,” literary critic Derek Attridge tells us that when we meet a stranger the “demand for justice” requires that we recognize a fundamental humanity in that stranger. Attridge argues that if we meet that demand and respond to the “other person through openness,” we will ourselves change and grow.** It is important to realize that the stakes of these exchanges are high. At their best, they represent, as Attridge tells us, opportunities for new ways of seeing the world. But these exchanges are also filled with risk.
Venturing into new spaces and encountering the unknown means exposing yourself to new ideas and new ways of communicating. The words we use, the way we use them, the way we hear them – every action is thick with potential. As you take up and explore your own new citizenship of this place, consider the risks that generations have taken over time as they ventured toward a new place and either literally or figuratively learned to speak a new language. I will not claim to know the histories of those people who gathered on that Fourth of July a few years ago to become citizens, but I know they took risks to get to Strawbery Banke. You, too, have taken risks, and now that you are here, we hope that you will continue to do so by engaging the differences all around you.
Journey into uncertainty and meet with excitement and passion all that confounds you, angers you, challenges you, and enthralls you. Come to these moments with integrity and honesty, and, most of all, dare to listen to what you hear. I said earlier that the stakes are high. I believe this to be the case in large measure because we need each other to make this whole thing work. “We are,” as Gwendolyn Brooks writes, “we are each other’s harvest; we are each other’s business; we are each other’s magnitude and bond.” ***
Judge Learned Hand wrote that “a college may gather together men of a common tradition, or it may put its faith in learning.” **** Members of the Class of 2020, you are our newest Yale citizens and you come from many different traditions. You are on the verge of beginning an education unlike any you have had before. It will happen in the classrooms, to be sure, but it will also happen with every encounter you have, with every stranger you meet, and with every leap of faith you take in which you declare this place has something for you, and that you have something for this place.
This is what you will find as you enter Yale and as you lay claim to your status as citizen. You are at the threshold now, poised. I, for one, am eager to discover what you will find.
Dana Gioia, poet laureate of California, writes about this moment, this cusp, in his poem “Entrance.” I leave you with his words:
Whoever you are: step out of doors tonight,
Out of the room that lets you feel secure.
Infinity is open to your sight.
Whoever you are.
With eyes that have forgotten how to see
From viewing things already too well-known,
Lift up into the dark a huge, black tree
And put it in the heavens: tall, alone.
And you have made the world and all you see.
It ripens like the words still in your mouth.
And when at last you comprehend its truth,
Then close your eyes and gently set it free. *****
* Geoffrey Kabaservice, The Guardians: Kingman Brewster, His Circle, and the Rise of the Liberal Establishment (New York: Henry Holt and Company, 2004).
** Attridge, The Singularity of Literature (New York: Routledge, 2004).
*** Brooks, “Paul Robeson,” Family Pictures (Detroit: Broadside Press, 1970).
**** As quoted in Kabaservice, The Guardians.
***** Gioia, “Entrance,” Interrogations at Noon: Poems (Saint Paul: Graywolf Press, 2001).