Community and Responsibility: Graduation Address 2017

Speech by Pericles Lewis, President, Yale-NUS College
Yale-NUS College Graduation Ceremony 2017
29 May 2017 at University Cultural Centre, National University of Singapore

Dr Tony Tan Keng Yam, NUS Chancellor and President of the Republic of Singapore;

Mr Ong Ye Kung, Minister for Education (Higher Education & Skills) and Second Minister for Defence,

NUS Pro-Chancellor Mr Po’ad Mattar;

Chairpersons and Members of the NUS Board of Trustees, Yale Corporation

and Yale-NUS Governing Board;

Graduands, Parents and Friends,

Good afternoon. I want to begin by welcoming all the parents, relatives, and friends of our graduates to this celebratory occasion. To you parents especially, I want to say that I can imagine the pride and pleasure that you are experiencing, and the many memories that such an occasion conjures up.

And I also know that what you would like to do right now is to join those of us on the stage in offering warm congratulations to the Yale-NUS College Class of 2017.

And now I would like to ask the class of 2017 in turn to reflect for one moment on how you came to reach this milestone.

During that moment of reflection…

During that moment of reflection, one of the things that may have occurred to you is that there are many people here today – your parents, siblings, relatives, and friends – whose support and encouragement made your achievements here possible.  I bet you’d like to rise and show them your appreciation.

I vividly remember the freshman assembly of July 4, 2013 and the excitement of witnessing the first day of a new college after four years of planning. On that occasion, I quoted Walt Whitman’s poem “A Passage to India”:

Sail forth! steer for the deep waters only!
Reckless, O soul, exploring, I with thee, and thou with me;
For we are bound where mariner has not yet dared to go,
And we will risk the ship, ourselves and all.

We did indeed all take a risk together when we started out on this journey. Now, nearly four years later, most of the class of 2017 is graduating—some will graduate next year. Some of you will have noticed over the past four years that I have often compared our involvement in Yale-NUS College to a sea voyage. I have been trying to think of the right nautical metaphor for this current stage of our travels together. You could say that we have steered the ship of Yale-NUS College into harbour, but in fact the ship is in fact fully afloat and headed out on a journey whose final destination we still cannot foresee. In a sense, we are like those visitors who spend some time on board the ship just before it heads out on an oceanic voyage, and we will now all row our hundred and twenty little boats back to shore before setting out on other journeys of our own to new destinations—while Yale-NUS will sail onwards. But this underestimates the fact that we will all remain part of the broader Yale-NUS community.

This conundrum led me to think of the statesman and philosopher Edmund Burke’s metaphor for society. Burke writes that “To be attached to the subdivision, to love the little platoon we belong to in society, is the first principle (the germ as it were) of public affections. It is the first link in the series by which we proceed towards a love to our country, and to mankind.” To offer a naval version of this image, the class of 2017 is like a flotilla of small boats—canoes, kayaks, skiffs, dinghies, perhaps the occasional jetski or windsurfer. And while we will continue our journeys separately, we will maintain our links to the mothership that is the College.

Yesterday, at Class Day, I shared with the graduands some of my memories of these past four years. Today, I would like to reflect on what we have accomplished together in this time. You and your families should be very proud of the individual accomplishments of the members of the Class of 2017—you have conducted original research, won fellowships, scholarships, and prizes, and found jobs that will give you a good start in life after college. Many of you have studied abroad, and you have learned languages, techniques, ideas, and methods from a range of disciplines.

But I am most proud of what you have done collectively. You have shaped a community. I think we all remember the sense of collective effervescence in the early days of the college when we were creating not only the College itself but all the clubs and groups, teams and publications, and little societies that make up the broader society of Yale-NUS. The distinctive thing about any lasting community is that, even though it can often be traced to a founding moment, it endures beyond the departure of its founders. Burke also wrote of society that it is “a partnership not only between those who are living, but between those who are living, those who are dead, and those who are to be born.” In a less grand way, we could say that the College is a partnership between those who are currently studying here, those who have graduated, and those who are yet to be admitted. Although you are graduating, you will remain broadly part of the Yale-NUS community, and we will all gather again at reunions and more informal events. The college will grow and change without us. We will take some part of Yale-NUS with us, but when we return we will find it changed, and that is the nature of a community. It evolves as its members grow, change, and depart—and as new members join. Fortunately this community also remains alive as a source of strength for all of us in the future.

Another poem I have often quoted to you is Tennyson’s “Ulysses” about an aging group of warriors who set out to sea one more time. As Tennyson writes,

all experience is an arch wherethrough
Gleams that untravelled world, whose margin fades
For ever and for ever when [we] move.

You are all still young, but you are entering a new stage of life, and I hope that you will take your experiences at Yale-NUS with you wherever you go.

Mr. Chancellor, in a few moments I will ask you to admit the graduands here assembled to all the rights and responsibilities of the degrees that they have earned. To the graduating class, I would like to explain that we emphasise the rights and responsibilities in a tradition that comes to us from one of our parent institutions, Yale University. Other colleges tend to refer to the “rights and privileges” of the degree. We refer instead to responsibilities. When we were preparing the curriculum for Yale-NUS, we asked “what must a young person learn in order to lead a responsible life in this century?”

We believe that when you graduate you remain a member of the Yale-NUS community. As such, and as a graduate, you will have certain rights, especially recognition of your academic achievement by employers and graduate programs, but at least as important, you will have responsibilities. We have all been privileged to be the beneficiaries of the generous support of the Government of Singapore, and of parents, families, and benefactors. Although we have had to work together to build this community, we have also reaped at least as much as we have sown. I have spoken since our first days together about the ethos of service that we have sought to inculcate in our students, and I am proud to see how important a part service has played in your student organisations and your life plans. You have long and eventful lives ahead of you; I do not know what causes and communities you will serve, but I hope you will associate your days at Yale-NUS with the responsibility to be of service and that you will bring the distinctive ethos of our community along with you as you join new communities and take on new responsibilities in your future life. For now, congratulations on your accomplishments to date, and I hope you will always feel that you have a safe harbour here at Yale-NUS College.