A chilly and gray Tuesday morning did not deter the more than 1,200 Princeton University graduates from sporting leis, pausing for selfies and tossing their caps in the air as the Class of 2022 rejoiced.
Princeton University President Christopher L. Eisgruber was equally celebratory as he took the mic.
“You earned your degrees today in many ways and for many reasons, but not least because you persisted brilliantly throughout your time on this campus and away from it,” said Eisgruber during the outdoor ceremony at Princeton Stadium, which seats over 27,000.
“You persisted not only through a world-altering pandemic, but through problem sets, writing assignments, laboratories, midterms, finals, senior theses, dissertations, and the personal crises and doubts that are an inevitable part of college life, and indeed, of life more generally,” he said.
But Eisgruber used the celebration to also call on New Jersey and other states to find ways to help the unknown number of students who are not graduating from college this year because their plans were derailed by the pandemic.
“One way or another, we need to add back the chairs missing from graduation ceremonies around the country,” Eisgruber said.
The Ivy League university’s 275th Commencement, which was also live streamed, saw 1,236 undergrads receive bachelor’s degrees (including two students from previous classes) and 655 students receive graduate degrees. Within Princeton’s graduating class, about 18% are the first generation in their families to receive college degrees, a school official said.
Tuesday’s ceremony came a day after Dr. Anthony Fauci, the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, spoke at Princeton’s Class Day and reminded grads of the “indelible mark” left by the pandemic.
Eisgruber said in his commencement speech that he was aware some students left school during the pandemic and some high school students opted not to attend college at all. Although “the data is incomplete,” he noted that both problems appear to disproportionately impact people from disadvantaged backgrounds and those who attend community college.
The university president said he hopes policies are put in place in New Jersey and beyond to “help those who have left college.” He pointed to Gov. Phil Murphy’s proposed “Some College, No Degree” program as one possible solution.
The program would make it possible for more than 700,000 New Jerseyans who dropped out of college to get help finishing their degrees.
“I hope that the legislature will fund the proposal,” Eisgruber said.
Princeton was among a handful of New Jersey colleges to hold an in-person commencement in 2021. Last week, the school also held an in-person event for the Class of 2020 — which previously held its commencement virtually.
At Tuesday’s commencement, Valedictorian Natalia Orlovsky used her speech to talk about the impact of the pandemic that struck halfway through the Class of 2022′s sophomore year.
It meant virtual classes in different time zones and on several continents, she said.
“(Princeton) came unmoored from geography,” she said. “For some students, it re-formed at kitchen counters and childhood homes; for others, it took shape in quiet dorm rooms, or at odd hours of the night … but even outside of pandemic times, there is no such thing as a universal student experience.”
Orlovsky said at the moment the future looks uncertain and “honestly pretty bleak” — pointing to climate change, pressure on the protection of rights for marginalized communities, the rise of autocracy around the globe and threats to free press.
“At the same time, activists, journalists and artists are bravely working to dismantle oppressive systems, while scientists and engineers aim to improve public health and combat the climate crises,” said Orlovsky, who focused on molecular biology during her time at Princeton and is originally from Chadds Ford, Pennsylvania.
“In other words, there is space for hope, for action, and for change,” she said.
The commencement concluded a multi-day series of graduation events, which also included Teach for All co-founder and CEO Wendy Kopp speaking at the Baccalaureate ceremony on Sunday in the University Chapel.
At Tuesday’s commencement, Princeton awarded honorary degrees to civil rights attorney Fred David Gray, U.S. Ambassador to the Federal Republic of Germany Amy Gutman, attorney and healthcare leader Brent Henry, pioneering neuroscientist Eve Marder and founder of FedEx Corporation Frederick W. Smith.
While all honorary degree recipients drew applause, the crowd gave a standing ovation to Gray.
Gray represented civil rights icon Martin Luther King Jr., as well as Rosa Parks and Claudette Colvin when they refused to be relegated to the segregated section of the bus in Alabama.
“(Gray’s) legacy includes four landmark decisions by the U.S. Supreme Court, hundreds of desegregated schools, and generations of lawyers, activists, and citizens who have heeded his call to quote, ‘Finish the unfinished task of destroying discrimination and segregation wherever found,’” said Jill Dolan, dean of the College at Princeton University.
During the ceremony, the university also recognized the work of four New Jersey secondary school teachers: Deborah Cella of Glen Rock High School; Alicia Rodriguez of Kent Place School in Summit; Devin Ryan-Pullen of Burlington City High School; and Lee Snowden of University High School in Newark. Each teacher will receive $5,000, as well as $3,000 for their school library.
One family traveled nearly 2,000 miles from Albuquerque, New Mexico, to join in Princeton’s commencement ceremony. Preet Singh, 21 — the youngest in the family — and his parents arrived to their seats early. Preet said he was looking forward to seeing his older brother receive his degree.
“He was the first to graduate from college from my family and is a great inspiration for me,” said Singh.
Preet’s brother, 22-year-old Anmol Singh, is pursuing a career in molecular biology.
His father, Amrik Singh, looked out at the stadium as other proud parents filed in.
“We’re just so lucky to be here,” he said.
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Steven Rodas may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @stevenrodasnj.