Sen. Cory Booker stresses the power of small acts during Princeton’s Class Day
United States Sen. Cory Booker told Princeton seniors Monday, June 4, that they have the power to make an impact in the world through everyday acts of kindness, decency and love.
During his address at the Class Day ceremony on Cannon Green, Booker said one thing he’s learned in life is that “power has nothing to do with the degrees you have or the titles you hold.”
“To the great Class of 2018 … you are powerful,” said Booker, a Democrat from New Jersey. “Power is not in how physically strong you are. It is in how morally consistent you are. … Power does not come from your title, it comes from you telling your truth every single day in your smallest of actions. What you decide to do with the dollars you spend. How you notice the dignity of the person on the street. How you give one act of kindness more than you thought.”
Booker said the Class of 2018 already displayed this type of power by selecting honorary class members who included a TigerTransit campus shuttle driver, a former NJ Transit conductor of the Princeton “Dinky” train, and professors who inspired and mentored generations of students.
Booker encouraged students to continue to use their power after they leave Princeton, adding kindness and compassion are especially needed.
“If you show up every day, no matter what is on the news, no matter what someone in power said. If you show up and you give a little, care a little, help a little, heal a little, listen a little, love a little, every single day. If you don’t let the darkness of the world snuff out your light. If you don’t let the hatred of another [person] make you cynical and turn your back. If you live a life committed to being powerful on a daily basis … then you will make your ancestors proud because today you are your ancestors’ wildest dreams,” he told the graduating seniors.
“But for the dream to truly be real ... for the dream and hope of this country, that is in the balance in this moral moment, it’s going to take an awful lot of power,” Booker continued. “So my hope today is that you leave here and be powerful. Let this world feel you every day. Walk into every room, go to every place and embrace the world with your spirit and your truth. And if you do that, if you leave that way, if you strut like you are powerful, then I promise you that generations yet unborn will know of your light and your love.”
Booker's remarks received a standing ovation from the audience of students, family and friends. The Class Day ceremony is organized by the senior class and is one of Princeton’s oldest traditions. It’s an opportunity for seniors to reflect on their undergraduate days and celebrate achievements of their classmates.
Booker, who was mayor of Newark, New Jersey, before becoming a senator in 2013, was happy to speak to a home crowd.
“I have so much Jersey pride. If you cut me I bleed Jersey,” he joked. He then declared that after four years at Princeton, all of the seniors — no matter where in the world they call home — are now “officially products of New Jersey,” just like “Bruce, Bon Jovi and blueberries.”
Booker recalled growing up in Harrington Park, New Jersey, and how his parents stressed humility and gratitude. Even on the day of his swearing-in as a senator, Booker’s mom lectured him to keep his feet on the ground.
“On your highest moments in life, it’s so important to let gratitude be your gravity,” he said. “To let it keep you grounded and understand that whatever the accomplishment is, you are not here on your own.”
He shared two examples. The first: U.S. Rep. John Lewis of Georgia, one of the leaders of the Civil Rights Movement. In 1965, Lewis was among protesters beaten by state troopers in Selma, Alabama.
“[He] is a hero to me; a giant. And I’m sitting in his office and the man is just so humble. He is just so kind,” Booker said. “John Lewis lets me understand what the true definition of patriotism is. It’s not how loud you sing the national anthem or the flag pin you have on. ... He teaches that patriotism is love of this country. And you can’t love your country unless you love your country-men and women. He shows me that you can’t lead the people if you don’t love the people.”
Booker’s second example: a young lawyer in the 1960s who helped black families — including Booker’s parents — fight discriminatory housing practices in New Jersey. Decades later, Booker learned the lawyer’s work was inspired by seeing Lewis and the Selma protesters on the television news.
“[He understood] in that one small moment … to do nothing is to surrender your power. To do nothing is actually to contribute to the very injustices that surround you,” Booker said of the lawyer. “One decision by one person on one day ripples out into community. It’s a virtuous virus. It’s a cascade of love that we all have the power to do.”
Eisgruber’s remarks and student speeches
Other highlights from Class Day, often light-hearted moments, included remarks by Princeton President Christopher L. Eisgruber. He presented the Class of 2018 with the traditional key to Nassau Hall with the help of the Princeton Tiger, residential college mascots and Professor of Computer Science Brian Kernighan.
Eisgruber joked he got to know many seniors while literally running into them on his bike, as students walking by were busy looking down at their phones. So Eisgruber enlisted Kernighan to develop a safety device for distracted students: a bright orange helmet affixed with tiger ears and a tail.
“I charge you with taking good care of this helmet, and I will check that you have it with you at each of your major Reunions,” Eisgruber said to the class officers.
Class of 2018 President Brandon McGhee, a politics major from South Euclid, Ohio, encouraged classmates to embrace Princeton’s informal motto of being “in the nation’s service and the service of humanity.”
“Princeton has equipped us with the critical knowledge and resources to change the world and it is our responsibility to better our local and global communities,” McGhee said. “The most important lesson I have taken from my Princeton experience is that although it may be easy to get caught up in ourselves, we must recognize the value of each other.”
McGhee took a moment to remember Jacob Kaplan, who entered Princeton with the Class of 2018 and died last December from cancer. McGhee concluded his remarks with a brief rendition of the Bill Withers song “Lean on Me” while the audience clapped and swayed along.
Two senior speakers recalled the Class of 2018’s time at Princeton with humor and nostalgia.
Andrew Hartnett, a major in the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs from Cobleskill, New York, was inspired by his time as an Orange Key tour guide.
“A campus tour is like a Class Day speech in the sense that my job is to somehow generalize the Princeton experience. Of course, this is impossible because everyone’s experience of Princeton is different,” Hartnett said.
Joking about recent construction on campus — from the new Lewis Arts complex to the renovation of Firestone Library — Hartnett said the University’s great construction project was in fact the senior class.
“The biggest lesson Princeton taught us is that sometimes we’re wrong. Sometimes things we may have believed our whole lives can be upended when we encounter a new perspective,” he said. “The real world is full of people who like to tear things down, but the opportunities that Princeton gave us mean we have the responsibility to build them instead. I don’t know all of you, but if those I’ve met are an accurate sample, then the Class of 2018 is ready for the challenge.”
Catherine Sharp, a politics major from Chicago, encouraged classmates to keep taking risks, using the tools and resources Princeton has given them. “It’s through those risks that we’ve been able to learn about ourselves and grow as people.”
Sharp recalled the words of her first-year adviser Tim Vasen, a lecturer in theater and the Lewis Center for the Arts, who died after an accident in December 2015.
“Tim was an amazing adviser … because he knew how to really reach students,” she said. “In the first big meeting with all his new advisees, he told a room full of 18-year-olds … to ‘be promiscuous … academically’ and ‘cheat on our majors.’ He wanted us to push ourselves academically and explore all that Princeton had to offer: just to try new things.”
And, Sharp said, she did just that while at Princeton. She credited her experiences in and outside class with shaping her character, teaching her perseverance, encouraging her to stand up for her beliefs and giving her the confidence to persist in pursuit of her goals.
The ceremony also featured the presentation of awards to students for academic and athletic achievement, as well as for service.
A webcast of the Class Day ceremony will be available later online. Booker’s speech can be viewed on YouTube.
Graduation activities will continue with the University’s 271st Commencement scheduled for 11 a.m. Tuesday, June 5.