At Princeton’s Class Day ceremony Monday, June 3, comedienne and author Ellie Kemper, a 2002 Princeton alumna, urged seniors to help one another, nurture friendships and resist the pressure to “have the best life ever.”
Remembering her own frustration and setbacks as she struggled to make it in the world of improv comedy as a newly minted graduate in New York City, Kemper encouraged the Class of 2019 to embrace obstacles. “Things never go quite according to your plan,” she said, invoking the adage: “Want to make God laugh? Tell him your plans.”
She said: “Don’t be afraid to change your course. … Life is going to throw you a curveball.”
Kemper, the perennially sunny star of the comedy series “Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt,” brought her own brand of sunshine to the festive day. Her breakout television role was as Erin Hannon on the American version of “The Office.” She has appeared in the films “Bridesmaids,” “21 Jump Street” and “Laggies.”
While at Princeton, Kemper, an English major, was a writer and actor with Triangle Club and a member of the comedy improv group Quipfire! and Theatre Intime.
The annual Class Day event is a lighthearted ceremony organized by seniors to recognize the achievements of their class. Before the program began, seniors and family members filled Cannon Green behind Nassau Hall, snapping selfies, waving to friends and relatives, and watching a video of highlights of their undergraduate years.
Kemper kicked off her address by celebrating 50 years of coeducation at Princeton. In October 2018, she delivered the closing keynote at the “She Roars” alumni conference in tribute to the history of women at the University.
Kemper told the seniors that when she was at her lowest in the early days of her career, she emailed a former Princeton friend and television actor Tommy Dewey, a 2001 alumnus. The title of the email, she said, was “Despair.”
“Tommy wrote back: ‘Tell people things aren’t going gangbusters yet … but all great jobs are really hard to get. Chin up, kid.’” Kemper said this email exchange illustrates the importance of friendship over the endgame of success.
“[M]ore important than any career accomplishment is your ability and inclination to help one another,” she said. “In the age of Instagram, you might see your classmates as your rivals. … You might feel pressured to have the best life ever.”
But success means nothing without friendship, she said. “Nurture the friendships that you've made here because they will sustain you for a lifetime.” Then, with a sparkle in her eye and her signature wink, she told the audience that her husband — who was sitting in the audience with their 2-year-old son — “is always telling me I’m his best friend, and I think, 'Oh, my best friend went to Princeton.’”
She concluded, “Trying to be a kind, thoughtful, hardworking person will ultimately make you a much happier person.” Challenging the seniors, she said: “Class of 2019, go be nice to one another and please repair the world that all the old people here and I have destroyed. I’m serious!”
Preceding Kemper’s speech, Princeton President Christopher L. Eisgruber captured the spirit of Class Day. First he acknowledged Baccalaureate speaker 1968 graduate alumnus George Will, who addressed the graduating class at the University Chapel on June 2.
Eisgruber said Will spoke about the “weakening of the adult culture of confident, measured and generous judgments about people and events,” and about the crisis facing a “nation [that] is awash in expressions of contempt and disdain.” Looking out over the crowd, Eisgruber said: “I hope, as does he, that your great class will distinguish itself by accepting the responsibility to engage civilly and respectfully even with people whose opinions are very different from your own.”
Then, with a broad smile, Eisgruber made much of one of the most curious — and, most of the time, beloved — creatures that populate the Princeton campus: black squirrels.
Riffing from the title of Kemper’s collection of personal essays, “Squirrel Days,” published last year, Eisgruber started a chain of tongue-in-cheek squirrel-themed jokes, beginning with calling Kemper’s memoir “a detailed study of human-squirrel relationships that established [her] as one of this country’s leading squirrelologists.”
His fictional facts and figures — illustrated with slides on big screens flanking the stage — included an imaginary “Certificate in Applied and Computational Squirrelology.”
In giving the class the honorary keys to the University, Eisgruber offered the class a giant toy squirrel. “I charge you to take good care of this gift that will remind you always of ‘Your Squirrel Days’ on this campus. I hope that you will return often, and I hereby pronounce you 'My Squirrel Class.' Congratulations!” he said.
Class president Chris Umanzor, of Arlington, Virginia, opened his remarks by honoring the friendship and support of his fellow classmates, whom he called “truly remarkable human beings. … [T]his genuine amity — this eagerness to support us, to support one another — is something that makes us truly special.”
Umanzor, who received the W. Sanderson Detwiler 1903 Prize, reflected on the class’s determination to ask hard questions — of themselves and of the greater University community. “To borrow and modify a very famous quote — we ask these questions, not because they are easy, but because they are hard, and because otherwise they may never have been asked,” he said.
He lauded his classmates’ advocacy around diversity and inclusion initiatives.
“We are curious and capable and constructive,” he said. “We are a resilient, diverse group of students that appreciates the constructions of spaces aimed at ensuring everyone — irrespective of their background — can succeed. We have built communities and started dialogues that our successors will continue for years to come.”
Student speakers Chris Kellogg-Peeler and Maya Aronoff recalled the Class of 2019’s journey with equal parts humor and thoughtfulness.
With a turn of the affectionate phrase that Princetonians use to capture their love of the University, Kellogg-Peeler, of Cambridge, Massachusetts, said: “Princeton really is ‘the best damn place of all.’" Recalling a comment he had made to a friend during a recent visit, Kellogg-Peeler said “Around here, we bleed orange.”
He joked about all the things he and his classmates would have to “let go of” as they leave Princeton — from “being exposed to mind-blowing ideas on a day-to-day basis” to “spending the day talking with friends and saving all our work for Sunday. … There’s so much that we are going to miss about Princeton. But, we’ll be back for Reunions!”
Aronoff, of Mason, Michigan, asked: “Why did we choose to start down this path? For some of us maybe it was because Princeton is the #1 school in the nation!” The crowd whooped and applauded.
She said she knew she wanted to apply to Princeton even before she knew anything about the school’s rankings: her parents had met at the University. Pointing to them in the crowd, she said with a proud smile: “They got married right after they graduated. …They’re over there, still happily married and they’re the most selfless, hardworking, kind, passionate people in the whole world.” Then her dad called out, “We love you, Maya!”
Aronoff challenged her classmates to serve humanity, each in their own way: “When I look out at all of you, I feel hopeful. … I know that in this crowd there are good people, kind people and brave people, who not only have the creativity to imagine a better world but the willpower to make that world happen.”
Class Day also featured the presentation of awards to seniors for community service, athletics and leadership, as well as the naming of honorary class members.
A webcast of the Class Day ceremony will be available later online. Graduation activities will continue with the University’s 272nd Commencement scheduled for 11 a.m. Tuesday.