Baccalaurate speaker Wendy Kopp ’89: The path to happiness is to align our lives with our values
Princeton's Class of 2022 began celebrating three days of graduation events on Sunday, May 22, with the University's 275th Baccalaureate, a vibrant interfaith service in the University Chapel that offers each graduating class a chance to reflect on their time on campus and think ahead to life beyond FitzRandolph Gate.
In her Baccalaureate address, Class of 1989 Princeton alumna Wendy Kopp, founder of Teach For America and co-founder and CEO of Teach For All, invoked her journey from Princeton to a life of national and international service to encourage seniors to shape their futures around their deepest values.
More than 6,000 seniors, family and friends gathered for the Baccalaureate, one of the University’s oldest traditions, which included music, blessings and readings from a range of faith and philosophical traditions.
Seniors wearing gowns and mortar boards processed across campus beforehand behind banners representing each of the University’s six residential colleges. The seniors continued through the James Johnson Arch in East Pyne before entering the University Chapel, where sunlight filtered through the stained-glass windows, the organ filled the air with Aaron Copland’s soaring “Fanfare for the Common Man,” and large, colorful kites danced over the students’ heads.
The interfaith service began with Ludwig van Beethoven's "Ode to Joy," whose words the Rev. Alison Boden, dean of religious life and of the chapel, echoed in her invocation. "Joyful, joyful we are indeed," she said. "How joyful are any whose hearts are set on fire to work for the uplifting of humanity."
University President Christopher L. Eisgruber then led a moment of silence to recognize loved ones no longer with us. His remarks that followed continued the theme of service.
“All Princetonians take great pride in our shared mission to be ’in the nation’s service and the service of humanity,’” he said. “Now, as you prepare to make the transition from students to alumni, I hope Princeton’s mission will continue to shape your lives. At the heart of our community is the desire and responsibility to make the world a better place. As you enter your next stage of life as a Princetonian, I know you have left our campus better than when you arrived, and that you are poised to have the same impact on the world around us. For that, you have my deepest respect and gratitude.”
Four seniors selected for their outstanding contribution to religious life at Princeton then read in turn from their sacred texts.
Following the readings, President Eisgruber introduced Kopp, a renowned social entrepreneur and education advocate who upon graduating in 1989 founded Teach For America, a national corps of recent college graduates who commit two years to teach in urban and rural public schools, and become lifelong leaders for ensuring all children thrive. Since then, more than 60,000 Teach For America corps members have taught in 50 locations nationwide, from Hawaii to Detroit to New Jersey. Later, Kopp expanded her vision internationally and co-founded Teach For All, which now comprises 61 independent organizations developing collective leadership to ensure all children have the opportunity to fulfill their potential.
“She conceived of Teach For America as part of an academic exercise that all of you recently completed — her senior thesis,” Eisgruber told the assembled students. “She holds honorary doctorate degrees from 15 universities, including Princeton, and in 1993 she became the youngest person and the first woman to receive the University’s Woodrow Wilson Award, which is conferred annually upon an undergraduate alumnus or alumna whose achievements embody the call to duty in Wilson’s speech, ‘Princeton in the Nation’s Service.’"
He concluded: "From Teach For America to Teach For All, Wendy has exemplified the University’s mission of service to humanity throughout her extraordinary career.”
After greeting the students, their families, the faculty and staff, Kopp addressed the seniors directly. “I would be tempted to call you all an activist generation,” she said. “But looking out at you as soon-to-be graduates, it’s premature to define you. It’s the choices you’re about to make, and that you’ll make in the coming years, about what to do with your time and energy, that will define you.”
She continued: “In this era there’s more attention than ever, especially among your generation, on personal well-being and finding ‘balance.’ What I’ve seen is that the highest form of well-being is the exhilaration that comes from immersing ourselves in things that matter. The path to happiness is not balance per se, but rather congruence between the values we hold most dear and where we spend our energy.”
Kopp told the seniors that Teach For America was born out of a “deep funk” in her final year at Princeton, when she was "searching and searching" for her next step. “I knew that by nature I was going to work relentlessly at whatever I did, and I just really wanted to make sure that all that work mattered,” she said.
Deeply aware of the gifts that her education had given her, she thought of pouring her hard work into public schools, but she wasn’t certified to teach. “One day, in November of my senior year, this led to an inspiration,” she said. “Why weren’t we being recruited to teach as aggressively as we were being recruited to work in banks? I had a deep sense that I was not alone — that thousands of other graduating seniors of all different backgrounds and all different majors were also searching for meaningful post-graduation pursuits. Wouldn’t teaching be the one that most called on our leadership and gave us the most immediate path to impact? I couldn’t stop thinking about the power of this idea — for the sake of children and young people who need every additional committed teacher, and for our country, which would benefit from leaders shaped by experience working in urban and rural communities.”
That inspiration led her to the idea for Teach For America, which grew from a thesis into a calling and then a career.
“For your generation that is more aware of and passionate about tackling injustice than any before, my hope is that you will recognize that your time is your biggest asset, and that driven by your values and the purpose of shaping a better future, you will be intentional and conscious about where you put your energy,” she said.
Kopp urged the seniors to choose an issue close to their hearts and then spend a lifetime diving deeper and deeper into it. “There’s an instinct among ambitious and driven people like ourselves to manage our career paths through a constant search for more and better,” she said. “Sometimes, more and better comes not from moving up and on, but from going deep. I hope you too will have the fulfillment that comes from the pursuit of deep impact rather than the pursuit of impressive resumes.”
She added: “Don’t wait to consider these questions. Over these decades, I’ve seen that our society’s injustices are solvable, but they are also massive and complex, and it takes a lot of time to make a meaningful impact in the face of them — so the path of no regrets is to start early.”
Kopp concluded her remarks by saying, “You have worked so hard to earn these degrees. Now it’s time to celebrate — and then to put them to work. I’m excited for you, on this eve of your graduation. Your choices will tell us a lot about the trajectory of our country and our world, and for all of our sakes, I wish you the very best of luck.”
The Baccalaureate service is available for viewing online, along with the full text of Kopp's address. End-of-the-year activities will continue with Class Day for seniors and the Hooding ceremony for advanced-degree candidates on Monday, May 23, and Commencement on Tuesday, May 24.