At Princeton’s Class Day ceremony Monday, May 29, U.S. Rep. Terri Sewell ’86 issued a joyful, unequivocal directive to seniors to embrace the infinite ways service can help make a difference — in their own backyard and across the nation. She offered three wishes for them: “Bloom where you are planted, flourish where you are found, and spread seeds of service wherever you go.”
In her remarks, Sewell characterized the University’s informal motto — “In the nation’s service and the service of humanity” — as both a blueprint and a mandate for Princeton graduates: “Because, Class of 2023, our nation needs you. We need your humanity. We need your compassion. We need your brilliance. We need you to serve.”
Sewell was born the same year as the Civil Rights marches from her hometown of Selma, Alabama, to Montgomery. She invited the seniors to begin to think about service the way she did: In her own backyard. “Growing up in Selma, I was reminded every day of the powerful change that ordinary people can ignite.” The daughter of a high school basketball coach and a school librarian, Sewell would later become the first Black councilwoman in Selma.
Her first wish for the students — “Bloom where you are planted” — was her mother’s adage, centered on the anchor of home. But after her own graduation, Sewell did not return home right away. She earned a master’s in politics from the University of Oxford and a law degree from Harvard University, and worked for several years at a large law firm in New York. Then her father had a debilitating stroke; Sewell moved home to help care for him.
There, she realized how much her hometown might benefit from her public service. In 2007, after hearing then-Senator Barack Obama — her law school classmate — speak at her church during his presidential bid, she felt motivated to reach higher. Sewell was elected to represent Alabama’s 7th Congressional District in 2010, the first Black woman to serve in the Alabama Congressional delegation.
Before the program began, seniors took their seats on Cannon Green behind Nassau Hall, jumping up to take selfies with friends and waving to family members across the lawn. They were serenaded by recordings of songs performed by Princeton’s many a cappella groups. The annual Class Day event is a traditionally lighthearted ceremony organized by seniors to recognize the achievements of their class. Sewell, who was chosen by the graduating class to be their Class Day speaker, echoed their excitement, reminiscing about her own Commencement weekend steeped in venerable traditions. “As you all know, our Princeton graduation is not just an event. It is a full-blown experience!” The audience whooped in agreement.
Sewell, who serves as a University trustee, expressed her deep affection for her alma mater, sharing her second wish for graduates: “Flourish where you are found.”
“Selma formed me, but Princeton found me,” she said. She recalled the kindness of a number of Princetonians — each at first a stranger who “found” her, including Michelle Obama, Class of 1985 (then Michelle Robinson, with whom she was paired as a mentor).
President William Bowen gave Sewell his card on move-in day with the invitation to come see him if she ever needed anything. Sewell did — when she got her first “B,” thinking that she was doomed to fail. She left with Bowen’s stolid assurance she had nothing to worry about, that she would likely get more B’s and that was OK.
With her third wish — “Spread seeds of service wherever you go” — she encouraged the seniors to use their personal history to determine what their “season of service” might look like after leaving Princeton. “[You], Class of 2023, are graduating some 20 years after 9/11. You have endured unprecedented times, a global pandemic, an insurrection, climate crisis, a racial reckoning,” she said. “You have seen #MeToo go from hashtag to a movement — and social media go from connective to divisive.”
She continued: “You cannot, you must not, leave this place and not serve. How you serve is up to you, but that you serve, it’s a mandate. Hear me loud and clear.”
Preceding Sewell’s speech, Princeton President Christopher L. Eisgruber opened his remarks by noting that Class Day has been celebrated at least since before the Civil War. He then announced the handing over of the “metaphorical” keys to the University to the leaders of the senior class, another Class Day tradition. A comical video played on giant screens showing the Tiger mascot stealing the keys from him. Eisgruber said with a wide grin, “[W]e treat this metaphor very literally.”
He closed with his own heartfelt congratulations. “[Y]our class has proven itself capable of great things by maintaining high levels of achievement during one of the most difficult periods that our University, our nation, and our world have ever faced,” he said. The audience burst into applause.
Class president Taryn Sebba lauded her classmates for their resilience and accomplishments, calling the song “Mr. Brightside” the soundtrack of their time at Princeton. “[Our] class is unified by audacious optimism, persistent hope, unwavering support for one another, and a tendency to always look at the bright side,” she said.
She urged her classmates to hold on to that unity, along with their open hearts and open minds. “When reflecting on our time at Princeton, we hopefully won’t remember the problem sets or late nights, but rather, the people. Not only do you all always look at the bright side, but you are the bright side of Princeton.”
Student speakers Payton Croskey and Gavin LaPlace reminisced about the Class of 2023 with a splash of humor and a dash of nostalgia.
Riffing on the pandemic euphemism “unprecedented times” and Princeton’s passion for acronyms, Croskey said the Class of 2023 will forever be known as “the first class to experience Princeton PC (Pre-Covid), DC (During Covid) and WTDCSWGENNHB (We’re tired of dealing with Covid so we’re gonna establish a new normal and hope for the best),” eliciting a roar of laughter from the audience.
With a nod to the student awards handed out on Class Day, Croskey devised her own faux awards — concluding with Most Likely to Bleed Orange and Secretly Enjoy Princeton’s Silly Little Traditions Even Though Their Time Here Has Been Anything But Normal. “And that award goes to us,” she said, opening her arms wide, “the ‘Unprecedented’ Class of 2023, who created laughter and joy and beauty and hope out of these strange and unusual times.”
LaPlace assured the audience that ChatGPT was unable to write his remarks. No worries: He had no trouble skewering everything from the “Zoomiverse” to that magnum opus of the Princeton experience: the senior thesis. “What an incredible opportunity to write so much, and say so little,” LaPlace archly observed, as his classmates broke into applause.
Deftly swerving to the sentimental wish that their time together could have lasted longer, LaPlace lobbed: “I guess that's why everyone keeps coming back for Reunions, and I have no doubt we'll be loudly and proudly P-rading and locomotiving with the best of them soon enough.”
Class Day also featured the presentation of awards to seniors for community service, athletics and leadership, as well as the naming of 12 honorary class members — a bumper crop of faculty and staff members who the class wanted to recognize in light of so many who went out of their way to help them stay connected through the pandemic.
A captioned video of the ceremony is available online. Graduation activities will continue with the University’s 275th Commencement scheduled for 10 a.m. Tuesday, May 30.