Actor Sam Waterston to seniors on Class Day 2024: ‘It's your turn.'

The Class of 2024 celebrated Class Day on Monday, May 27 on Cannon Green.

At Princeton’s Class Day ceremony Monday, May 27, actor Sam Waterston invoked the wisdom of Shakespeare, Montaigne and Abraham Lincoln to capture the joy and promise of this singular moment for seniors: "It’s your turn. That's why it's called Commencement.” he said. “This is the prime time for action, for seizing the day, time to be out in the world and getting things done.”

In his Class Day remarks, Waterston candidly assured the seniors that the last thing he was going to do was tell them how to think and what to do. “It’s your turn,” he repeated.

It's hard to look at Waterston's bushy eyebrows and hear his charming, gravelly voice and not think of the signature musical notes "dun-dun!" that punctuate the change of each scene in "Law & Order." Waterston played district attorney Jack McCoy for an astonishing 400 episodes before leaving the show in February.

Seniors gather for the ceremony. This year's class jackets were designed by Class of 2024 member Genie Choi.

Stepping away from that role was hard, Waterston said, but it also opened a tremendous amount of head space. And that turned out to be a gift to himself. Waterson said it reminded him of his favorite essayist, Michel de Montaigne — who quit his role as adviser to the king in the French court 400 years ago and freed his mind to invent the essay.

And today, Waterston said, "people still read those essays to find out what it is to be a stand-up guy, an honest, fun, one-of-a-kind straight-shooter, and a friend — all because he stopped.”

Waterston, who meditates twice a day, urged the seniors to take a moment to stop and clear their own heads to make room for tackling big questions in their lives beyond the University. "If you’re like every generation before you, you’ll keep the ball rolling, but, because the future hasn’t been written, the possibility is there that you will be the ones who finally get the answer right. That’s what the rest of us are rooting for .... That’s why we’re all so glad you’re here."

Class Day program

The Class Day tradition dates back to before the Civil War. Fully organized by the seniors, the ceremony includes awards, reminiscences and the presentation of a symbolic key to the campus by the University President.

Before the program began, seniors took their seats on Cannon Green behind Nassau Hall, laughing with friends and smiling to family members who jumped up to snap photos. Music booming from speakers on either side of the stage added to the festive spirit.

The annual Class Day event is a traditionally lighthearted ceremony organized by seniors to recognize the achievements of their class.

Preceding Waterson's remarks, Princeton President Christopher L. Eisgruber addressed the graduating students and their families and guests by noting that the tradition of Class Day dates from before the Civil War — and has always been organized by the seniors themselves.

He then announced the handing over of the “metaphorical” keys to the University to the leaders of the senior class, another Class Day tradition. With a nod to the humor-filled ceremony, slides on either side of the stage showed the Princeton tiger mascot slyly swiping the keys with its giant paw — but then sheepishly returning them a moment later

On a more serious note, Eisgruber closed with a personal message to the graduating seniors. “I turn over the keys to you this year with special confidence,” he said, noting that "your 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."

Class president Sydney Johnson, who spoke after Eisgruber, encouraged her classmates to hold close the present moment.

"Too often, blinded by our daily stressors, we forget that each day and every interaction is a privilege," she said. "Today, I invite you to ground yourself by letting someone know how grateful you are to have shared space with them."

Later, in life beyond FitzRandolph Gate, she said, “I hope you endeavor to live with zero regrets, push yourself when you are too comfortable, and follow the path best suited for your own aspirations.

Johnson received both the W. Sanderson Detwiler 1903 Prize and the Walter E. Hope Class of 1901 Medal during the annual Class Day presentation of awards to seniors for leadership and service.

President Eisgruber at the podium

President Christopher L. Eisgruber welcomes graduating seniors and their guests.

She warned her classmates against complacency. “Wherever life leads you, know that graduating from a university like this one comes with the inevitable responsibility of enacting change in various spheres and on various levels. I hope you venture forward in true service of humanity and progress, and reject the trend of solely instituting change when it is convenient and comfortable. Comfort is temporary, but taking part in lasting change ensures a never-ending impact. Leaning into discomfort pushes you toward living a life with no regrets.”

Student speakers Sierra Stern and Rohit Narayanan spoke with equal parts humor and inspiration to capture memories about the Class of 2024 and the unique bond they share.

Stern poked fun at herself that first year when everyone was learning remotely and she found herself in awe scrolling through the Class of 2024 Facebook page "with the fervor of a woman in her 50s.”

“One of you actually discovered a planet,” she noticed, “which is like — you didn’t have to do all that."

Narayanan, with tongue firmly in cheek, offered that living through the pandemic had built a remarkable skill set sure to come in handy in the real world, including one skill related to the University's COVID PCR sampling. "If you’re facing pressure at work, remember that you once had to generate enough saliva to fill a plastic tube two times a week."

Class Day also featured the naming of four honorary class members, in addition to Waterston: Mia Gonzalez Guerrero, a Campus Dining worker; Neena Simpson, orientation program coordinator in the Office of the Dean of Undergraduate Students; Claire Gmachl, the Eugene Higgins Professor of Electrical Engineering and head of Whitman College; and James Vreeland, professor of politics and international affairs.

A captioned video of the ceremony is available online. Graduation activities will continue with the University’s 277th Commencement scheduled for 10 a.m. Tuesday, May 28.

A class officer hugs Waterston after presenting him with his class jacket

Lauren Fahlberg, class social chair, exchanges a hug with Waterston after the class officers gave him a class jacket, marking his induction as an honorary member of the Class of 2024.

Commencement 2024