Class of 2017, “Know Your Power”

The Class of 2017’s big day in words and photos; plus Real Life 101 from humor writer Susanna Wolff ’10.

Keynote speaker Sheena Wright ’90,LAW ’94 addresses the graduating Class of 2017.

The sun shone on Class Day 2017, with 1,172 seniors joining the ranks of College alumni. Keynote speaker Sheena Wright ’90, LAW ’94, president and CEO of the United Way of New York City, delivered a speech that doubled as a call to action and rallied the graduates to the challenges ahead.

“The first thing you should expect is that the world will change dramatically and unexpectedly,” said Wright. “I think you — Class of 2017 — probably know that more than most …

“The question will be: As Columbia graduates, will you be drivers of that change, or will you merely be impacted by it?”

A graduating Columbia senior raises their arms in celebration.

The ceremony, held on May 16, also included remarks from Dean James J. Valentini, senior class president Jordana Narin ’17 and valedictorian Michael Abolafia ’17, among others. It began with the 14th annual Alumni Parade of Classes, sponsored by the Columbia College Alumni Association, which featured alumni marchers from almost every class from the Class of 1951 through the Class of 2016.

Wright took the stage early in the program. Born and raised in the South Bronx, she distinguished herself at the College in athletics as well as in social justice and cultural affairs. Wright was president of Delta Sigma Theta, headed the Cultural Affairs Committee of the Black Students Organization and co-founded the Pan-African House, a special interest housing community devoted to raising awareness of diversity. She took the helm at the United Way of New York City, a nonprofit committed to helping low-income New Yorkers, in 2012. She is the first woman to lead the organization in its nearly 80-year history.

In her speech, Wright encouraged the graduates to be openminded and curious, and advised: “Know your power and use it well. You will walk into situations where you are the most junior person in the room, but your lack of experience does not denote a lack of power.”

Citing statistics on poverty, climate change and income inequality, she said, “There are unbelievable challenges facing our city and world. We need you, Columbia graduates, to not only think of your personal success but to take on the responsibility of solving the problems that are waiting for us.

“You have a duty to drive change in the world with commitment and passion.”

The University-wide Commencement took place the following day. There, Eric H. Holder Jr. ’73, LAW ’76 and Dr. Allen I. Hyman ’55 were among the eight people receiving honorary degrees, and two other College alumni were among the 10 recipients of Alumni Medals for distinguished service of 10 or more years to Columbia: Stephen M. Kane ’80, LAW ’83 and Sherri Pancer Wolf ’90. President Lee C. Bollinger also gave his annual address.

Echoing themes of Wright’s speech, Bollinger underscored “the pervasive sense that society is at an historic juncture,” adding “the way you think, and speak, and engage those who will be your partners in charting the future will count for everything.”

Elsewhere during graduation week, on May 15, Kai-Fu Lee ’83, president of Google China, delivered the keynote address for Columbia Engineering. He focused his speech on artificial intelligence, predicting its influence will be “on the scale of the Industrial Revolution.”

On a hopeful note, he said, “Despite what we’ve seen in some science fiction movies, no AI program — today or that we will see in our lifetime — will love” and that’s “what makes us human.”