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Trevor Noah discusses comedy and community at Class Day 2021

<h5>Trevor Noah speaks at the 2021 virtual Class Day ceremony.</h5>
<h6>Naomi Hess &nbsp;/ The Daily Princetonian</h6>
Trevor Noah speaks at the 2021 virtual Class Day ceremony.
Naomi Hess  / The Daily Princetonian

In his Class Day speech on Saturday, May 15, comedian and “The Daily Show” host Trevor Noah emphasized how his sense of home and belonging comes from the people surrounding him.

“Home for me is where my people are, and what I’ve come to learn is my people can be anywhere,” he said.

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“If you can find a group of people who you relate to, who make you aspire to be more, who challenge you, who help you enjoy life and help you through the tough times as well, then I think you’ll find a sense of belonging no matter where you are,” he continued.

Noah spoke in conversation with Class Day co-chairs Michael Wang ’21, Morgan Smith ’21, and Kamya Yadav ’21, who asked him questions that were pre-submitted by members of the senior class.

When asked about the role of comedy in popular culture, Noah said comedy should make people feel better. 

“When you come to my show, when you watch my TV show, whatever you do, I want you to leave feeling a little bit better than when you came in,” he said.

That is not the only role of comedy, however. Noah explained that comedy is also about “speaking truth.”

“Comedy for me has always been a place where we can talk about the uncomfortable things. We can talk about racism while laughing with people. We can talk about misogyny while laughing with people,” he said.

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“We can talk about some of the more uncomfortable things in society and hopefully poke holes and reveal some of the light that comes through those holes while using comedy to lessen the burden that the audience is feeling,” he continued.

Noah addressed a question about how travel has influenced his perspective on life.

“Travel for me is a humbling experience if you do it, because it will show you that the world is bigger than your world. It will also show you that every idea you have that you accept as dogma is, in fact, just an idea,” he said.

“That’s why I truly enjoy it, because I think it gives you a sense of understanding that everybody is generally coming from a perspective in the world that they think is correct because they’ve learned it, when in fact, there is no one correct way to do anything,” he continued.

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Noah also expressed his hopes and fears for the year ahead of us. 

“My greatest hope is that we will use this time, which is arguably one of the worst periods the world has been in in recent history, to try and transform how we do things,” he said.

He provided an example of how the pandemic has proven that people may not need to work in the office five days a week, because “we’ve realized that they don’t need to be.”

However, Noah worries that the pandemic “will merely become a blip on the radar” for many people around the world, especially in the United States.

“My fear is that instead of looking at this as a moment in time when humanity itself was tested and people were forced to think together and move together and be together, it will actually be seen as just another point of fragmentation where people can go off in their different directions and believe whatever they want to believe,” he said.

Earlier in the ceremony, President Christopher L. Eisgruber ’83 used the “new Zoom teleport object feature” to award virtual keys to the University to the class of 2021.

“I hand over the keys with special confidence today, because the great class of 2021 has conducted itself brilliantly during this very difficult year,” he said. “Thank you for the persistence and the determination that you have shown, and for enabling us to run this university safely in the most difficult of circumstances.”

Class president Emma Parish ’21 said that if she had to select one word to define the class of 2021, she would choose “resilience.” 

“The past year has been filled with unanticipated and unprecedented challenges. Our class has remained strong, navigating the pandemic with a dedication to keeping our classmates and our community safe,” she said.

“Four years ago, we entered FitzRandolph Gate as a class. We exit the gate metaphorically, but more united and resilient than ever,” she concluded.

Ed Elson ’21 and Morgan Carmen ’21 offered light-hearted reflections on their time at the University during their speeches as class heralds.

Elson said he was excited for the future accomplishments of the members of the graduating class, but even more excited for their future co-workers.

“In short time, they will get to share a desk with an orange-clad public policy major who, in between humming ‘Old Nassau’ on the way to the bathroom, lets the entire office know how they determined political biases in U.S. tariffs on grain production through a quantitative analysis in their senior year of college,” he said.

“To anyone who might soon receive that immense privilege, I say to you, on behalf of all of us at Princeton University, you’re welcome,” he said.

Elson also described the impact of the social contract on his relationship with University administration.

“We each had to make adjustments to our academic lives in accordance with the University’s social contract, which was hard but necessary,” he said. “Although I cannot speak for all students, I found that my relationship with this year’s administration was one characterized by trust and understanding. They didn’t trust me, and I didn’t understand them.”

Later, Carmen described some of the things she thought she would learn at the University, but did not, like how to remember her classmates’ names.

“Some of you will forever be known to me as the person who clearly cut me in line at the frosh ice cream social,” she said. “I don’t remember your name, but boy oh boy, do I remember your face, and I will not vote for you when you inevitably run for president.”

Carmen also expressed her gratitude for the students advocating for change on campus.

“This institution moves closer and closer to reaching its full potential every day because of all of you, because of the work of inspiring student activists, past and present, from the Black Justice League to Princeton IX Now, because of the professors who, this year and in years past, reject the notion that recognizing students’ humanity diminishes the quality of their scholarship and instead hold that the vulnerability enhances the work we do here,” she said.

Several students received awards for their community service, leadership, and athletic achievements. Kelton Chastulik ’21 received the Allen Macy Dulles ’51 Award for best representing the University’s motto: “in the nation’s service and the service of humanity.” Ashley Hodges ’21 received the Frederick Douglass Service Award for courage and leadership in her pursuits to better understand the experiences of racial minorities. Mary Devellis ’21 received the Harold Willis Dodds Prize for clear thinking, moral courage, and consideration for the opinions of others. Daniela Alvarez ’21 received the Priscilla Glickman ’92 Memorial Prize for independence and imagination in community service.

Members of the senior class chose the recipients of two additional awards. The W. Sanderson Detwiler 1903 Prize was awarded to Parish for doing the most for her class, and the Walter E. Hope Class of 1901 Medal was given to Smith for doing the most for the University.

In the athletic award category, Ollie Schwartz ’21 received the Class of 1916 Cup for having the highest academic standing of a senior varsity letterwinner, Daniel Kwak ’21 received the William Winston Roper Trophy for being the top male athlete, and Clara Roth ’21 received the C. Otto von Kienbusch Award for being the top female athlete. The Arthur Lane ’34 Citizen Athlete Award was given to Melia Chittenden ’21 and Matthew Marquardt ’21 for their contributions to sport and society.

The ceremony also introduced the honorary members of the Class of 2021: Rabbi Julie Roth, executive director of Princeton’s Center for Jewish Life; Sameer Khan, owner of Fotobuddy Photography; Robin Izzo, executive director of Environmental Health and Safety; Ian Deas, assistant dean of undergraduate students and director of student leadership and engagement; Allison Slater Tate ’96, president of her class; Gary Walsh ’71, vice president of his class; and finally Noah, honored for his career as a comedian, commitment to uplifting others, and role as Class Day speaker.

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