Wendy Kopp ’89, Founder of Teach for America and CEO of Teach for All, spoke at the University’s Baccalaureate Ceremony for the Class of 2022 — dubbed by her “an activist generation” — on service and the importance of searching for impactful post-graduate pursuits. Throughout the address, she urged graduating seniors to pursue “deep impact” over “impressive resumes.”
“You’re graduating at a time when threats to the well-being of people and the planet are more visible than ever,” Kopp said on May 22. “Your generation, in particular, has been so active, weighing in about what justice requires.”
“It’s the choices that 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 said.
University President Christopher Eisgruber ’83 introduced Kopp by acknowledging her work on her undergraduate senior thesis that led her to start Teach for America and Teach for All. He also cited some of her awards and honors, including the WISE Prize for Education, the Skoll Award for Social Entrepreneurship, the Schwab Foundation’s Outstanding Social Entrepreneur Award, and the University’s Woodrow Wilson Award.
During the speech, Kopp reflected on her own graduation from the University 33 years ago. She explained how her path began with her senior thesis, where she decided to “[put her] energy into the field of education.”
“I’d also become increasingly aware of the inequities in education, at Princeton of all places, as I’d seen here how differently prepared students were to thrive based on where they’d come from,” Kopp said.
She discussed her own 177-page senior thesis, authored more than three decades earlier, in which she made the case for a national teachers corps. Kopp credited Princeton’s thesis requirement for “providing the answer to [her] search for a meaningful post-graduate pursuit.”
“No one would be more surprised than I would have been, at that point, if you’d told me that I would still be pursuing the same mission 33 years later,” Kopp said. “I’m so grateful for the lessons I’ve fallen into along the way that have enabled this journey, and now, for the chance to share them with you in the hope that they’ll be helpful in informing your own choices.”
She then encouraged the Class of 2022 to find their own impactful post-graduate pursuits.
“For your generation that is more aware of and passionate about tackling injustice than any before,” she said, “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’ll be intentional and conscious about where to put your energy.”
Kopp also explained how she enjoyed doing work that was “making a real impact with students” and was leading teachers to “challenge the unjust systems in which they worked.”
Throughout her speech, she explained her journey and emphasized the importance that comes “not from moving up and on, but from going deep.”
“Over these decades,” Kopp continued, “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 difference in the face of them—so the path of no regrets is to start early.”
She concluded her speech by emphasizing Princeton’s motto — “in the nation’s service and the service of humanity” — and encouraged students to invest their energy and leadership into these “uncertain times.”
“As Princeton students, with the privilege of a world-class education and the networks and credibility that come with it, you have a particular responsibility to rise to this challenge,” she said.
“Don’t think that advocacy efforts in the wake of the latest injustice will sufficiently ameliorate your moral responsibility to lead lives in the nation’s service and in the service of humanity, because it’s doing the heavy lifting of actually reshaping our systems that will create a just world,” Kopp concluded.
Eisgruber opened the ceremony by taking a moment to acknowledge the recent and tragic losses of Jazz Chang ’23, who was originally a part of the Class of 2022, and Justin Lim ’25. Eisgruber also recognized those who have lost loved ones over the past year “from the pandemic, from war, and from terrible acts of violence.”
Eisgruber then spoke on the history of the Baccalaureate Ceremony and the first Baccalaureate address in 1760 by President Samuel Davies.
“Live not for yourself but the public,” Davies said in the first Baccalaureate address, Eisgruber quoted. “Esteem yourselves by so much the more happy, honorable, and important, by how much the more useful you are.”
He emphasized how Davies’ words exemplify Princeton’s motto and how the Class of 2022 upheld it, through direct service, serving as a student leader within the University, conducting research, advocating for justice or assisting those in need.
“As you prepare to make the transition from students to alumni, I hope Princeton’s mission will continue to share your lives,” Eisgruber said. “At the heart of our community is the desire and responsibility to make the world a better place.”
Following Eisgruber’s address, Hari Ramakrishnan ’22 presented Bhagavad Gita 2:47–48, Wafa Zaka ’22 presented Qur’ān surah 93, Sara Sacks ’22 presented Psalm 19:1-7, and Mayowa Oke ’22 presented James 1:22–27.
Following Kopp’s address, Dean Thames presented Prayers of the People and Benediction, Dean Boden presented the Prayer for Princeton, and Bradley Phelps ’22 and Emily Yu ’22 presented Blessings.
The ceremony took place in the Princeton University Chapel on Sunday, May 22 at 2 p.m.
Lia Opperman is an Assistant News Editor who often covers University affairs, student life, and local news. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org, on Instagram @liamariaaaa, or on Twitter @oppermanlia.