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Congresswoman Terri Sewell ’86 stresses public service in Class Day address

Women behind podium giving a thumbs up, with a man sitting in front of an ivy-covered building clapping behind her.
Rep. Terri Sewell ’86 was the speaker for the 2023 Class Day.
Angel Kuo / The Daily Princetonian

Students gathered on Cannon Green, wearing their class jackets despite warm weather, to celebrate Class Day, where Congresswoman Terri Sewell ’86 returned to campus to urge students to serve their communities.

Class Day is an event organized by the senior class, and it includes speeches and introductions by the Class Day Co-Chairs, Class Heralds, and members of Class Government. The event also includes a presentation of awards, introduction of honorary class members, and the presentation of a symbolic key to the campus by the University President, given to members of the Class of 2023.


Ryan Champeau ’23, Douglas Robins, II ’23, and Zyan Wynn ’23, Class Day co-chairs, welcome the Class of 2023.
Angel Kuo / The Daily Princetonian

Sewell is a familiar face on campus, as a University trustee, a recent guest at an event hosted by Whig-Clio and the College Democrats, and panelist during the Wintersession event “So You Want to Run for Public Office?” She represents Alabama’s seventh congressional district in the U.S. House of Representatives.

Service has been a topic of discussion since a School of Public and International Affairs (SPIA) annual report that showed only seven percent of graduates planned to work in the public sector. When University President Christopher Eisgruber ’83 was asked about the report in a November interview with the The Daily Princetonian, he responded that public sector work was not the only path towards serving humanity.

“I don’t think the question of being ‘in the nation’s service or in the service of humanity’ is about the percentage of SPIA graduates going in one direction or another. I think those of us who are physics majors are [just] as capable of contributing to the nation’s service and the service of humanity,” he said.


In an interview with the ‘Prince,’ Sewell emphasized the importance of public service. “Princeton can't just lead in academics and innovation in science. We have to lead in influence as well,” she said.

During her speech, Sewell described the many times that Princeton “found her” and supported her, from before she was even an admitted student to during her congressional campaign.

She spoke about Julian McPhillips ’68, a U.S. lawyer and a candidate for Attorney General of Alabama in 1978, who found her in the local paper and invited her to a gathering at his home to learn more about Princeton.

She also told the story of when former University President William Bowen ’55 personally helped her find a tutor when she was an anxious freshman in ECO101 and had received a B on her midterm. “I replied through my tears, ‘But I don’t make B’s!’” she said.

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Twenty years, while running for Congress, she called President Bowen for fundraising support.

“He answered, and he said ‘Is this Terri ‘I don’t make B’s’ from Selma, Alabama?’ I said ‘yes,’ and he said ‘A little birdie told me that the girl from Selma wanted to represent Selma.”

“Princeton found me,” she repeated.

Sewell emphasized how the University had molded her into a public servant, and urged seniors to find ways to do the same after their time at Princeton.

“Today, like generations of graduates before you, you will walk through the FitzRandolph gates. You will do so undoubtedly resolved to succeed; after all, you’re Princeton students,” she said. “But you will also do so, I hope, while keeping in mind the mandate of Princeton’s motto, ‘to be in the nation’s service, and the service of humanity.’”

Sewell encouraged students to fulfill this motto by saying, “bloom where you’re planted.” In her own life, Sewell was resolved after graduating to return to Selma, the most impoverished congressional district in Alabama, and serve her community. She reminded students that “you don't have to go far to make a difference in this world.”

She added that there are many different ways to be of service. “Lend your voice to a cause near and dear to your heart. Use your talents to solve problems big and small. And by all means vote!”

In an interview with the ‘Prince,’ Sewell also commented on her active presence on campus, stating that it was influenced by the amount of support the University has offered in different ways.

“All they ask is that I pay it forward,” she said. “And today’s about paying it forward.”

She also spoke about her role as a trustee and how it was a “joy” to watch strategy and deliberation unfold. While Sewell is ending her term as a University trustee, she spoke on her hopes for the future of diversity at Princeton.

“I hope that even in this climate, where affirmative action is under attack, and in fact, the Supreme Court is going to decide on things, I hope that this board continues to find a way for Princeton to find little black girls honors in Selma, Alabama,” she said.

President Eisgruber ‘83 and Rep. Terri Sewell ‘86 laugh as the one of the two class heralds presented at the 2023 Class Day.
Angel Kuo / The Daily Princetonian

At the Annual Meeting of the Alumni Council on Thursday, the Board of Trustees announced three new elected trustees Kamil Ali-Jackson ’81, Nandi O. Leslie GS ’05, and the newly elected Young Alumni Trustee Mutemwa Masheke ‘23. All three new trustees are Black alumni who will be returning to Princeton to serve on the University’s chief governing body. 

On Masheke’s appointment specifically, Sewell said, “I hope he speaks up and speaks out.”

Sewell stated that one of the greatest lessons for her as a member of Congress was that “representation matters, and diversity of voices at the decision-making table matters.”

The program before Sewell’s speech was run by Class Day co-chairs Ryan Champeau ’23, Douglas Robins, II ’23, and Zyan Wynn ’23. They welcomed the class and their families, highlighting that the event is organized “by and for seniors.”

They also paused at the beginning of the program to remember classmates Kevin Chang ’23 and Jazz Chang ’23. 

“Know that we will always carry them in our hearts as members of the Class of 2023,” said Champeau. 

Eisgruber described the longstanding tradition of Class Day by quoting the Class of 1898 — “a day over which the Graduating Class has full charge and which we run to suit ourselves, in our characteristic way.”

Class President Taryn Sebba ’23 reflected on the Class of 2023’s time at Princeton, saying that the song “Mr. Brightside” by the Killers “has been the soundtrack to the movie that has been the last four years.”

“Our class is unified by audacious optimism, persistent hope, unwavering support for one another, and a tendency to always look at the brightside,” she said.

She continued by describing how these attributes were true of the class even before the COVID-19 pandemic sent them home in 2020.

Class Heralds Payton Croskey ’23 and Gavin LaPlace ’23 also spoke. The two, selected by the Class Day committee, were chosen to deliver humorous speeches about the class’s time at Princeton.

“We have the ‘Most likely to be a reality tv star’ award, which goes to all the residents of Spelman hall whose entire lives are on display because they refuse to close their blinds,” Croskey joked as part of a list of mock superlatives.

Several people were made honorary members of the Class of 2022: Dean Claire Pinciaro, Assistant Dean of Student Life (DSL) at Yeh College; Professor Anne Cheng, Professor of English; Dean of Undergraduate Students Kathleen Deignan; Joe Coraggio of Forbes Dining Hall; and Sewell. 

From top left to bottom right: Dean Claire Pinciaro, Professor Anne Cheng, Dean Kathleen Deignan, and Joe Coraggio, all of whom were deemed honorary members of the class of 2023.
Angel Kuo / The Daily Princetonian

Isabel Yip is a head News editor for the ‘Prince.’

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