Iconic Nigerian writer and public speaker, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, has become the first African to deliver the Class Day speech to the 2019 graduating members of the Yale College at New Haven, Connecticut.
The event, which held on Sunday on the eve of Yale’s 318th Commencement, is a celebration of the graduating Yale College class.
A tradition that dates as far back as the 19th century, Class Day includes student reflections on their four years at Yale, the awarding of undergraduate prizes for academic, artistic, athletic, and community accomplishments, and an address delivered by a prominent figure chosen by the students.
In 2018, the Class Day speech was delivered by former US First Lady and 2016 Presidential Candidate, Hillary Rodham Clinton.
Chimamanda joins an exclusive list of Yale Class Day speakers which include a former Vice President of the United States, Joe Biden; Former Prime Minister of the United Kingdom, Tony Blair; Renowned television journalist, Barbara Walters; Oscar winning actor, Tom Hanks; and many more.
In announcing her selection as speaker, the Class Day 2019 planning committee described Adichie as “an inspiring global citizen whose words, teaching, and social activism have had an indelible impact on the diaspora and broader contemporary culture.”
An alumna of Yale herself, Adichie received her Master of Arts degree in African Studies from the school in 2008.
“I remember the many clever undergrads I met while at Yale and it’s an honor to know that a class of similarly clever students chose me to speak to them.” Adichie said in an earlier statement.
In her insightful speech, which was filled with humour and interesting stories, the writer shared some career and life advice, touching on beliefs, journalism, leadership and more. She encouraged the graduates to be open to experiencing the world in a way that is different from their idealised belief.
She said, “To find a way to marry idealism and pragmatism, be open to changing your mind. It is often a sign of growth. Be open to the possibility that you might be wrong. Ideology is a good thing, but if you find that you yield unquestioningly to every orthodoxy of the ideology you subscribe to, then maybe it is time for some agility in your thinking.”
In speaking about corporate leadership, she also encouraged the 2019 class to transform corporate traditions.
“If you’re one day enrobed in corporate power, please hire women as executives and not just in human relations. Change corporate culture. Have an on-site day-care. Make paid family leave standard and ordinary,” she urged the students.
In her usual manner, the award-winning writer did not hold back on speaking truth to power. She spoke courageously on the increase in gun violence in America, touched on America’s controversial new law on abortion and racism.
She reminded them about the importance of people and relationships. “Nurture your ambitions, seek to be successful but keep in mind that there are hollows that success will not fill,” she said.
She encouraged them to make friends, maintain a tight bond with their families and stand up for their loved ones.
Adichie began her post-secondary education studying medicine at the University of Nigeria, Nsukka before moving to the United States at the age of 19 to continue her education on a different path.
She graduated summa cum laude from Eastern Connecticut State University with a degree in communication and political science and earned a master’s degree in creative writing from Johns Hopkins University before studying African history at Yale. She was awarded a 2005-2006 Hodder Fellowship at Princeton University and a 2011-2012 fellowship at the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study at Harvard University.
Adichie’s writings have been translated into more than 30 languages. Her first novel, ‘Purple Hibiscus’ (2003), won the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize; her second, Half of a Yellow Sun (2006), received the Orange Prize for Fiction. Her 2013 novel Americanah was awarded the National Book Critics Circle Award and named one of The New York Times’s 10 Best Books of 2013.
She has delivered two landmark TED Talks: The Danger of A Single Story(2009) and We Should All Be Feminists (2012) — the latter of which was released as a book in 2014. Her most recent book, Dear Ijeawele, or a Feminist Manifesto in Fifteen Suggestions, was published in 2017.
Adichie was named one of TIME magazine’s 100 most influential people in 2015. In 2017, Fortune magazine named her one of its 50 World’s Greatest Leaders. She is a member of both the American Academy of Arts and Letters and the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.
She divides her time between the United States and Nigeria, where she leads an annual creative writing workshop.