YSE graduates crossing the streeet while holding the School flag high

YSE Class of ’21 “Forward with Optimism and Resolve”

Dean Burke commends this year’s graduates for their resilience, true expertise, scholarship, and leadership during a historically challenging time.

I’m inspired by your successes, your resilience, your true expertise, your scholarship, and your leadership. I know the world is in better hands with you launched into it.
— Dean Indy Burke
To say the Yale School of the Environment 2021 graduating class faced a challenging year is an understatement — from the global pandemic to a nation’s anger at racial injustice to the very challenges the students came to study, like climate change and achieving sustainability. But there’s power in challenge, class speaker Urvi Talaty ’21 MEM said during today’s 120th commencement ceremony, which was held both virtually and on campus.

“There is a pathway to a better future, it is just really, really hard. So, what do we do? Exactly what we learned during our time here. We keep learning,” she told the graduating master’s and doctoral students. “Committing to learning as much as we can about the problem will put us in the best position to solve it.”
This spring’s class, which includes 15 PhD recipients, 82 Master of Environmental Management graduates, seven Master of Forestry, 20 Master of Environmental Science and 17 joint master’s degree graduates, assembled at Old Campus with mortarboards decorated in a myriad of environmental and personalized themes — from simple flowers to elaborate windmills and farm scenes. After receiving their degrees, the graduates walked to Kroon Hall for a victory lap. This class of master’s students was the first to graduate since the School changed its name to the Yale School of the Environment (from the Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies). 
There is a pathway to a better future, it is just really, really hard... Committing to learning as much as we can about the problem will put us in the best position to solve it.
— Dean Indy Burke
The commencement was broadcast for family and friends and began in the morning with virtual addresses by Dean Indy Burke, class speakers Talaty, Jeamme Chia ’21 MEM and Tiffany Mayville ’21 MEM, student awards, and a piano concert by Seho Young in honor of Kevin Jiang ’21 MESc, who was killed Feb. 6.
Burke said that while the day was not what students would have imagined it to be when they first started their degree program, with in-class learning moving online, dramatic changes in world events, and the deaths of Jiang and first-year doctoral student Mochen Liao, she asked students to imagine how they can take the lessons of their unique experience at Yale into the future.
Socially distanced students at YSE Commencement ceremony

“How can we take the lessons of the last 15 months and think about recharging environmental leadership? Are there new ways of being and leading and charging forward that we can catalyze right now? Can we now imagine and implement nimbleness of thinking and behaving as individuals and institutions, nations, and the world toward a sustainable future? Can we better understand the resistance to science, to be better communicators and leaders?

“We put our faith in you to lead us into a future where expertise is critical and trusted.”
Burke said she was amazed by the students’ ability to adapt during a historically challenging time.
“I’m inspired by your successes, your resilience, your true expertise, your scholarship, and your leadership,” she said. “I know the world is in better hands with you launched into it. You are experts, and you can adapt to the world's biggest challenges — and that makes you formidable. We’re proud of you now, but we know we’ll be even more proud of what you accomplish in the future.”
Awards bestowed by 2021 graduating students:
Faculty Awards
  • Rising Star
    Yuan Yao
  • Mentorship and Advising
    Narasimha Rao
  • Excellence in Teaching
    Shimon Anisfeld
  • Creating Needed Space
    Amity Doolittle and Marlyse Duguid
Staff Awards
  • Overall Excellence
    Rosanne Stoddard
  • Stellar Community Support
    Melanie Quigley
  • Support in Unprecedented Times
    Ray McKeon and Will Walker
  • Bon Appetit
    Joan McDonald


Guest speaker Christiana Figueres, an internationally recognized leader on global climate change who served as executive secretary of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), told students that as they emerge from Yale during a time that will be remembered as the Great Global Pause, humans will have to collectively decide how to reset and recast their relationship with nature and with others.
“As you step out onto the world that is yet to be determined, may each one of you in your own unique way contribute to the great regeneration of spirit, society, and nature that is to be the basis of our common experience over the next few decades. Forward my young friends, forward. Always forward with optimism and resolve,” she said.

Masked students embracing at YSE Commencement

Two student awards were presented for the first time. Krista Shennum and Jonathan Lee were the recipients of the Learning Community Leadership Award, honored for the time and energy they demonstrated in advancing the mission of YSE’s learning communities by expanding education, training, and community building beyond the classroom. Shennum, part of the Climate Change Science and Solutions learning community, helped establish the Climate Fellows program and founded the Oceans and Climate Conference; Lee was integral in founding the fast-growing Urban learning community.

The Mochen Liao Award, named in honor of Liao, was presented to Claire Goydan, Meghana Kharod, and Shitiz Chaudhary in recognition of their research on creating a more sustainable carpet industry in the U.S.

Other awardees included: Brooks Lamb, who received the Strachan Donnelly Award, blending the humanities with ecology in his research on land stewardship in the rural U.S. South; Chris Perkins and Rachel Gould, who were honored for excellence as teaching fellows; and Jenna Musco, who won the Kroon Cup, presented annually to individuals and groups that embody stewardship and implement projects that engage and inspire the School community.

Fran Silverman fran.silverman@yale.edu / Josh Anusewicz Joshua.anusewicz@yale.edu