By Mark Peters and Andrew Bauld | Slideshow photos by Jean Lachat, Rob Hart, Anne Ryan and John Zich

Ka Yee Lee offered a final lesson for those graduating from the University of Chicago in how she became a chemistry professor—without a degree in chemistry.

In her address at UChicago’s Convocation on June 10, Lee described how learning does not follow a linear path and encouraged graduates to “embrace the unknown” as they enter what chemists call a phase transition. Lee detailed her path—that of an electrical engineering student from Hong Kong bound for Silicon Valley, who later became a doctoral student in applied physics. Intrigued by the phenomenon known as oil over troubled waters, she pursued research as a young scientist in chemistry and chemical engineering.

“While my training, going through four departments, might look like a random walk in the sciences, I was simply led by my interests and I embraced the opportunities to learn about the ideas that excited me,” said Lee, who is a professor in the Department of Chemistry and senior associate vice president for research at the University.

In her Convocation address, Prof. Ka Yee Lee implores graduates to pursue the ideas that excited them. (Video by UChicago Creative) Video Link:

Lee spoke on a bright, sunny morning to an estimated 15,000 family, friends and colleagues gathered in the Main Quadrangles for the University’s 530th Convocation.

In his address, President Robert J. Zimmer congratulated graduates and told them to take satisfaction in their contribution to the ongoing renewal of the University. “You will be called upon to act, to speak, and to lead, and like so many University of Chicago graduates who have come before you, you will approach this challenge of leadership empowered by your University of Chicago education,” he said.

University of Chicago President Robert J. Zimmer
President Robert J. Zimmer addresses graduates at the University's 530th Convocation. (Photo by Jean Lachat)

Among those gathered to celebrate Convocation was Maria Fernanda Rojas, who had traveled from Mexico to witness her brother, Diego Suarez Rojas, receive his master’s degree from the Divinity School. 

"It's beautiful," she said of the ceremony. "Diego loved his experience here. And we love that Diego could develop here."

Cheri and Jeff Cordes traveled a shorter distance. From Colona, Ill., they came to watch their only daughter, Megan, graduate from the College. "Neither of us went to college, so this is a really big deal for us. She comes from a town of 6,000 and grew into an adult here," Cheri said. 

During the morning ceremony, the University presented honorary degrees to Robert MacPherson, a mathematician whose work has impacted many areas in his field; Shaul Mukamel, a groundbreaking theoretician in the field of spectroscopy; and Craig B. Thompson, a leader in the field of cancer metabolism.

The University awarded the Jesse L. Rosenberger Medal to musician and educator Steve Coleman for his original and challenging work as well as his continuing leadership in community building.

Faculty members were recognized for excellence in teaching with the Llewellyn John and Harriet Manchester Quantrell Awards for Excellence in Undergraduate TeachingFaculty Awards for Excellence in Graduate Teaching and Mentoring, and the Norman Maclean Faculty Award.

Diploma ceremony
Graduates gather near Campus North Residence Hall for one of this year's College diploma ceremonies. (Photo by Anne Ryan)

Later in the day, the College and graduate divisions and schools held individual ceremonies in which diplomas were presented. In one of the College dipoma ceremonies, held at Snell-Hitchcock Hall, Assoc. Prof. Larry Rothfield congratulated the graduates for being “pioneers” of the new tradition. 

Dean John W. Boyer then delivered the keynote address, telling graduates: “It was a great privilege to have you as our students, and it is an even greater honor to have you as our alumni.”

UChicago graduate at Class Day
Adolfo Alexander Vincent Morales ended his Class Day address with a toast to the graduates and their University, complete with spraying a bottle of champagne: “May this be only the start of your many years of happiness.” (Photo by Jean Lachat)

Class Day kicks off Convocation celebration

The University began Convocation weekend with the inaugural Class Day on June 9, celebrating the past four years for College graduates with an eye clearly on the future.

In his address, Class Day speaker David Brooks, AB’83, an op-ed columnist for The New York Times, discussed the intellectual excitement and lasting influence of a UChicago education.

“Chicago gives you a taste for mountaineering, for climbing up toward the summits of human existence. Afterwards you are never quite content living in the flatlands, living solely in the stuff that gets written about on Twitter or even in the newspapers or talked about on TV,” he said.

David Brooks, AB'83, told students at Class Day about how UChicago fundamentally changed him. 'The older I get, the more I have become aware of how this place shaped me.' Video Link: (Video by UChicago Creative)

But Brooks cautioned against a life dominated by knowledge and reason alone, stressing the need for graduates to pursue intimacy in their relationships, work and community. “Life will offer you a diminishing number of opportunities to show how smart you are. It will offer an infinite number of occasions that require kindness, mercy, grace, sensitivity, sympathy, generosity and love,” he said.

Class Day included a tribute to Prof. John W. Boyer, who was appointed this year to an unprecedented sixth term as dean of the College, and the tradition of student speakers.

“Our celebration is bigger than us—it’s about all of the people who will never meet us, and yet be impacted by the things we do and say,” student speaker Elizabeth Adetiba said. “A degree from the University of Chicago will undoubtedly open many doors, but the real task is figuring out how we can use this degree to open doors for as many other people as possible.”

Graduating students at UChicago
(Photo by Jean Lachat)

Student speaker Karyn Peyton discussed the deep challenges and profound changes that occurred while studying at the University. “Graduation not only marks a moment of change; it marks a moment that you have changed. And I do firmly believe, with everything in me, that that is the aim of education,” she said.

Student speaker Adolfo Alexander Vincent Morales framed his remarks as a speech at the wedding between his classmates and the University. He described the Class of 2017 as exactly what the University could want—“smart, intrepid, curious and you know where Waldo is”—while ending with a toast to the graduates and their University, complete with spraying a bottle of champagne. “May this be only the start of your many years of happiness.”

Originally published on June 10, 2017.