PROVIDENCE, R.I. [Brown University] — After a weekend filled with festive celebration, solemn ceremony and the honoring of age-old traditions that help bind together generations of Brunonians, 2,630 students received Brown University degrees on Sunday and are set to begin the next chapters of their lives.
Aside from Convocation ceremonies that welcome new Brown students to campus, Commencement marks the only other time each year that the Van Wickle Gates open — in this case, so graduating students can proceed from College Hill and out into the world. Even so, the events comprising Commencement and Reunion Weekend 2016 emphasized homecoming and community more than departures.
Generations of alumni joined new graduates and their families and friends along with faculty, honored guests, visitors and community members for a weekend of events celebrating all that Brown means to them.
“It’s great to have all these people past and present to join and celebrate our success,” said Danny Echevarria, a sociology concentrator from Brooklyn, New York, as he prepared to step off for the ceremonial Commencement procession down College Hill. “That’s the best feeling.”
Aimee Williams, an economics concentrator from Alamo, California, said she felt the range of emotions that come with closing one chapter of life and opening another.
“I’m very relieved, but also sad because I met so many amazing people here who are going to be in all different places,” she said. “But mostly I’m happy knowing that everyone’s going to be off doing great things.”
Ariel Choi, a neuroscience concentrator from Newton, Massachusetts, echoed that rush of emotion.
“It’s kind of surreal, especially because I’m the first in my family to graduate from college,” said Choi, who graduates in a year that saw the establishment of Brown’s First-Generation College and Low-Income Student Center. “It feels like yesterday that I came here and stepped foot on campus. I still can’t believe that it’s over.”
A ceremonial atmosphere
Just before noon on Sunday, on the lawn of the Meeting House of the First Baptist Church in America, President Christina Paxson officially called the University’s 248th Commencement to order. In her address to undergraduates, she expressed a special connection with the Class of 2016, the first she welcomed to campus after becoming president in 2012.
Paxson recalled challenging the new Brown arrivals to approach their time on campus with “constructive irreverence” — the idea that positive change in the world is initiated when people challenge conventional wisdom, pose constructive solutions and take action.
“While I may have tried to teach you about the theory of constructive irreverence on that day four years ago, in the time since then you've taught me about constructive irreverence in action,” Paxson said. “I watched Brown students, working together with others, apply the knowledge that they've gained from their studies to make a difference in our community and in the world at large.”
She cited examples of students who conducted research on the water crisis in Flint, Michigan, advocated for the creation of the new center for first-generation students at Brown, helped to draft Rhode Island’s first climate change bill and used biotechnology tools to help victims of sexual assault.
“These examples, these stories, are quintessentially Brown,” Paxson said. “They are stories of determined individuals pushing forward for change in smart and savvy and collaborative ways, making full use of all they have learned on their academic journeys.”
She concluded by formally awarding degrees to the undergraduate class, who responded with thunderous applause as they shifted their tassels from right to left before marching back up to the Main Green for the University Ceremony.
WATCH VIDEO: 2016 College Ceremony Including President Paxson's Address
At that ceremony, not far from the steps of University Hall — Brown’s original building on the East Side, which dates to the 1770s — students, who have been the principal speakers at Brown’s Commencement exercises from the University’s start, addressed the crowd.
Jamelle Watson-Daniels, a physics concentrator and Africana studies scholar who delivered an address titled “Storytelling,” focused on the need to tell stories truthfully, without oversimplifying them or erasing important, painful truths.
For her to feel at home at Brown, she said, she needed to find a space in which she could see and learn “what it looks like for a black woman to be both affirmed and valued. Meaning included — meaning space has been made for people like me and will continue to exist over time… Any narrative that I tell about my career trajectory as I continue on in science must not erase this truth, even when it is not the story people sometimes try to tell for me.”
Watson-Daniels asked her classmates to be intentional in their storytelling and to carry with them the stories that hold them accountable to their collective commitment to human equality.
The second senior oration, delivered by nonfiction English concentrator Sabrina Imbler, was titled “Who Do We Want to Become?” and picked up on the thread of accountability and the social activism work Brown students have undertaken to challenge themselves and to make the University more inclusive.
Reflecting on her own process of “becoming,” Imbler spoke about how Brown students defended their own humanity and demanded change within the University as an act of devotion. “It’s because of this fierce and profound love we all have for Brown that, these past four years, we’ve asked Brown to become better,” she said.
Later in the University Ceremony, Paxson awarded honorary degrees to eight individuals who have distinguished themselves for service, scholarship and civic leadership. In a break with Brown tradition, one of those recipients was not present to take the Commencement stage on Sunday.
Thomas Catena, a medical doctor who earned a bachelor’s degree from Brown in 1986, is the lone surgeon at a hospital he established in the Nuba Mountains of war-torn Sudan. In a recorded message played at the ceremony — before his parents accepted the honorary degree on his behalf — he urged graduates to forego the trappings of financial success and dedicate their lives to service.
“Let the guys from Harvard and Yale go out and make a billion dollars,” he said. “You go out and make a difference in the world. You are the ones that people are counting on. This is my challenge to you.”
Sunday’s festivities on College Hill also included ceremonies for graduate students, who for the first time received their degrees in separate venues for master’s and doctoral candidates. The end of their studies were marked by speeches by two first-generation scholars — master’s degree recipient Alberto Morales and Ph.D. graduate Matthew J. Lyddon — who asked their peers to engage with race and social justice as they move into their professional lives.
The Graduate School awarded its prestigious Horace Mann Medal to Sridhar Ramaswamy, who earned a doctorate in computer science in 1995 and serves as senior vice president of ads and commerce at Google. At the nearby ceremony for the Alpert Medical School, the largest number of M.D. graduates in Brown history heard “Incredible! A Commencement Address in Three Parts,” by Class of 2016 member Elizabeth Rubin.
A weekend of events
Two days earlier, on Friday night, thousands of alumni, students and guests attended Campus Dance, an annual extravaganza in which the College Green is transformed by strings of paper lanterns into a garden party with a swing band, dance floor and more. There was a different sound on Lincoln Field, where student bands played, and all the festivities ended, somewhat reluctantly, at midnight after the Senior Sing, a rendition of Brown’s alma mater.
On Saturday, Brown’s academic buildings played host to 18 Commencement Forums — lectures, discussions and performances on the most pressing issues of the day given by faculty, alumni and guests who are nationally recognized authorities in their fields. A four-decade-old tradition, the forums add spirited debate and dialogue to the more celebratory rituals of the weekend.
This year, a panel of political scientists from the Watson Institute for International and Public Affairs provided a worrisome assessment of the world that awaits graduating students. Survey data, election returns and jarring anecdotes suggest that in India, Indonesia, Turkey, much of Europe and the United States, democratic and liberal values appear to be losing ground to populist, authoritarian and nationalist leanings, they said. Economic inequality and ineffectual governments controlled by elites may be contributing to that loss of faith in democracy.
While that panel described how values of governance are under threat globally, civil rights and public interest lawyer Antonia Hernández (a day before receiving an honorary degree) sought to bolster the personal values that allow individual leaders to succeed in striving for justice and fairness. In her forum titled "Compassionate Leadership," she said that even as leaders proceed with an entrepreneurial spirit, moral clarity and even stubbornness, they must also humanize themselves through humility and their opponents through dialogue.
Kevin Gover, director of the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of the American Indian and another honorary degree recipient on Sunday, issued a similar charge in delivering his speech “Choosing our Histories” at the Baccalaureate ceremony on Saturday. Reflecting on competing versions and subsequent interpretations of American history, Gover asked students to be thoughtful both in making and remaking history:
“With your help, we can make an American history that is introspective, inclusive and rigorously honest,” Gover said. “And if we do that, I believe we will find that this new history is amazing, far more than the anodyne narratives that are still being taught in our schools.”
The Baccalaureate, in addition to featuring an address, represents the many spiritual traditions within the University community while providing a moment to express faith and thanksgiving.
That feeling of gratitude is not reserved for the Class of 2016, but something that lasts for alumni like Robert Maneneck. Maneneck was on campus with Skip Barlow, Ed Clarke and Gabe Pesce. All four men are in their early 90s, all part of the Class of 1946, and all veterans of World War II.
Maneneck reflected on the lasting influence Brown has been in his life.
“I was a poor kid from Illinois, one of five children of immigrant parents,” Maneneck said. “Brown literally changed my whole life. We’re blessed that we can come back. It hasn’t changed that much. It still has a vigor. It still has a power."
SLIDESHOW: Commencement and Reunion Weekend 2016
The foursome of veterans were on campus for a weekend that saw the commissioning of new officers through the Reserve Officer Training Corps program at Brown. Johnathan Davis, Uzoamaka Okoro and Evan Stern each were commissioned as U.S. Army officers, and Amadeo De Luca-Westrate received a Naval commission.
By Sunday afternoon, the Class of 2016 was free to go. Some, like doctoral graduate Joseph Kurz, won’t stray from from the College Hill campus — he’ll teach history to undergraduates at Brown this summer. Others will travel to other continents to apply their expertise.
But for everyone, the hope is the same, Paxson told the graduates: “In the end, I don’t want you to leave Brown behind. I want you to take Brown with you as you go.”