PROVIDENCE, R.I. [Brown University] — Moments of exuberance and tear-filled revelry, blistering heat and chilly rain, solemn reflection and playful inquiry marked Brown University’s landmark 250th Commencement celebration over Memorial Day weekend 2018.
Over the course of the three-day Commencement and Reunion Weekend, 2,741 students celebrated their newly earned degrees, and thousands of alumni returned to College Hill for forums and fun. Pleas for unity in the face of unprecedented polarization came at events across campus. Speakers entreated audiences to strengthen community ties, consider diverse perspectives and join forces to effect social change.
Brown President Christina Paxson called the Commencement proceedings to order on Sunday, May 27, just after noon outside the Meeting House of the First Baptist Church in America. She offered 1,696 new bachelor’s degree recipients a simple bit of advice: Take what you’ve learned at Brown, and use it to do what you love.
“Do what you love with joy, conviction, integrity and a steadfast attention to excellence,” Paxson encouraged.
But she urged graduates not to take her advice as “permission to be self-centered in your pursuit of happiness.” Rather, she asked them to be mindful of their potential and responsibility to make the world a better place.
“I hope you discovered at Brown that if you walk through life in a way that elevates you and those whose lives you touch, your joy in your work will be magnified...” she said. “As you do what you love, you will continue to discover your best selves — and the world will be better for it.”
At the University Ceremony on the College Green, singer and activist Sting reminded graduates to be mindful of their role in shaping the world's future. He said he was first drawn from his native England to the shores of the U.S. by the richness of the culture and what he described as the "American Dream."
“Because the American Dream is not exclusively American,” said Sting, who received an honorary degree along with actress and activist Trudie Styler, his wife. “The whole world looks to you for leadership. When that leadership is found wanting, the whole world suffers. I’m optimistic this morning because I’ve taken part in this joyous celebration of diversity. The future is yours, and I’m much more optimistic today than I was yesterday. So thank you for that.”
Making quick use of that newfound optimism, Sting indulged the crowd of thousands with an a capella version of "My One and Only Love," which he dedicated to Styler.
Paxson’s call to focus on empathy and community echoed throughout College Hill all weekend. Class of 2018 senior orators Lexi Lerner and Naomi Chasek-Macfoy asked graduates and their families to hear and embrace, rather than shut out, those who hold different ideas and perspectives.
Lerner, a biology concentrator who is halfway through Brown’s eight-year Program in Liberal Medical Education, used immunology metaphors to illustrate that no one is well-served by taking an “us-vs-them” approach to life. Like our immune systems, Lerner said, people are complicated; they can’t simply be sorted into “ally” and “adversary” categories.
“Consider that at dinner some night, you’ll sit across the table from someone with whom you don’t connect,” Lerner said. “You probably won’t like this person... Even if the table isn’t very wide, your differences will seem as divisive as an ocean separating you. But here you face a choice: You can get up from the table or you can reach across it.”
Lerner encouraged the audience to choose the latter.
“Now is the time to invite more people to the table, especially those who were denied a seat before and including those with whom we don’t immediately connect,” Lerner said. “Now is the time to be so unabashedly and so bravely human that we reach across that table, look that difficult person in the eyes, and tell them: ‘Let’s make this world better. And let’s do it together.’”
Chasek-Macfoy, too, spoke about the power of listening — particularly to those voices who are marginalized. For the Africana studies concentrator, Brown’s 250th Commencement offered the chance to pay homage to another major milestone: the 50th anniversary of the 1968 Black Student Walkout, where 65 African American students at Brown risked their academic futures to protest their underrepresentation and demand support.
A half century later, Chasek-Macfoy said, the walkout illuminates the racial justice work that remains to be done on campus and across the nation.
“Even as we speak out, we must be listeners, too,” she urged. “We must listen closely to those who are being told to sit down and be quiet, like the 1968 student protesters.”
A proud procession
Earlier on Sunday, Lerner and Chasek-Macfoy were in the crowd of graduates and alumni who processed through Brown’s Van Wickle Gates. For more than a century, the gates have opened only to welcome incoming students and to send graduates into the world.
Among the students was Jenna Port, who sported a vintage graduation gown passed down from her great grandfather, Class of 1925 graduate Abraham Edward Pobirs. From afar, Port’s gown looked much like everyone else’s. Up close, the differences were obvious: dramatic bell sleeves, a hook-and-eye closure, patched-up holes at the back, and the embroidered initials AEP inside. Faded though it was, Port wore the gown like a badge of honor.
“My great grandfather passed away before I was born, so I never knew him,” Port said. “But I heard lots of stories about how jovial and extroverted he was, just like me.”
Like her grandfather Simon Port, who also graduated from Brown and became a doctor, Jenna Port hopes to pursue medicine. After graduation, she’ll research infectious diseases at Boston’s Broad Institute. Then it’s on to medical school — perhaps even Tufts, where Simon Port studied after Brown.
Commencement had Port reflecting not just on her family history, but also the last four years.
“I’m going to miss the people the most,” she said. “I don’t think I’ll ever again be surrounded by as high a concentration of engaging, interesting, friendly humans with such diverse interests as I was at Brown.”
Nini Nguyen's graduation came two days after she was honored with a 2018 community engagement award from Brown’s Swearer Center. At the Swearer graduation ceremony on Friday, Nguyen was awarded for establishing a University-community partnership that matches student tutors with adults with disabilities.
Nguyen, who plans to apply to medical school while teaching English in Taiwan, said she's grateful that Brown "taught me how to meaningfully and responsibly engage with communities [and] community work."
"Graduating feels bittersweet," she added. "On one hand, I'm extremely excited to start new adventures and apply what I've learned during my last four years. On the other hand, I'm devastated to be leaving the people who have become a family to me."
Also in the procession was Max Monn, who earned a Ph.D. in engineering. Last week, Monn was one of around 40 students and alumni who gathered in Virginia to watch the launch of an Antares rocket headed for the International Space Station. Aboard that rocket was EQUiSat, a small satellite designed and built by Brown undergraduates.
Monn, who earned a bachelor’s from Brown in 2012, founded the satellite club as an undergrad in 2011. When he moved on to graduate school, he and his co-founders passed leadership of the club to a new group of students. Each year since, a new group of leaders kept alive the dream of putting a student-built satellite into space. Last week’s launch made that dream a reality. The student group, now called Brown Space Engineering, is more than 80 members strong — and it’s Monn’s legacy to Brown.
“I’m so proud... because so many students have taken this little idea and invested themselves in it completely,” he said. “They never lost sight of the big picture, but they were able to fill in the details that we (the founders) could not.”
Watching the satellite reach space in the days before Commencement gave Monn a sense of closure, he said. But he’ll miss his time on College Hill.
“I’m really sad that I’m going to be leaving ‘for real’ this time. I’ve loved every second of my 10 years at Brown.”
‘Tell them what you heard here today’
Once graduates passed through the Van Wickle Gates, they broke off in separate directions for their degree ceremonies. Monn headed to Simmons Quad for the doctoral ceremony, while undergraduates processed down College Hill to the Meeting House.
A graduating class of 120 new doctors celebrated hard-earned medical degrees, taking the Physician’s Oath at the Warren Alpert Medical School ceremony at the First Unitarian Church.
Meanwhile, a record 717 master’s students headed east to Pembroke Field. For the first time, that group included graduates from each of the School of Professional Studies’ four executive master’s programs.
Javier Juarez, who earned a master’s degree in American studies, greeted his fellow graduate students first in Spanish, then in English, to reflect his upbringing as an undocumented student from Peru.
“Nineteen years ago, when I was a 10-year-old boy, I crossed the U.S.-Mexico border after being stranded alone in Ciudad Juárez for 10 days,” Juarez said. “Once I finally arrived, my dad broke down in tears. Finally reunited, we rode a Greyhound bus from El Paso, Texas, to Providence, Rhode Island. ...No bags. Just one set of clothes.”
Though Juarez’ father was an engineer in Peru, the language barrier prevented him from pursuing that career in the U.S. Instead, he ironed shirts, cleaned bathrooms and enlisted his son to help. Together, Juarez and his father washed the mirrors, toilets and floors of a brand new, multi-story building — one Juarez later realized, in a surreal moment, was home to Brown’s School of Public Health.
“I wanted to show you how drastically things can change with hard work, perseverance and a bit of luck,” he said. “Tell them what you heard here today: That a son of an immigrant who didn’t speak the language, who crossed borders illegally, who cleaned up the dirty bathrooms of this prestigious institution, graduated alongside the greatest minds and told you to change the world.”
Messages from the forums
Along with Sting and Styler, Brown awarded honorary degrees to five others — Lonnie Bunch III, J. Michael Kosterlitz, Beverly Ledbetter, Nancy Northup and Giuseppe Penone — whose lives and accomplishments exemplify the values to which Brown aspires.
Ledbetter spent 40 years charting Brown’s course through the complex legal landscape faced by a global research university. At the Baccalaureate Ceremony held on Saturday, May 26, Ledbetter shared the story of her life and career in an address titled “Family, Friends and Faith: Reflections on a Life in Academe.”
Many of the honorary degree recipients were featured in 23 Commencement forums on Saturday, which offered graduates, alumni and guests the chance to dive into topics ranging from mass incarceration and the fight against malaria to neurotechnology, activism and “big media and social change.” Penone, an Italian artist, discussed the intersections of art, nature and the environment; Kosterlitz shared tales from his meandering journey toward the Nobel Prize in Physics; and Styler spoke about the importance of protecting the Earth and its peoples.
In a forum titled “Exile and Return to Community,” Sting spoke and sung of his evolving relationship with his hometown of Wallsend — a bleak, surreal, industrialist environment in the northeast of England where life centered on the local shipyard. At age 7, a Spanish guitar with “five rusty strings” landed in his lap, and he recognized it instantly as a means to escape his dark, dangerous destiny in the shipyard down the street.
“So I dreamt I’d become a musician,” Sting said. “I dreamt that I would be a writer of songs and that I’d sing those songs all over the world. That I’d be paid extravagant amounts of money. That I’d become famous and have Grammy awards and platinum discs. Yet I never imagined I’d get an honorary degree from Brown — that was beyond the realm of even my imagination.”
True to rock star form, Sting even gave an encore, imploring the audience to help belt out “Message in a Bottle,” a song that both made him famous and was based on life in Wallsend.
Bunch, founding director of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture, spoke about the 11-year process of establishing the only national museum devoted exclusively to African American life, history and culture. First conceived over a century ago, the museum realized a long-held dream when it opened its doors in 2016.
“This had to be a museum that helped people remember the richness of the African American experience and rethink the stories that they thought they knew in new ways,” Bunch said. “But the museum also decided that it had to find ways to use African American culture as a lens to understand what it meant to be an American.”
Emphasizing that shared history profoundly shapes all Americans, Bunch said the museum has created new and different ways to think about race and ethnicity.
“The goal of the museum really was to make America better,” Bunch said. “Not greater, better.”
Celebration and ceremony
The forums were part of a full weekend of Commencement and Reunion events before degrees were conferred on Sunday. Festivities kicked off in earnest on Thursday with a dedication of Brown’s stunning and state-of-the-art Engineering Research Center, an architectural showpiece in the heart of College Hill.
On Friday, Brown graduates from as far back as 1943 arrived on campus for class reunions. One of the visitors was retired higher education administrator Thomas Coakley, who graduated 50 years ago in 1968. The Vietnam War veteran fondly remembered another Reunion Weekend 21 years ago, when he laid a wreath at the foot of a new war memorial near Soldier’s Arch.
“An elderly couple came up to me afterward — I guess [they were] the same age as I am now,” he said. The couple introduced themselves as parents of Robert T. Steinsieck Jr., who had graduated from Brown with Coakley in 1968 and died in Vietnam. “You put that wreath up for our son,” Coakley remembered Steinsieck’s father telling him. “It was one of those momentous movie moments of life.”
Movie moments also abounded at Brown’s famous Campus Dance, the annual Friday night dance party that this year brought together alumni, graduates and loved ones under the glow of hundreds of paper lanterns on the College Green. As is tradition, people of all ages grooved for hours to live music; then, at midnight, they gathered near the steps of Sayles Hall for the Senior Sing, where graduates joined in on a heartfelt rendition of Brown’s alma mater.
Thirty-six hours later, the Class of 2018 had their degrees in hand, ready to use what they’d learned to pursue their passions with joy, conviction, integrity and intention to improve the world, as Paxson had urged.
She wasn’t the only one. From Sting and Styler at Saturday’s forums to speakers at the annual Graduating Veterans Recognition and Commissioning Ceremony to Sunday’s senior orators, the call for Brown’s newest alumni to use their Ivy League degrees for good echoed far and wide.
“I have faith that you will go into this world to create a better one,” Juarez told his fellow graduates on Sunday. “A world where there are no borders separating dreams, but only bridges that facilitate those dreams becoming a reality. Dear Class of 2018, you have this power after today.”