PROVIDENCE, R.I. [Brown University] — Speaking at Brown University’s College Ceremony on Sunday, May 26, Brown President Christina Paxson commended graduating seniors for their changemaking spirit and urged them to lead the way in addressing economic inequality and other major challenges facing society.
Standing before 1,697 graduating seniors gathered on the lawn of the First Baptist Church in America, Paxson expressed hope that members of the Class of 2019 would use their degrees to confront rising inequity across the world, take action to mitigate climate change and successfully navigate a changing work environment.
“You’re Brunonians — you rise to challenges,” Paxson said. “And you’re more than capable of facing hard truths and then doing the hard work of making change… Every single one of you, no matter where you’re headed next, has a role to play. And I know you will. We need you to do this.”
For more than 70 years, the College Ceremony has provided Brown’s graduating seniors with a relatively quiet moment to reflect on their accomplishments amid the joyous chaos and cacophony of Commencement and Reunion Weekend. Since 1947, graduates have momentarily left family members behind to process alone to the front of the historic church, the site of Brown Commencement ceremonies since 1776.
This year, as before, seniors gathered on the grass in caps and gowns to hear Paxson speak, following a lively procession through the heart of campus and down College Hill. On the way to the church, they snapped selfies, chatted about future plans — whether for careers or simply for dinner that night — and swapped memorable stories from the last four years.
Paxson, too, took time to reminisce, highlighting a few of the graduates’ collective accomplishments. She reminded seniors of the instrumental role some of them played in developing Rhode Island’s Greenhouse Gas Emissions Reduction Plan. She thanked others for drawing attention to the challenges that students from low-income families face at Brown and universities across the nation.
“We learned from you that some Brown students were having to choose between buying food and buying textbooks, and so we... introduced a program to provide free textbooks to those who need them,” Paxson said. “These changes will help generations of students who follow you. So we thank you for that.”
The students’ thoughtfulness and activism, Paxson said, position them well to lead the way in taking on global challenges, including major changes that may soon come to the workplace in light of increasing automation and the rise of artificial intelligence.
“We hear a regular drumbeat of predictions that many of today’s jobs will become irrelevant due to new technology, hopefully replaced with new jobs that haven’t yet been imagined,” Paxson said. “The people who succeed in this environment will have the ability to create, and collaborate, and address complex situations, and lead with empathy... I have no doubt that Brown’s Open Curriculum has helped you develop the agility that will be needed in this rapidly-changing world.”
She acknowledged that such automation could leave many skilled workers behind — and that, too, is an issue Brunonians should address.
“All of you, thanks to your education, will very likely be on the privileged side of the socioeconomic divide,” Paxson said. “And you owe it to others to apply your education and talents to building strong societies and promoting prosperity that benefits everyone, not just those fortunate enough to attend universities like Brown.”
As is tradition, the College Ceremony featured a prayer from University Chaplain Janet Cooper Nelson, who took time to celebrate the day’s first-generation college graduates and to remember Class of 2019 students who died before completing studies. Opening the ceremony with a performance of “The Star-Spangled Banner” was Henry Belcaster, who graduated Sunday with a degree in astrophysics.
For those students who attended Opening Convocation in Fall 2015, the scene may have felt familiar. On that September day, incoming students listened to another rendition of the national anthem, and both Paxson and Cooper Nelson had shared inspirational words. Paxson invited the graduates to conjure images of their past selves at Convocation, all nerves and naïveté — and to hold on to those first-year feelings as they left Brown for careers, travel and other opportunities.
“As you depart, I encourage you to dig deep and channel your inner first-year self...” Paxson said. “Never lose the optimism; the intellectual, emotional and social openness; the eagerness to learn; and the commitment to having an impact on the world. These virtues... will lead you to lives of meaning and consequence in a changing world.”