Geronimo Garcia, Shanze Tahir, Attayah Douglas, Jazmin Isabel Piche Cifuentes and Andy M. T. Pham (left to right) led the Class of 2019 through the Van Wickle Gates at Sunday morning’s procession. All photos: Nick Dentamaro/Brown University

Date May 26, 2019
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Students, alumni celebrate accomplishments, anniversaries in procession

Many thousands of Class of 2019 graduates and alumni from as early as the Class of 1939 took part in the annual celebration, a centuries-long University tradition.

PROVIDENCE, R.I. [Brown University] — As a high school student in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, Dasa Gangadhar dreamed of graduating from Brown.

More than three and a half decades later, Gangadhar finally fulfilled that teenage dream — just in time to walk through the Van Wickle Gates alongside his daughter, an undergraduate member of the Class of 2019.

After 24 years as a practicing physician, Gangadhar was ready to pursue a new path, he said — one that would allow him to play a broader role in transforming American health care. After his daughter, Megha, enrolled at Brown as an undergraduate, he was inspired to apply to the University’s Executive Master of Healthcare Leadership program.

“The program allowed me to fulfill my dream of attending Brown, follow a path for which I have great passion and spend more time with my darling daughter,” he said. “What more could a father ask for?”

On Sunday, May 26, the wide-smiling Dasa and Megha Gangadhar were just two of nearly 3,000 graduates, 3,500 alumni and hundreds of faculty and staff who braved the sun and heat to participate in Brown’s Commencement procession. The colorful, exhilarating academic pageant, a tradition nearly as old as the University itself, is a signature event during Commencement and Reunion Weekend that unites new graduates, alumni from across the generations, and University leaders, faculty and staff in a communal celebration.

Each year, the procession begins the same way: At the signal of University Hall’s pealing bell, a chief marshal, clad in top hat and tails and always a member of the 50th reunion class, sets off from Faunce Arch, crossing the College and Quiet greens and striding through the Van Wickle Gates. Behind the marshal are the University president, members of Brown’s Corporation, senior leaders and faculty, each dressed in Commencement regalia. Graduate and medical students follow. Then come the alumni, many of whom have traveled to Providence from across the globe to celebrate landmark reunions and participate in the procession.

Finally, graduating seniors stream through the Van Wickle Gates to a soundtrack of cheers, bagpipes and songs from the Brown Band. This year, several of them snapped selfies with the honorary degree recipients who participated in the procession, among them actor and director John Krasinski and documentary filmmaker Ken Burns.

Students have just two opportunities to walk through the famed Van Wickle Gates during their time at Brown — once when they begin their studies and again when they graduate. As graduating senior Lauren Maunus readied herself to cross that threshold one last time, she found herself reminiscing about her first tour through the gates, at Opening Convocation in Fall 2015.

“It’s been a very transformative few years in witnessing my own growth and exploration,” Maunus said. “Coming into Brown, I was really just an extension of myself in high school and fixated on academics. Now, I’m thinking so much about politics and climate change and the future of this world and how members of a community relate to each other. I’m asking questions of positionality and privilege.”

Waiting for Maunus on the other side of the gates is an advocacy position at Sunrise Movement, a climate change coalition based in Washington, D.C. Maunus dedicated much of her senior year transforming a 13-year-old climate advocacy student organization into Sunrise R.I., a highly engaged campus group that in just a few short months has grabbed headlines.

“I think the fact that Sunrise R.I.’s name is unavoidable in any local discussion on climate, and the fact that we’re actually changing politicians’ minds, is really important to see,” Maunus said. “It really instills that hope that we can actually set the direction for the future we want to create.”

For soon-to-be graduates, the Commencement and Reunion procession is the first of many end-of-year celebrations taking place that day. For alumni, it’s often the last event of the weekend — most had arrived on Friday to attend receptions with classmates, academic forums and Campus Dance, another beloved Brown tradition.

Class of 1977 graduate Nancy Harris spent part of her weekend visiting Harkness House, the onetime residence of her husband Brad Parsons, a 1976 graduate.

“I remember my husband threw something and cracked the ceiling [while he was a student],” Harris said while waiting for her about-to-graduate son Colby Parsons to process through the Van Wickle Gates. “The crack is still there.”

Class of 1954 graduate Bob Jenks, too, remembers engaging in “all kinds of misbehaving” at Brown. He and his wife, Jeannie, return every five years to take part in the procession.

“It’s just pure fun, it really is,” he said. “There’s a certain camaraderie you feel with the graduates, and there’s an excitement in reliving your first time down [College Street].”

A significant contingent of Class of 1969 alumni celebrating their 50th reunion turned out, including Ira Magaziner, who served as this year’s chief marshal. He had two 50-year anniversaries to celebrate — that of his graduation and that of the Open Curriculum, for which he was one of the chief architects.

On Sunday, Brown’s unique “inversion” tradition during the procession allowed Magaziner to come face to face with graduating seniors. After stepping through the gates, he and senior leaders from Brown greeted alumni and students by the thousands. Alumni followed his lead, lining up along College Street to cheer on the new graduates. And after the last senior passed through, Magaziner and his fellow alumni rejoined the parade, propelling seniors to their graduation ceremony at the First Baptist Church in America.

High-fiving countless cheering alumni boosted Meghan Mozea’s sense of pride and accomplishment. The senior, who had spent the last four years tutoring both children and prison inmates, advocating for sexual health resources and studying for a degree in history, said she would stay in Providence for one more week before heading to Stanford University for a one-year teacher education program.

“Even though I have wanted to be a teacher since I was in the fourth grade, it wasn't until these last four years of learning and teaching that I truly began to unpack the magic that can take place in the classroom,” she said.

Mozea found herself moved by the symbolism embedded in the procession.

“Walking through those gates is a lot more than getting the diploma,” Mozea said. “It’s validation that, no matter the path, the struggles, the ups and downs that it took to get here, we are all here and now walking through those gates together. And we carry with us through those gates the relationships we built, the knowledge we gathered and our peers who weren’t able to walk through the gates themselves.”