PROVIDENCE, R.I. [Brown University] — Amid a weekend of hugs, cheers and more than a few happy tears in celebration of the Class of 2019, President Christina Paxson welcomed graduates and guests to the College Green on Sunday, May 26, for the centerpiece of Brown’s 251st Commencement, the University Ceremony.
Under brilliant sunshine and College Hill’s iconic elms, Paxson awarded bachelor’s, master’s, doctoral and medical degrees to representatives from each class, as well as seven honorary doctorates to distinguished scholars, activists, philanthropists and artists. And in keeping with the Brown tradition of elevating student voices during Commencement, two graduating seniors addressed the crowd of family, friends, alumni and well-wishers who came to celebrate Brown’s newest graduates.
Ruth Miller, a Dena'ina Athabascan Alaska Native, and the first Alaska Native to deliver an oration at Brown’s Commencement, gave an address titled “How to be a Warrior: An argument for Radical Compassion.”
She recalled how her mother would offer soothing words when childhood fears kept Miller awake at night. “You come from a long line of strong, powerful and resilient indigenous women,” said Miller, recalling her mother’s words. “They were Warrior Women. I am a Warrior Woman. And you, Ruth, are a Warrior Woman.”
At Brown, where she concentrated in development studies, Miller says she harnessed that warrior spirit to fight back against injustices she saw on campus and beyond. She drew strength from joining indigenous peoples worldwide at Standing Rock to peacefully demonstrate in opposition to the Dakota Access Pipeline, a gathering that included 11 Brown students.
“We stood against the environmental and cultural threat of the Dakota Access Pipeline,” Miller said. “We celebrated a commitment to the Earth and to justice through peaceful gathering using the weapons of community, care and deep love.”
Powerful as that experience was, Miller’s frustration and rage over injustice soon left her feeling “burnt out, running on fumes,” she said. “I was trying to destroy so much, that I was letting myself be destroyed.”
But over time, her conception of what it means to be a warrior changed.
“Now I am leaving Brown with a new idea of how to be a Warrior: I will fight with compassion,” she said. “I will stop thinking of destruction, and instead towards reimagining and rebuilding. Generating seeds of change and helping them grow, instead of just battling the weeds.”
She urged her fellow graduates, as they depart College Hill, to deal compassionately with their communities, in their relationships with others and with themselves.
“Class of 2019, I urge you to share yourselves with this world,” Miller said. “Our most precious asset, our most coveted strength, will always be our empathy. Choosing compassion is not choosing passivity. It is using the strength of our love to overcome hate. Find the potential that comes with kindness, loving and a resilient spirit that cannot be dissuaded by adversity.”
In an address titled, “On Crossing Borders,” Patricia Rodarte reflected on her experience growing up in El Paso, Texas, which has important and enriching ties with its sister city across the U.S. / Mexico border, Ciudad Juarez. Rodarte, who will soon head to medical school as part of Brown’s Program in Liberal Medical Education, said the borderland is where she learned the values of hard work, community-building and collaboration. That learning started with her parents.
“From [my mother], I learned relational skills that guided vulnerable conversations with friends in the staircases of our libraries,” she said. “These skills will lead communication with my future patients as I become the first medical doctor in my family. Through my father, I found my voice that now literally echoes on campus. To this day, I experience language come to life when he translates legal documents for Spanish-speaking neighbors, or interprets health care systems for others who are medically uninsured like himself.”
After arriving in Providence, Rodarte said she realized that Brown too was a place that benefited from people and ideas that cross borders.
“At Brown, we have been alongside friends who use algorithms to detect blood flow in the brain, who use transportation routes to study infant health and who use art as a form of healing,” she said. “Brown has taught us to practice disciplinary disobedience, to redirect the lines that dictate one field from another and find their point of intersection. We’ve been called to cross borders, to find the humanity through the lenses of our microscopes, the communities in our codes and the person in our politics.”
Rodarte encourage her fellow graduates to make crossing borders an ethos they carry with them throughout their lives after Brown.
“Our goal must be to have conversations with people outside our circles,” she said, “to share meals with those who don’t look like us, who don’t talk like us, who don’t stand on the same side of the fence. Only then can we transform our degrees into agents of real change. Let’s make our futures a borderland too.”
Following the student remarks, Ross Cheit, chair of the Faculty Executive Committee, presented the Susan Colver Rosenberger Medal of Honor to Class of 1976 graduate and Chancellor Emeritus Thomas J. Tisch. The medal, which has been awarded just 31 times since its establishment in 1919, is the highest honor bestowed by the Brown faculty. Tisch was honored for his steadfast commitment to Brown’s essential qualities during his nine years as chancellor and his dedication to pushing the University to become an ever greater version of itself.
After awarding degrees representatives of each class, and following a rousing rendition of Brown’s Alma Mater, Paxson called the 251st Commencement exercises to a close.
At the conclusion of the ceremony, new graduates shared hugs, and many tossed their caps before heading to departmental ceremonies held across campus, where each undergraduate received their individual degrees and the congratulations of faculty, loved ones and well-wishers.