PROVIDENCE, R.I. [Brown University] — In years not dominated by global pandemics, Brown’s three-day Commencement and Reunion Weekend often brings more than 10,000 people — graduates, guests, family, friends, faculty, staff, alumni and more — to College Hill in May.
While this year’s celebration will be decidedly smaller and held in full compliance with COVID-19 health and safety protocols, the spirit will be largely the same, as Brown hosts a robust lineup of in-person, socially distanced Commencement ceremonies for graduates and virtual events for students, families and alumni from Friday, April 30, through Sunday, May 2.
The weekend will look different, but both in-person and virtual events will bring members of the Brown community together to honor the accomplishments of the University’s Class of 2021 graduates and to offer opportunities for alumni and friends to reunite virtually.
Commencement Ceremonies for Graduates
Brown will host in-person Commencement ceremonies for graduating students in a manner that is healthy, safe and fully aligned with State of Rhode Island regulations on events and the University’s COVID-19 Campus Safety Policy. Participants will be limited to the graduates themselves and a small number of Brown faculty and staff — all of whom must be enrolled in Brown’s COVID-19 testing program.
Separate ceremonies for the Warren Alpert Medical School (at 10 a.m.) and Brown’s Graduate School (at 2:30 p.m.) will take place on Saturday, May 1. To ensure compliance with state gathering size limits, the University will host two College Ceremonies on Sunday, May 2 — one at 10 a.m. and a second at 2:30 p.m.
Each ceremony will be livestreamed via the Brown website. And all graduates will have the chance to walk through the Van Wickle Gates with their classmates, in typical Brown tradition.
Families, Friends and Guests
In January 2021, Brown outlined plans for in-person Commencement events for the Class of 2021 but made the difficult decision that families and guests would have to attend virtually rather than in-person, with the pandemic continuing to pose a risk to public health and safety. University leaders recognized that celebrating Commencement on campus is a milestone that many families anticipate with excitement and made the decision only after careful consideration of the public health situation.
While family members, friends and guests won’t be able to attend in-person, the weekend was planned to enable and encourage them to particulate virtually. All of the weekend’s major events — including the Baccalaureate service; the College, Medical School and Graduate School ceremonies; and all forums and lectures — will be livestreamed via the Brown website. Ceremonies will be available for on-demand viewing after the live events have ended.
Family and friends can also share congratulatory messages, photos, videos and well wishes on Instagram, Facebook and Twitter using the hashtags #Brown2021 and #BrownU. A range of resources for celebrating on social media — including virtual backgrounds, social post images and Instagram stickers — are available on Brown’s Commencement website.
News Media Access
In typical years, Brown welcomes credentialed news media to campus for many Commencement and Reunion Weekend events. This year, journalists are welcome to view all major events via Brown’s livestream, but no access will be granted to campus for in-person events. This is consistent with the University’s no-visitors policy in place during the pandemic and decision to limit in-person Commencement participation exclusively to students and employees enrolled in Brown’s COVID-19 testing program. Journalists are welcome to be in touch with Brown’s news team with questions or requests related to virtual coverage of Commencement 2021.
Separate ceremonies will be held for the College, the Warren Alpert Medical School and the Graduate School to reduce the number of people gathering on campus at any one time. Graduates must pre-register for the relevant ceremony to receive an assigned time slot and seating section with designated entry and exit points. Students will pick up their regalia and wristband in advance, which will allow them to gain access to the College Green during their designated ceremony. No admittance to the College Green will be allowed without a wristband and Eventbrite registration confirmation. Graduates must also be actively enrolled in and compliant with Brown’s COVID-19 testing program, with a recent negative test result.
For the College and Graduate School ceremonies held on the College Green: the College Green will be divided into socially distanced seating sections that will be monitored by staff. Entry to and exit from the College Green will be staggered based on assigned time slots. The ceremony location and surrounding areas will be closed to the public. Only individuals approved to be on campus with the required proof of access will be able to enter the ceremony location and surrounding areas. And no large bags or backpacks will be allowed.
In keeping with the University’s tradition of elevating student voices at Commencement, members of the Class of 2021 will address their fellow graduates at each ceremony. Two undergraduate student orators — George Kubai, a biomedical engineering concentrator from Lowell, Massachusetts, and Siddhi Nadkarni, a health and human biology concentrator from Syracuse, New York — will address graduates during the College ceremonies on Sunday. In what may be a historic first, each will deliver their address twice — for the morning and afternoon ceremonies.
A day earlier, a Ph.D. graduate and a master’s degree graduate, each selected by the Graduate Student Council, will deliver remarks during the Graduate School ceremony. Bardiya Akhbari, who will receive his Ph.D. in biomedical engineering, will deliver an address titled “Bani Adam: One Essence and Soul.” Sonya Brooks, who will receive her master’s in urban education policy, will deliver an address titled “Our Connection in Chaos.”
At the Saturday morning ceremony for the Warren Alpert Medical School, graduate Jason Tsichlis will present a student address titled “Scholars of the Human Condition.”
Honorary degrees are awarded by the Board of Fellows of the Brown Corporation and will be conferred by the University president — in English and in Latin — during Sunday’s College ceremonies. The University will honor six candidates who have achieved great distinction in their fields. Some will accept the honor in-person, while others will do so remotely.
- Norman Atkins — Education leader and innovator
- Steven R. Jordan — NFL player and business leader
- David Lobell — Agricultural ecologist and environmental scientist
- Maud S. Mandel — College president and history scholar
- Jessica U. Meir — NASA astronaut and marine biologist
- Ojetta Rogeriee Thompson — Federal judge and legal pioneer
The University’s Baccalaureate service will take place on Friday, April 30, at 5 p.m. in virtual-only format, livestreamed via the Brown website. This multi-faith service — which alternates between the celebratory and the solemn in marking a moment of gratitude and thanksgiving for graduating seniors — incorporates many spiritual and cultural traditions. Brown Class of 1982 graduate Steven R. Jordan — a longtime National Football League standout, member of the Minnesota Vikings Hall of Fame and business leader in an accomplished off-the-field career — will deliver this year’s Baccalaureate address.
Forums, Lectures and Other Events
A modified version of the traditional forum lineup — a Commencement and Reunion Weekend tradition for more than four decades that include lectures, discussions and performances by faculty, alumni and guests who are nationally recognized authorities in their fields — will kick off with “Reflections from Working in Space: A Conversation with President Paxson and Jessica Meir” on Friday, April 30, at 6:30 p.m. In this virtual event, Brown graduate, NASA astronaut and 2021 honorary degree recipient Jessica Meir — who made history during a mission to the International Space Station as part of the first all-female space walk in October 2019 — will reflect on her latest mission, the future of space exploration and how her time at Brown helped shape her career.
Two other honorary degree recipients will participate in virtual forums on Saturday:
- In “A Discussion on Education Reform with Norman Atkins and Susanna Loeb” at 11 a.m., Brown alumnus Norman Atkins will share his experience at the frontiers of education reform over the past three decades in a conversation with Susanna Loeb, director of the Annenberg Institute at Brown.
- In a separate forum at 1 p.m., “A Conversation with Agricultural Ecologist David Lobell and Professor James Kellner,” Brown alumnus David Lobell will discuss his career working on environmental and food issues, the role that Brown has played in his life and his advice for graduating seniors.
Also on Saturday, the Ruth B. Sauber Distinguished Alumni Lecture and the Frank and Joan Rothman Lecture will be presented virtually:
- The former, at 12 noon, will highlight the work of Brown alumna Dr. Kathleen Ferrer in a talk titled “Pediatric HIV and COVID: Bending the Curve in Two Epidemics.” Ferrer, a hospitalist and HIV medicine specialist at Children's National Hospital, has had a front-row seat to two epidemics. With lessons learned from her on-the-ground experience, she applied medical, public health and advocacy principles to address the COVID-19 epidemic in Washington, D.C.
- The latter, at 1:30 p.m., will tackle the challenges and joys of aging in, “On Growing Older: Aging, Caregiving and Grandparenting.” Americans who reach age 65 can expect to live, on average, another 20 years. Despite stereotypes, it’s a time that can bring discoveries and pleasures, as well as challenges. Paula Span, a veteran journalist at the New York Times, will talk about preparing to meet them.
Many departments will hold virtual celebrations for their concentrators during the week of Commencement.
Brown’s First Virtual Reunion
The University’s first-ever virtual Reunion Weekend will welcome Brown alumni from classes ending in 0, 5, 1 or 6 as well as recent graduates. All events are free, fully virtual and readily accessible to alumni whether they’re across the Providence River or across the globe. Events are both inspired by Reunions past — concerts, class get-togethers and forums — plus fun, this-year-old activities like a virtual photo booth and virtual class lounges. Registration is required in advance.
Plans to Celebrate the Class of 2020
A year ago, the members of Brown’s Class of 2020 saw their Commencement postponed after the arrival of COVID-19 in the United States. Despite the hope to welcome Class of 2020 graduates back to campus this spring for a double-Commencement, the public health situation and state regulations on gathering size limits made this infeasible. Class of 2020 graduates have been invited to participate in Brown’s virtual Reunion this year, and a committee comprised of members of the Class of 2020 is being formed to work with the University to plan for an in-person celebration during Commencement and Reunion Weekend 2022.