Date May 1, 2021
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In socially distanced Graduate School ceremony, speakers call on peers to ‘show up’ and ‘do good work’

With an eye toward lives and careers that make an enduring and positive impact, 763 master’s and Ph.D. graduates earned Brown degrees in a Saturday afternoon Commencement ceremony on the College Green.

PROVIDENCE, R.I. [Brown University] — For brief moments, a casual onlooker could be forgiven for assuming Brown’s Graduate School Ceremony during Commencement Weekend was no different than ever.

Like the ceremonies of years past, the event on Saturday, May 1, opened with a stirring rendition of “The Star-Spangled Banner” by one of Brown’s own — Arlen Austin, a Ph.D. graduate in modern culture and media. As usual, Graduate School Dean Andrew G. Campbell took to the podium to preside, welcoming and congratulating the 763 master’s and Ph.D. graduates.

And per Brown tradition, graduates and faculty in attendance heard an invocation from a University chaplain, and watched their peers receive awards for outstanding research and teaching. So much remained the same.

Yet, given the still-present threat of novel coronavirus, much was different, too.

Graduate School Ceremony


At the 2021 Graduate School ceremony, Brown leaders and student speakers urged master's and Ph.D. grads to make a difference by working together.

Students and faculty sat in chairs spaced 6 feet apart on the College Green, not in the usual close rows under a tent. Rather than hugging fellow graduates, gathering for group selfies or taking to a stage to be hooded, they stayed socially distanced, wore masks and took part in a symbolic hooding from their own seats. Instead of waving to friends and family seated in back rows, they waved at the cameras on the Green, hoping to catch the eye of loved ones watching the ceremony virtually from countless states, countries and continents. And some graduates who had completed their degrees remotely watched the ceremony from homes scattered across the world.

Those small, atypical details symbolized the unusual, challenging and ultimately rewarding year Brown’s graduate students have experienced, said Sonya Brooks, a master’s degree graduate in urban education policy, in an address during Saturday’s ceremony to her fellow graduates.

“The year of 2020-21 has been the most tumultuous year of our lives,” Brooks said, pointing to students’ struggles with COVID-19, national incidents of violence against Black and Asian Americans, and the Jan. 6 insurrection at the U.S. Capitol. “But, yet, we have persevered.”

Speaking virtually from her home in Oakland, California, Brooks — who completed her one-year master’s program without ever setting foot on College Hill, given the pandemic — said that it was students’ “connection in chaos” that had carried them through the unusual academic year. As Brooks’ cohort navigated the uncharted territory of virtual classes, online discussions and group projects completed across multiple time zones, she said, they formed close bonds and lifelong friendships. That bond exposed a commonality among them: a past “awakening” that had inspired all of them to “do good work and be good problems,” ultimately leading them to apply to Brown.

“We come from so many different walks of life — different socioeconomic statuses, different ages, different communities, religions and beliefs — yet, with all of these differences, there were tears shed that somehow changed a trajectory, or caused a paradigm shift, that led us here, today,” she said. “Those tears may have called us from the precipice of defeat or of despair, and it was at that time an awakening occurred — an awakening to do something different, to do something better, or to do something radically.”

The first-generation college graduate and mother of three, who noted she had experienced homelessness and been a victim of domestic abuse in the past, saluted her fellow graduates, without whom she said she couldn’t have persisted. 

“You see, our connections are amazing and profound,” Brooks said. “Alone, we are a single thread. But woven together, those threads make the caps and gowns that we are wearing.”

‘If not you, then who?’

Discovering the importance of community was a years-long journey for Bardiya Akhbari, who earned a Ph.D. in biomedical engineering. The native of Tehran, Iran, embraced the tenets of American individualism when he first came to the United States, he said. But a public narrative workshop Akhbari attended in September 2017, led by University Provost Richard M. Locke, changed his perspective.

“[The provost] ended his speech by reciting, ‘If not you, then who? If not now, then when?’” Akhbari said in an in-person address during Saturday’s ceremony. “For the first time in the U.S., I didn’t feel alone. I saw beyond myself. When it was just me, I had to fight my battles alone, and I was happy and proud. But with my community, I knew I was unstoppable.”

The workshop drove Akhbari to help international students like him, particularly Iranian nationals, feel more welcome on College Hill. He and a friend founded the Iranian Graduate Students Organization, bringing students together for Iranian cultural events and working with the Graduate School to add support for Iranians who attend and apply to Brown. He also became a member of the International Student Advisory Board and represented biomedical engineering within the Graduate Student Council.

Those years of advocacy, Akhbari said, taught him the importance of harnessing one’s own privilege to help those who need it — something he hopes to do as he pursues a career in higher education and creates a wrist joint replacement for those who struggle with arthritis and other mobility issues.

“Show up — just show up,” Akhbari urged his peers. “It doesn’t matter if you’re planning to stay in academia to educate the next generation of doctors, or become a researcher and push the boundaries of science, or move on to industry to make perfect products that can change our world, or enter politics to directly change lives… [When] they call you, call back. When they don’t call you, volunteer, stand up and take the lead on something that you care about. We have the credentials for it, and we’re the fortunate ones. We are not allowed to stay on the sideline.”

For the first time at any recent Commencement ceremony for the Graduate School, University President Christina H. Paxson was able to address graduates directly — in typical years, she is unable to attend the event because it’s held at the same time she’s addressing undergraduates at the College Ceremony. Echoing Akhbari’s sentiments, she said it was imperative that graduates take the lead in working with one another, across disciplines, to answer complex questions about issues such as the future of privacy in the age of artificial intelligence and the futures of coastal inhabitants as sea levels continue to rise.

“If we want to solve these problems and countless others... we must work together,” Paxson said. “We need computer scientists who can work with and talk to policymakers. We need biologists who learn from philosophers, and environmental scientists collaborating with artists to communicate with the rest of the world. If we don’t reach across these divides, we risk having science become detached from human values, and public policy and discourse becoming detached from science... We need you to step up and take responsibility for addressing these issues and others, and you have to do it together.”

A spirited send-off

In typical years, Brown’s master’s and Ph.D. graduates join faculty, alumni and the undergraduate class in a spirited procession through College Hill, high-fiving crowds of families and other well-wishers, before heading off to separate ceremonies on campus. This year, they still processed through the iconic Van Wickle Gates — but there were no crowds, and the undergraduate Class of 2021 walked through the gates on a separate day.

Yet the change didn’t seem to dampen spirits. As graduates passed through the open gates and continued down College Street to the sound of bagpipes and the bell atop University Hall, they waved, cheered and chatted animatedly with one another, some in caps decorated with faux flowers and greenery. 

Just blocks away, anthropology Ph.D. graduate Alexandra Peck was taking part in a more intimate, but no less festive, reception with a small group of fully vaccinated fellow graduates, faculty advisors and family members.

Reflecting on the last 14 months of her six-year Ph.D. journey, Peck recalled positives and negatives. One the one hand, she felt lonely without the ability to socialize with her close-knit cohort, and she found it difficult to finish her dissertation without access to her research site, a Native American reservation in Western Washington. On the other hand, the pandemic allowed her to devote most of her time and energy to writing.

“In some ways, COVID-19 allowed me to focus strongly on writing and finishing my dissertation, because there were no social obligations and all of my other research activities were severely limited,” Peck said. “However, not being able to meet with my advisors in person was difficult, particularly when I began editing and revising my dissertation. And, of course, not being able to relax with friends made the process of finishing my degree much more stressful!”

Though it may have been tough to accomplish, Peck’s hard work paid off: In August, she’ll take up a position as a visiting scholar of Indigenous studies at the University of Minnesota-Twin Cities Institute for Advanced Study. There, she will work with Minneapolis-area Native American tribes on issues of ecology, cartography and art, part of a broader effort to raise awareness of Indigenous sovereignty and study Native tribes’ environmental stewardship.

During the ceremony, Graduate School leaders took the time to honor other new graduates for accomplishments in their time at Brown. Akhbari was one of four winners of the Graduate Student Contribution to Community Life Award, given each year to doctoral and master’s students who worked to support diversity and inclusion and build a sense of community among their peers. Eight Ph.D. students from a diverse set of disciplines also received Outstanding Dissertation Awards and Excellence in Teaching Awards; many, the Graduate School’s deans noted, went above and beyond to continue leading engaging class discussions and contributing rigorous research in a year when doing so was particularly challenging.

The Graduate School presented Master’s Awards to three students — cybersecurity graduate Thian Chin Lim, honored in part for his role in developing a cybersecurity strategy in Singapore; urban education policy graduate Yisel De Oleo-Gregory, honored for her coalition-building skills and advocacy work; and biotechnology graduate Marissa Bennett, honored for her significant, impactful research on traumatic brain injuries. 

Jesse Tarnas, a Ph.D. graduate in Earth, environmental and planetary sciences, who was lead author of (among others) a study that showed Mars has the right conditions for underground life, has already begun his first post-Brown chapter: Last November, he started a postdoctoral research position at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory. But because he decided to ride out the remainder of the pandemic in Providence, he sometimes feels as if he hasn’t yet left the University.

“It’s strange to walk and drive past Brown’s campus less than half a mile from my apartment and think, ‘Wow, I used to go to school here!’” Tarnas said. “I experience nostalgia, but without the feeling that my time at Brown has completely finished.”

But finished it is — and as Tarnas closes out his time in Rhode Island and prepares for a move to Southern California, he has begun to reminisce on his University experience.

“I’ll miss the people that I’ve met at Brown,” he said.