Date May 28, 2022
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At Brown’s Baccalaureate, students make room for gratitude and grief

The Class of 2022 celebrated the Baccalaureate with joyful performances, reflective remarks and prayers from faith traditions across the globe — holding space for both celebration and sorrow.

PROVIDENCE, R.I. [Brown University] — What is it like to feel gratitude and grief at the same time? Brown University’s Class of 2022 has some idea.

On Saturday, May 28, the graduating seniors packed into the standing-room-only First Baptist Church in America in the midst of Commencement and Reunion Weekend to take part in the Baccalaureate, a colorful, multi-faith service whose core components date back to the University’s founding.

Much of the event was as happy and celebratory as in years past: There were wide smiles, heartfelt hugs, peals of laughter, and songs and dances filled with pure joy. But many of the performances, prayers and speeches made clear that the Class of 2022 wasn’t just prepared to celebrate; they were also prepared to reflect, together, on the tough times when they didn’t feel like celebrating.

“For some of us, a cloud hangs over our party,” admitted Sarah Kim, a graduating senior, from the pulpit of the church, where Brown’s graduates have gathered since 1776. “And so we acknowledge grief’s presence — in the faces we had hoped would be here with us today, in the experiences we hoped to have before walking out of the gates, and in our tear-soaked sleeves as we wave goodbye to people and faces who have come to mean so much to us.” 

In a student-led portion of the Baccalaureate program titled “Wisdom from Our Traditions,” Kim told her fellow graduates, who sat masked in the audience, that she felt as if she was standing at an intersection — of gratitude for the first fully in-person Commencement since 2019, and grief from the heartbreaks of the two-year COVID-19 pandemic. But at that uncomfortable intersection, she said, there are valuable lessons to be gleaned.

“The same secret corners where we cried over setbacks, heartbreak and loss were also sites of meaningful accomplishment, where we sharpened and comforted each other,” she said. “Today, we take the time to appreciate the flowers that grew in the concrete. How wonderful it is that we have learned not to take each other, or gatherings like these, for granted.”

The commingling of joy and reflection isn’t unusual at Brown’s Baccalaureate. In its early days, it was a solemn Baptist church service with a graduation-themed sermon. But over two and a half centuries, it has transformed to reflect the University’s growing diversity and commitment to inclusion. Today, it’s something of a multicultural festival that’s equal parts contemplative and convivial, with performances, remarks and prayers from numerous cultural and faith traditions.

Some of those traditions endure year after year. As ever, in a procession down Waterman Street, seniors snapped photos and cheered loudly as they watched costumed students in the Brown Lion Dance lead the way to the church. As before, the New England quartet The Drums of Mali greeted students with smiles and West African rhythms at the church door as students filtered in. And as usual, Gendo Taiko, Brown’s beloved Japanese drumming group, received a thundering standing ovation after a joyful performance. 

But other elements of the service were new this year. Brown-RISD dual degree student Sherenté Harris, a member of the Narragansett Indian Tribe, shared a heartfelt Narragansett blessing and an energetic Fancy Shawl dance. Bree Zhang, a graduating senior, performed her original composition “Growing Up” on the guzheng, a millennia-old Chinese stringed instrument. And senior Micaela Camacho-Tenreiro guided the audience through a 90-second moment of silence.

University Chaplain Janet Cooper Nelson said that in the weeks leading up to the event itself, the Baccalaureate can feel like little more than a “huge pile of details” — until it all comes together at First Baptist.

“No matter which details we keep, no matter which details we change, the Baccalaureate’s magic is in the sum of its parts,” Cooper Nelson said. “When it all falls together, it’s a tapestry of Brown — its penchant for both continuity and innovation, its talent, its passion.” 

‘We need you to become champions of the truth’

Dr. Seth Berkley, an alumnus and global vaccine advocate, was ready to celebrate and reflect alongside the graduating class.

“I’d like to acknowledge what you have done during COVID,” Berkeley said delivering the annual Baccalaureate address to the Class of 2022. “You have not only gotten through your degrees, you’ve done so while surviving a pandemic. Not easy — especially when it forced you to sacrifice so much of the Brown experience.”

Berkley, the CEO of GAVI, the Vaccine Alliance, said he could understand why many students might feel apprehensive about leaving Brown, since the pandemic had disrupted their undergraduate experiences and shortened their valuable in-person time together. Though he didn’t attend Brown in the same circumstances, Berkley said he remembered the feeling of excitement mixed with trepidation: He felt it, too, at his undergraduate graduation 44 years ago, and again three years later as he received a degree from the Warren Alpert Medical School.

“I was… anxious about what awaited me beyond those doors,” he said. “Could I achieve my ambitious goals and make a difference? For me, a middle-class kid growing up in the projects, it was Brown that made me feel like I could.”

Berkley said that for all the Class of 2022 had endured, they had likely still found friends and professors from across disciplines and backgrounds who would inspire them forever. That was certainly the case for Berkley. As a student in the Program in Liberal Medical Education, he unexpectedly discovered a passion for Portuguese, which led him to destinations such as Senegal and Brazil. Those travels inspired his eventual career at the intersection of policy and public health. Since then, as head of GAVI, Berkley has helped protect half of the world’s children from deadly and debilitating diseases and has worked with the World Health Organization to oversee global COVID-19 vaccine management and distribution. 

Berkley encouraged the graduates to embrace the unexpected lessons they had learned during the pandemic — namely, to keep fighting for what they believed in, despite any criticism they may receive. It’s what he was determined to do, he shared, as he continued to promote the efficacy of COVID-19 vaccines even as disinformation about the vaccine spread across the United States.

“Find what is right for you and do it,” he said. “We need you to become champions of the truth.”

A ‘beautiful generational tradition’

Like other speakers at the Baccalaureate, Cooper Nelson didn’t shy away from the darkness of the pandemic in her prayer of thanksgiving — one of many prayers given by Jewish, Muslim, Hindu and other faith leaders at the University.

“This season both drew us together and tore us apart,” Cooper Nelson said. “Once deeply different in identity, language and aspiration, we forged friendships, bonds, took one another to heart — only then to be scattered without warning to virtual life restricted by fear and illness. We arrive today transformed by all that we know, by all that we’ve weathered, by all we’ve achieved nonetheless, alone and together.”

That message likely resonated with Sydney Taub and Allie Coonin, who took part in the Baccalaureate as both graduating seniors and performers. As first-year students in pre-pandemic times, Taub and Coonin had performed at the service with Fusion Dance Company, the oldest student-run ensemble of its kind on campus. Four years later, here they were again — in the same church, with the same dance company, feeling very different.

The pair explained that the company’s multicultural, multi-ethnic mission had gained new resonance since 2020, when the pandemic exposed systemic racial inequality across the United States and the Black Lives Matter movement accelerated nationwide. This year, the company partnered with the a cappella group Shades of Brown to perform “Light in the Hallway,” a Pentatonix song about someone who provides comfort to a grieving loved one.

“It’s a beautiful generational tradition,” Taub said. “To take part in the Baccalaureate as a first-year student, and then to progress to being celebrated there as a senior, has given me an opportunity to find new meaning in it.”