Date May 28, 2022
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In return to Brown, 2020 doctoral and master’s graduates reflect on two years of perseverance

Alumni who received their doctoral and master’s degrees in 2020 experienced Commencement and Reunion the way they’d long hoped to — across multiple days, in-person and surrounded by loved ones on College Hill.

PROVIDENCE, R.I. [Brown University] —  A lot can change in two years — just ask Brown’s Class of 2020.

Two months before their Commencement celebrations were slated to kick off, COVID-19 arrived in Providence, and plans were postponed. The graduates waited through 2021, holding out hope that they would soon be able to honor their achievements in Brown tradition.

On Saturday, May 28, they triumphantly returned to College Hill, where alumni who earned their doctoral and master’s degrees in 2020 joined the undergraduate Class of 2020 in a high-energy procession that led them across campus and out through the iconic Van Wickle Gates — a symbol of their transition into post-Brown life.

Master’s and doctoral students, along with their family members and guests, soon sat under a canopy on Ruth J. Simmons Quad to finally, two years later, celebrate their accomplishments in a ceremony presided over by Andrew Campbell, dean of the Graduate School, and Leah VanWey, dean of the School of Professional Studies.

The longstanding Brown tradition of lifting student voices at Commencement held fast, with Mira Nikolova and Abdullah Shihipar delivering updated versions of the speeches they originally gave to their fellow graduates at a Virtual Degree Conferral Ceremony two years ago. This time, though, each was able to stand on stage in front of a lawn packed with friends and family, listen to roars of applause, and symbolically receive their doctoral and master’s hoods on behalf of their classmates.

Nikolova, who earned a Ph.D. in Slavic studies, began her speech by evoking a plant that would be entirely out of place in New England: the saguaro cactus: “It is not only a symbol of perseverance, but also one of immense potential to do good and to positively impact every creature in its ecosystem,” she said.

Nikolova asked the crowd to join her in a botanical-inspired meditation, and hundreds of attendees sat silent and smiling as she described a vibrant scene straight out of a Western: the vast desert, bright sunset, a rugged hero on horseback looking for their next dangerous adventure along a new frontier. But it was the cactus in the background that Nikolova asked the crowd to focus on.

“Can you see it?” she asked. “It’s a mighty, 50-foot-tall cactus with its arms up in the air as if reaching for the sky … It’s a fascinating plant, and in many ways, it reminds me of us, Ph.D. graduates.”

First and foremost, the saguaro is a patient and dedicated cactus, Nikolova said. It grows slowly. In its first 10 years, it might only reach a height of an inch or two; a single arm could take up to 75 years to develop. But over that time, the saguaro is carefully growing its lifeline — an extensive root system that supports it through the years, not unlike the support system graduate students build throughout their education in classrooms, labs, libraries and cafes.

“At first glance, the saguaro cactus appears to be a lone figure, standing out in the desert landscape,” Nikolova said. “Yet, as it turns out, it is inextricably connected to almost every organism around it.” The saguaro doesn’t just take, it provides. Its flowers and pulp are sustenance for many desert creatures, its trunk a home to different bird species, and its arms a shelter from the blistering sun. “May we too, like the saguaro cactus, give back to our university, home communities and our futures ones.”

In presiding over the ceremony, Campbell echoed the sentiment, noting that just because the graduates are no longer students does not mean that they are no longer part of Brown.

“As a Brown University graduate, your future will continue to be shaped by what you have done to earn your degree, your accomplishments over the past two years, and what you have learned about yourself and your area of expertise in this time,” he said. “While you may continue to feel some uncertainty about what the future holds, please know that Brown will be here for you."

Great potential, great responsibility

VanWey presided over the master’s portion of the ceremony, reflecting on how the pandemic demanded that graduates embrace adaptability in an ever-changing world of education, and life and work beyond Brown.

“My hope is that you’ve already taken this knowledge with you into the next phase of your journey,” she said.

For Shihipar, who earned a master of public health in 2020, his journey took him right back to Brown, where he now works for the People, Place and Health Collective, a research initiative in the School of Public Health.

He extolled the importance of doing good by your community, no matter how difficult it seems. And he acknowledged the emotional whiplash of the past two years — that everyone sitting before him had both encountered immense challenges and felt immense joy, perhaps sometimes at once.

“In essence, you’ve been experiencing just what it means to be alive, which means you’ve been going through it in the best and worst ways possible,” Shihipar said.

At a time when the rollercoaster of world events can seem defeating, he urged the graduates to think back to why they came to Brown in the first place, evoking the excitement they felt as they attended their first courses, the thrill of making new research discoveries and the confidence that came with learning new skills.

“During our graduate education, we were encouraged to pursue excellence and reach for the top,” he said. “We were encouraged to find ways to solve problems, not to make excuses about why we couldn’t do something.”

As experts in their field, Shihipar argued that everyone in the crowd now has a platform, and they should use it. The same motivation they held onto as students should be harnessed after leaving the institution, because regardless of which direction their moral compass points, those who can — will.

“Those who harm do not know the meaning of the word ‘no,’” Shihipar said. “It does not exist in their vocabulary. Indeed, they have a limitless imagination. So if they can use their imaginations and platforms to harm, we can use ours to heal and repair and dream big. These degrees that have been conferred on us not only represent great potential, but they represent great responsibility.”

As the ceremony drew to a close, after each graduate’s name was called and degrees were “reconferred” in Latin, Campbell shared what everyone in the audience appeared to be thinking.

“It’s clear from the applause and excitement and the love you’ve all expressed when these names were called that two years hasn’t broken any bonds of friendship,” he said.

A campus return to celebrate

Though the opportunity to experience Commencement the way they had originally envisioned was a big motivator to return to College Hill, the procession and formal ceremony were just two events lined up for 2020 graduates. Dozens of Commencement forums, exhibitions, open houses and receptions welcomed the alumni to engage with communities old and new.

Following the ceremony, graduates and guests headed to Pembroke Green to reconnect and relax at the Graduate Class of 2020 Commencement Reception. They spoke with deans, faculty and staff, caught up with classmates, and relished the opportunity to have their accomplishments honored in-person, together as a class.

Noah Brandon, who traveled from Louisiana to celebrate the executive MBA he earned through the IE Brown program, was excited to attend Commencement and Reunion Weekend.

“Walking through the Van Wickle Gates was a lot cooler than I thought it would be,” he said. “It’s a major accomplishment for me to be able to graduate from an Ivy League school.”

Brandon, whose family joined him for the festivities, added that had an extra-special reason for returning to campus: He wanted to return home with a picture of him — in his cap and gown — with his daughter. And he did.

For Moloko McKenzie, a South Africa native who earned a master’s degree two years ago, the importance of her return to Brown wasn’t just about her achievements, but what they represented to her community back home.

“I came back because of the immenseness of the moment,” she said. “Given my journey and the fact that I don’t just represent myself — I represent a nation and a continent of people and women, specifically — I understand the weight of this.”

Walking through the Van Wickle Gates was an emotional moment for McKenzie. She remembered crying as she passed through them during Opening Convocation, when she began studies. Ending her Brown journey at Commencement, she cried again: “There’s something about the gates that makes it that much more special.”