Date May 29, 2022
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With advice from Pelosi, Paxson and peers, Brown’s Class of 2022 celebrates Commencement

A weekend packed with graduation ceremonies and alumni reunions offered a return to normalcy and a chance to experience Commencement and Reunion in-person, for both first-timers and graduates from across generations.

PROVIDENCE, R.I. [Brown University] — One of the hallmarks of Brown’s Commencement and Reunion Weekend is the opportunity for graduates from prior generations to welcome the University’s newest graduates into the Brown alumni family.

For computer science concentrator and Class of 2022 member Zuhal Saljooki, taking part in the traditional Commencement procession on College Hill felt like a full circle experience, she said: “Like we were watching ourselves in the future.” Watching — and embracing.

As alumni marched down Benefit Street with graduating seniors cheering them on, Saljooki caught the eye of Zenab Youssef, a Class of 2020 graduate she hadn't seen in two years, and the two shared a heartfelt hug. Youssef, who now works for Emgage, a nonprofit that empowers Muslim Americans to vote, had been an invaluable guide in Saljooki's first days at Brown, when they met in a campus residence hall.

“Coming in as a first-generation, low-income college student, I did not understand course selection at Brown,” Saljooki said. “Zenab sat next to me the day before classes for two hours. She explained what it meant to take classes for a concentration, what was too much coursework, and where each class was held. Her work as a peer leader ... and best friend brought me to where I am now.”

The embrace between Saljooki and Youssef was just one among thousands across Commencement and Reunion Weekend 2022, held from May 27 to 29. A total of 2,731 new graduates earned bachelor’s, master’s, doctoral and medical degrees with the Class of 2022 on Sunday. A day earlier, 1,337 members of the Class of 2020 reunited on College Hill for a traditional Commencement experience, two years after receiving their degrees virtually when the COVID-19 pandemic prevented in-person gatherings.

The weekend featured words of wisdom from accomplished honorary degree recipients, including U.S. Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi, who delivered a Commencement oration; Dr. Seth Berkley, a physician and public health pioneer who delivered the 2022 Baccalaureate address; and reggae icon Orville “Shaggy” Burrell, who not only offered advice, but performed an impromptu medley of his chart-topping hits.

Brown President Christina H. Paxson offered lessons in holding fast to values and being willing to take risks, and no fewer than 10 student speakers across the weekend’s events — including three senior orators who shared their stories at the University Ceremony — delivered advice to their peers. Among the prevailing themes: Hope. Unity. Perseverance. Vulnerability. And courage in the face of division and uncertainty.

‘The courage to build unity’

Taking a cue from Rhode Island’s motto, “Hope,” in an address with multiple nods to the state — where her grandparents met, in the city of Pawtucket, she said — Pelosi offered remarks during the University Ceremony. 

She acknowledged the massive challenges facing the nation — including the loss of innocent lives in Buffalo, New York; Uvalde, Texas; and so many other communities — and urged the Class of 2022 to bring a spirit of unity to whatever they choose to do. She said it’s no secret that they are graduating into a country deeply divided socially, politically and culturally.

“Graduates, you are our hope,” Pelosi said. “When tragedy struck during your time here, you were undaunted. You sacrificed to keep your community safe from the virus. You embraced with open arms students from Afghanistan, and you rallied around classmates from Ukraine. In your generation we see leaders unafraid to take the torch, marching for our lives, demanding action on gun violence, sounding the alarm on climate crisis… and speaking out against the scourge of injustice.”

Pelosi, the first woman to hold the position of United States speaker of the House, addressed the women who received their degrees from Brown on Sunday, saying that there is nothing “more wholesome for our country, for our politics and for much of our existence” than the fuller participation of women in leadership.

She told the story of her own unexpected path to a political career and how her 16-year-old daughter pushed her to jump at the opportunity to run for Congress when the opportunity presented itself.

“Be ready,” Pelosi said. “You just don't know what's around the corner for you. You may have a clear path that you've set out. God bless you if you do. But even at that, you will have some of the unforeseen. Be yourself, be ready, know your power… and never be afraid to take the leap of faith, particularly when it is unexpected.”

Pelosi hearkened back to President Abraham Lincoln, who in 1861 spoke powerfully about the need to bring the country together in one its darkest hours by “the better angels of our nature.”

“We need you to summon the better angels of our nature to help heal…” she told the graduates. “Once beyond these gates, the leaders who once sat where you sit now have gone on to groundbreaking, generation-defining things. With your brilliance, your passion and your vision, so will you. 

“Let me just tell you what I see here,” Pelosi concluded. “I see dazzling brilliance, beautiful diversity. I see the future, and it is you. Class of 2022, go forward with courage to build unity, and hold onto your hope.”

Like many across the weekend, the University Ceremony began with the recitation of Brown’s new land acknowledgment, adopted earlier in the week. Sherenté Harris, a member of the Narragansett Indian Tribe and a Brown student who served on the Land Acknowledgment Working Group, shared the statement, which recognizes that the University is located on lands within the ancestral homelands of the Narragansett tribe.

‘Hold fast to your values’

Presiding over the College Ceremony earlier on Sunday, Paxson said that as she prepared in recent weeks to address graduates, she had initially hoped not to focus on the COVID-19 pandemic. But ultimately, it has been such a dominant part of shaping the experience of the Class of 2022 that students — and everyone — will be processing its impacts for years to come, she said. She commended the graduates for persisting in the face of a challenge that none of them expected when they arrived on campus.

“For a period of time, you had to give up things you love, like musical performances and athletics competitions, volunteering in local schools, and social activities and many more things,” she said. “Some you lost loved ones — people who should have been here today to celebrate your graduations. In the face of very real grief and disappointment, you found ways to keep your communities together, and you did it brilliantly, virtually. You held remote concerts, you supported our local health care providers, and you tutored schoolchildren online. You did wonderful things.”

The insights gained from having persevered in such turbulent times will position graduates to navigate a lifetime of consequential decisions, Paxson said. She shared two lessons she’s learned about tackling hard decisions in the face of uncertainty. The first: holding fast to values. Brown is defined by its values of academic freedom, respect, equity, integrity and the fundamental importance of advancing knowledge, she said, and those values guided University decision-making in the face of the pandemic.

“We brought students back to campus,” Paxson said. “We never stopped our research. We didn’t have layoffs. We protected the health of our students, employees and community members. Doing these things was core to who we are and what we stand for. Values are important. They are what make us step back and ask ourselves: What are we trying to accomplish and why? What matters in the big picture? My advice: Think about your values — they’re core, they’re central — and follow them.

Her second lesson? Accept the risk of failure. Brown has taken some calculated risks during the pandemic, she said, in step with adhering to its value of advancing knowledge.

“For example, would we be able to stand up a first-class testing program in time for the start of the Fall 2020 semester?” she said. “Despite a few bumps, we did. Would our students — all of you — abide by the necessary health protocols? For the most part, you did. If we hadn’t been willing to take some risk, we would have gone fully remote. But that’s a decision I think we all would have regretted forever.”

She urged the graduates to steer clear of lives of regret.

“Finding real joy, making discoveries, changing the world — these are all things that happen when you’re brave enough and bold enough to accept that you might not get it right on the first try, or the second, or maybe even the third…” Paxson said. “Go out into the world, live by your values, and be the brave and bold Brunonians that I know you want to be.”

Celebrating with a crowd

At Brown’s beloved Commencement procession, a crush of parents and families cheered as new graduates and alumni passed through the open Van Wickle Gates. Walking through the gates is a rite of passage students experience just twice while at Brown, as they begin their studies and on the eve of their departure. But as alumni, they have the option to return in reunion years to relive the magic of the moment — connecting in the procession with peers, new graduates and fellow alumni who graduated as many as 75 years ago.

For some Class of 2022 graduates, the crowds felt staggering: It was the first time in years that they had seen thousands upon thousands of people gathered across just a few blocks.

“I think I forgot how many people go to Brown,” said Gabriela Castillo, a graduating senior who studied business, entrepreneurship and organizations, with a laugh.

But after so many years of social distancing, Castillo said the palpable joy of the thousands of procession participants was more than welcome. It reminded her of the “pre-COVID” days, when she would spontaneously run into friends and acquaintances and spend unhurried moments catching up. 

Astrid Flynn, who graduated with honors from the Department of Music, felt some anxiety about being in close quarters with others — but the return to relative normalcy also “feels like something of a relief,” they said. They exclaimed with delight at a fellow student’s graduation cap topped with a breadboard — a circuit platform they'd just used in a recent course on electronic music.

“The best way to describe this Commencement weekend is ‘special,’” said Scott Angilly, a first-generation college graduate from Cranston, Rhode Island, who concentrated in business economics. The pandemic had forced Angilly to spend many more moments alone than he’d anticipated — but being able to celebrate making it through the worst of the pandemic as a class, walking through the Van Wickle Gates and becoming part of the larger Brown alumni community was a wonderful culmination to that singular experience. 

“It really meant a lot to us,” Angilly said. 

Saljooki said that coming face-to-face with her peers, Class of 2020 mentors and the countless Brunonians who came before her provided a reminder of Brown’s uniquely warm, consistently supportive community. Her journey at Brown was anything but easy: She took two medical leaves and changed concentrations twice. But at every turn, she found love and understanding at the University.

"I was always welcomed back and fully embraced," she said. "I wouldn't have made it without the people who have steered me in the right direction over and over again, like Zenab. So many of the Muslim alumni who marched with us in the procession — they paved the way for us."

Joyful reunions, thoughtful forums

The speaker of the House wasn’t the only accomplished leader on campus over the weekend. At Saturday’s Commencement forums — a series of lectures, discussions and performances that confront the most pressing social issues of the day, and a longtime Brown Commencement tradition — award-winning faculty and nationally recognized alumni shared original insights on the opioid crisis, international conflicts, conservation and more with members of the Brown and Providence communities.

Among them was Dr. Nicole Alexander-Scott, a Class of 2011 master of public health graduate who received an honorary doctorate over the weekend. Alexander-Scott directed the Rhode Island Department of Health from 2015 to early 2022, leading the Ocean State through the first two years of the COVID-19 pandemic. 

In a forum titled “Leadership in a Crisis: Beyond and Through the Pandemic,” Alexander-Scott recounted the frenetic first few weeks of March 2020, when the novel coronavirus arrived in Rhode Island. Though those moments were trying and filled with uncertainty, she said, they confirmed for her the importance of speaking up on behalf of marginalized communities.

“What gives me hope,” Alexander-Scott said, is “knowing that the greater good will persevere in terms of being the voice for those that may not have a voice for themselves, recognizing those who are most vulnerable and the importance of advocating for them, and approaching it from a public health perspective with a sense of humility about what else we can do better to be more effective.”

While some alumni returning from across the nation and globe attended forums, others braved Saturday’s clouds and scattered showers to connect with their former classmates at barbecues, mixers and other social events. In addition to the Class of 2020, the classes with the largest representations were those with class years ending in 2 or 7, all of whom celebrated reunions this year. 

Thirty-five years ago, Joe Doherty and Douglas Price were track teammates at Brown. Academically, they had little in common: Doherty concentrated in urban studies, while Price studied human biology and later became a chiropractor. Yet over the course of their four years at the University, they became close friends — and after years of separation, they relished the opportunity to reconnect in the place where their friendship began.

“Brown taught us how to think outside the box,” Price said. “It’s a great institution.”

Arvind Veluvali, a Class of 2020 graduate and 2021 master’s degree graduate, agreed. He traveled to Providence from San Francisco, where he now works as a product manager, to experience the University’s first “all-out” Commencement since 2019. 

In a moment of amusing continuity, he discovered at the Commencement and Reunion Weekend check-in table that he’d been assigned a room in his first-year undergraduate residence hall, New Pembroke.

“I think it brings me back to who I was when I came to Brown,” Veluvali said — a Minnesotan who wasn’t quite sure what the future would bring. “As a young alum, I think a lot of the opportunities I’ve been afforded have been because of Brown. It’s good to be back.”