Date May 29, 2022
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In three ceremonies, medical, doctoral and master’s graduates celebrate hard-earned degrees

In addresses at Brown’s Commencement ceremonies on Sunday, May 29, student speakers entreated their peers to make a positive impact using lessons they had learned during the COVID-19 pandemic.

PROVIDENCE, R.I. [Brown University] — Some will stay in Rhode Island, while others may move thousands of miles from the Ocean State. Some spent their years in Providence in laboratories and libraries, others in classrooms and hospitals. Some may have concrete plans for the future; others may have no idea what’s next.

Brown University’s 1,054 graduating master’s, doctoral and medical students had wildly different experiences on College Hill, and after Commencement, they will embark on 1,054 wildly different journeys. But on Sunday, May 29, their paths briefly converged, and they discovered they had one thing in common: They had just earned an advanced degree amid what master’s graduate Amelia Spalter described as “some of the most profound, disruptive and difficult years in recent history.”

In three separate Commencement ceremonies on Sunday, Brown’s 2022 master’s, doctoral and medical graduates joined family and friends to celebrate all that they had accomplished despite the COVID-19 pandemic, which still looms large. Speakers, including Spalter, didn’t downplay the pandemic’s effect on teaching, research and other activities on campus, but they also didn’t linger on its dark specter. Instead, they focused on the future, entreating their peers to make a positive impact using the lessons they had learned in the last two years. Their advice: accept uncertainty, embrace vulnerability and lead with confidence.

Spalter, who earned a master’s degree in religious studies and was selected by her peers to deliver the master’s ceremony address, spoke at Meehan Auditorium. She presented her fellow graduates with three of the most relevant things she’s Googled during her time at Brown — including, improbably, how to kick out a windshield.

Though she shared Google’s actual advice — “put as much force as possible into your kick, give it two or three direct hits with the flat soles of your feet, then watch as the glass shatters away” —  it’s the mental windshields that Spalter witnessed her peers kick out that inspired its inclusion. Whether they were developing shelters for emancipated minors without homes or designing data-driven virtual reality experiences to soothe people in the hospital, Spalter said her peers arrived at Brown with ambitious plans and ideas of what they wanted to accomplish and who they were supposed to be. 

“Suffice it to say, Type B can be even more fervently ambitious than Type A when ‘B’ stands for ‘Brown,’” she said. 

But as the pandemic taught everyone, plans change, and so, too, do the people who made them. Spalter pointed out several members of her master’s program cohort who are taking their humanities degrees to medical school, and one who entered the University with “tunnel vision” for finance, but is leaving with the qualifications to be an elementary school teacher.

“Take a second to think about who you came to Brown expecting to be, and who you’re leaving as,” she said. “Chances are, you’ve already leapt through the opening and are now someplace entirely different, and further along, than where you’d even gotten in that car to go.” 

Spalter urged her peers to see Commencement as a beginning rather than an end, the first day of being free to use the master’s degrees they now hold. Because accomplishments are a lot like another common Google search: how to boil an egg.  

“It requires many small steps that often go unconsidered,” she said. “The same is true for all of us sitting here about to receive an Ivy League graduate degree.” 

As for exactly how to make the perfect hard-boiled egg, Spalter offered the crowd some sage advice: Google it!

“There are near-infinite different methods to boil an egg,” and near-infinite ways to live a life, she said. “There is no right or wrong way to do it; there is certainly no objective best way. The choice is yours and half the fun is trying different approaches until you find the one that is best for you.” 

‘Vulnerability connects us’

A few blocks away, Jiuyang Bai, who received his Ph.D. in cognitive science, also chose to embrace vulnerability. In an address to his fellow doctoral graduates on Pembroke Field, he candidly shared that coming to the U.S. to earn master’s and doctoral degrees after growing up in Zhengzhou, China, felt like playing a challenging video game in difficult mode.

“If you are also an international student who came from a very different culture, you know exactly what I mean,” he said. “You know the feeling of frequently explaining yourself to others. You know the feeling of being misunderstood. You know the feeling of missing your family, your friends and even just the food you’re familiar with.”

Bai said that he feared showing the vulnerability he felt while at Brown, until he realized that fear helps no one and can even tear communities apart. He recalled that in 2020, some who feared vulnerability chose to believe that novel coronavirus wasn’t dangerous; others channeled their fear into vitriol directed at Asian communities. 

So Bai decided to conquer his fear, laying bare his vulnerabilities. He participated in English language workshops on campus, joined the Brown Swing Club and held Chinese language conversations with fellow students. Those interactions led to deep connections with others at Brown and gave Bai enough confidence to march alongside his peers in support of Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders.

“In my own journey at Brown, I realized that if I abandon fear and stay true to myself and others, eventually vulnerability leads to courage and strength,” he said. “Vulnerability really connects us, because we have all been through a tough time. It gives us the foundation to trust and support each other.”

He advised his fellow graduates to never forget their vulnerability, because it is the key to remaining compassionate and effecting positive change: “I hope you maintain a strong, trusting heart — a heart that can still feel vulnerable; a heart that is open and tolerant to uncertainty; a heart that can relate to people who are still suffering in the world.”

In a tribute to open-hearted science, the Graduate School paid special recognition to astrophysicist Brian Keating, a Brown master’s and Ph.D. graduate, at the doctoral ceremony. Keating, now a professor of physics at the University of California San Diego, was awarded the Horace Mann Medal, given each year to an alum who has made outstanding contributions to their field. Dean of the Graduate School Andrew Campbell said that Keating is currently working with researchers from 35 global institutions to construct an observatory in the Atacama Desert of Chile — the largest ever cosmology collaboration — and regularly translates the impact of his research to the public via a top-rated podcast series called “Into the Impossible.”

And Ph.D. graduates showed their appreciation for one particularly open-hearted staff member: Lorraine Mazza, manager of graduate studies in the Department of English. Mazza, a 44-year veteran at Brown, was given the Wilson-DeBlois Award for her enduring support of the graduate student community and for “making herself available as a friend and confidante,” said doctoral candidate Beenish Pervaiz.

‘Scholars of uncertainty’ 

For the M.D. Class of 2022, training to be doctors during the height of the pandemic underscored one of the biggest and most humbling lessons of their profession: contending with the fact that they’ll never have all the answers. Uncertainty is a given in medicine, said Adriel Barrios-Anderson in his address to fellow Warren Alpert Medical School graduates at the First Unitarian Church on Sunday. 

“This space or gap between what we know and what we don’t is the uncertainty that we are called to navigate throughout our entire careers as physicians,” he said. 

Even though they just received their degrees, Brown’s 2022 medical graduates are already unusually familiar with this aspect of the medical profession — as is the M.D. Class of 2020, a dozen of whom joined the in-person procession and Commencement ceremonies, two years after the pandemic postponed plans for their own. 

“Many of us entered the hospitals right when the world told everyone to stay out of them,” Barrios-Anderson said. He praised his classmates for using what they did know to help out during the chaos of the pandemic, by supporting overflowing clinics, helping with call lines, working for the Rhode Island Department of Health, and participating in research efforts to better understand the impact of the pandemic on vulnerable populations. 

“You, M.D. class of 2022 and 2020, forged forward in a field that was taxed and whose flaws and inequities and mistakes were all put on display,” he said. “You saw authority called into question in meaningful and deeply harmful ways.”

For some, Barrios-Anderson acknowledged, seeing global medical systems strain and buckle under the COVID-19 pandemic was unsettling, as was hearing authority figures admit confusion and fear. Yet it was also an invaluable educational opportunity — a chance to see how professionals handled (or mishandled) uncertainty in a high-stakes situation, and also, closer to home, to witness the heroism of their medical residents, attending physicians and fellow classmates. Despite not knowing exactly how clinically to respond to the pandemic, Barrios-Anderson said they knew the humane way to react. 

“[They] kept showing up in hospitals, in media, on public forums, at churches and at family gatherings to support us all in getting through one of the most taxing medical challenges of our generation,” Barrios-Anderson said. The past few years have made these graduates “scholars of uncertainty,” he noted, which, combined with their newly forged resilience, courage, flexibility and grace, will make them better able to serve their patients and the population at large. 

“In uncertainty, we see opportunities for growth and shift toward better health care, better medicine and better science,” he said. “In uncertainty, we see questions that we still do not yet have satisfying answers to and opportunities for exploration.” 

Looking out at the audience of his fellow medical school classmates and their families, all assembled under the American flag and a flag emblazoned with “Black Lives Matter,” Barrios-Anderson hit the note that was being sung by the other student speakers at the various graduation ceremonies: Learn from the experiences — good and bad — of the past few years and use them to make change and progress. 

“Let’s embrace the uncertainty,” he said “and in so doing hold one another, our patients and humanity in even steadier hands.”