Date May 25, 2023
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A celebratory weekend: Sights, sounds and stories from Commencement and Reunion 2023

Packed with graduation ceremonies, alumni reunions and other celebrations, the weekend offers countless chances for graduates, alumni, parents, friends and guests to honor accomplishments and reunite.

PROVIDENCE, R.I. [Brown University] — Brown University’s first Commencement was held in 1769 — and since 1928, the annual celebration of new graduates has been accompanied by the return of alumni from across many generations for class reunions hosted during the same weekend.

That all adds up to a busy celebratory weekend. In 2023, more than 15,000 people will participate in events ranging from Campus Dance and Bruno’s Block Party to forums, graduation ceremonies and the one-of-a-kind Commencement procession through the Van Wickle Gates.

Here, Brown's communications team will do its best to keep up with the wealth of activities on campus and share a few sights, sounds and stories from throughout the weekend.

Video highlights from Friday and Saturday

From class reunions to Campus Dance to forums, block parties and the Baccalaureate, the first two days of Brown’s Commencement and Reunion Weekend 2023 have been action-packed. Highlights are here courtesy of video producers Stephen Crocker and Oliver Scampoli.

Forums offer alumni, grads, guests a window into Brown academic life

To add a spirit of discovery, debate and dialogue to the weekend’s ceremonies and celebrations, Brown featured 16 forums on Saturday, staying ever true to a Commencement tradition that originated more than a half century ago. Hundreds of visitors joined talks held in academic buildings across campus to hear faculty, alumni and distinguished guests share expertise and perspective on a variety of timely, relevant issues. Topics ranged from the state of bipartisanship in today’s political climate, to Black legacy and history at Brown, to physicians’ roles as patient advocates, among others.

At a forum titled “Heightened Alert: Securing the World from the Next Public Health Catastrophe,” Jennifer Nuzzo, professor of epidemiology and director of the Pandemic Center at the Brown University School of Public Health, led a panel featuring two experts in biosecurity and pandemic preparedness — Wilmot James and Beth Cameron, both of whom serve as senior advisors to the Pandemic Center and Brown professors of the practice.

Nuzzo, James and Cameron reflected on the last three years of COVID-19 and assessed what worked, what didn’t and what the world can do better in preparation for future public health emergencies. Cameron said one clear takeaway is the need to better integrate the nation’s public health response with the everyday delivery model of the health care system.

“We developed vaccines and new treatments in record time, but we didn’t have the systems to get those out quickly,” she said. “We then built those systems, but it’s not clear if we’d be able to sustain them for the future.”

Surprise connections on a campus full of celebrations

Lillie Marshall came to celebrate her Class of 2003 reunion with her Brown roommate of four years, who’d traveled to Providence all the way from Hawaii. But that’s not who Marshall was sharing laughs and memories with at Friday night around 11 p.m. during Campus Dance on the College Green.

Marshall studied comparative literature as an undergraduate and wrote a daily cartoon for the Brown Daily Herald student newspaper. Marshall has kept her art alive since — she now runs, an educational cartoon website that uses her whimsical art to illustrate concepts, experiences and short stories.

Since 2003, Marshall has also been a public school English teacher. One of her teaching mentors in Boston was Thabiti Brown, who graduated from Brown in 1998 and is now head of a charter school in Dorchester, Massachusetts. Marshall had forgotten that he was a fellow Brunonian — until she ran into him unexpectedly at Campus Dance. They pair made a striking image: Marshall in a brightly colored rainbow tank dress that she’d designed herself; Brown in a dapper suit, both talking animatedly as they caught up. 

Marshall was surprised to see her old friend, although she admitted that she shouldn’t have been: “I forget that so many of the great people in my life also went to Brown!” she said.

At Campus Dance, celebrating in good company

Many Brown alumni come to the rollicking outdoor bash that is Friday night’s Campus Dance with their own mini-party. For example, Class of 2005 graduate Kevin Ferrone coordinated with a group of classmates and friends from New York and Massachusetts who stayed in a block of rooms in Brown’s residence halls. Some donned matching caps, which were fan swag for their friends in the alumni band Lush, who put on a rocking show on Simmons Quad. Around his Lush cap, Ferrone wore a fabric headband with little brown puffs, which looked an awful lot like Bruno’s ears — even though he insisted that was just coincidence.

Although Ferrone came to the dance with friends, he knew he’d see, or meet, more from among the many thousands of alumni and recent graduates. “That’s what makes Brown so special,” Ferrone said, with warmth. “You just show up and walk around, and people invite you to their party.”

Cameron Keegan feels the same way about his fellow Brunonians. Keegan, who graduated from Brown in 2018 and now lives in Seattle, arrived solo, ready to “soak up the scene and see who’s around.” Keegan was embracing the freedom of not having a meet-up schedule, he said.

“There are so many beautiful friends here,” Keegan said, confident he’d connect with many by the night’s end. Soon enough, he ran into Anthony DeRita, a fellow Class of 2018 graduate he knew through mutual friends. DeRita, who’d traveled from Brooklyn, had the same non-plan.

Chatting with two other members of the Class of 2018, from Michigan and Connecticut, Keegan and DeRita talked about continuing to take an improvisational approach to the rest of Commencement and Reunion Weekend.

“I’m just going to do a trust fall into Brown’s campus,” DeRita said with a laugh, knowing he was in good company.

Siblings toast with their extended Warren Alpert Medical School family

Brown’s renowned Program in Liberal Medical Education draws students from across the world who are attracted to the idea of exploring the depths of the Open Curriculum before attending Brown’s medical school.

In some cases, those students even come from the same family. Case in point: three Delamerced siblings from Ohio, each of whom journeyed to Providence to enroll as PLME students.

The siblings spoke at the University’s 50 Years of Medicine grand finale on Friday evening, which concluded 15 months celebrating the evolution of medical education at Brown. Hundreds of members of the Warren Alpert Medical School community gathered to recognize and celebrate Brown's history in medicine and look toward the decades to come.

The event was held at Innovation Park, a grassy expanse near the Providence River, steps away from the medical school and a growing array of nearby Brown life sciences facilities. Situated between the medical school’s past (on College Hill) and present and future (in the Jewelry District), the site served as a fitting location for what President Christina H. Paxson called a “pivot time” for the medical school, during which community members shared memories as well as a toast to future aspirations.

In reminiscing on their time as PLME students, the Delamerced siblings praised the program for offering the flexibility to pursue their passions. Tino Delamerced, a Class of 2018 graduate who will receive his M.D. on Sunday, honed his writing and communication skills, finished his thesis and studied archaeology during a semester in London. Anna Delamerced, a Class of 2016 and M.D. 2017 graduate who is now a pediatrics resident at Yale, pursued poetry and writing and studied abroad in Scotland. Youngest sibling Joseph, who earned his bachelor’s degree as a PLME in 2022, volunteered with non-profit organizations and was active in faith communities.

“We’re very grateful to the PLME and all the mentors we met through this program for fostering our passions and emphasizing the importance of the liberal arts and humanities,” Anna said, naming one of the hallmarks of earning an M.D. from Brown. “This makes us better and more well-rounded physicians.”

Soon, the story of the Delamerceds at Brown will start a new chapter: Joseph will begin medical school in the fall.

For decades, this family has cherished Brown’s reunion celebrations

For Barbara Carucci Vendetti, preparing for Commencement and Reunion Weekend involves much more than booking travel accommodations and packing essentials. At age 91, the Class of 1953 Brown graduate instead focuses on keeping an active fitness regime to ensure she’ll stride through Sunday’s procession in her white platform sneakers with endurance and strength.

“I’ve been exercising so I can do the walk down College Street,” she said.

The retired elementary school art teacher flew into Providence from her home in Fernandina Beach, Florida, to join her daughter, Elizabeth Vendetti, a Class of 1978 graduate, for weekend festivities.

Attending the reunion celebration nearly every five years is a family affair, said Elizabeth Vendetti, who graduated from Brown the same year her mother marked her 25th reunion. This year is Carucci Vendetti’s first attending without her husband, who died in 2021.

“We’ve always attended reunions together,” Elizabeth Vendetti said. “She and my father would make their travel plan, and I would come with my friends, and we’d meet up at Campus Dance. The last two times we did the processional march, we’d find and hug each other — it was really special.”

When Elizabeth Vendetti considered schools as a teenager — the family lived in Chicago then — she imagined herself studying at the University of Illinois. But Barbara was adamant that Elizabeth also apply to Brown, the place that sparked her love of learning and near-constant intellectual curiosity.

“I love this place,” Carucci Vendetti said. “It was the beginning of a lifelong enjoyment of the life of the mind, which has kept me positive my whole life.”

A salute to Brown’s ROTC graduates and student-veterans

As she stood on stage at this year’s Graduating Veterans and ROTC Recognition Ceremony, Raquel Ruiter was hit with an overwhelming sense of pride and accomplishment. Holding up her right hand as she took the officer’s oath and then as she received her ceremonial first salute from U.S. Army veteran Brehan Brady, a fellow member of Brown’s Class of 2023, Ruiter pictured everything it took to get there — the physical training, the academic work and, most of all, the unwavering support she received from her family.

“It was just a moment of absolute awe,” said Ruiter, a Reserve Officers’ Training Corps participant who on Sunday, May 28, will become the first female Air Force officer in recorded history to graduate from Brown. “Everything just came together.”

Now a second lieutenant in the Air Force Reserve, Ruiter will head to the Westover Air Reserve Base in Massachusetts to begin work as an intelligence officer while also pursuing a civilian career within the defense sector. As Ruiter looks toward the future, she leaves knowing the next female Air Force ROTC cadets from Brown won’t be far behind.

“More than half of our students in Brown’s Air Force ROTC program are now women,” she said. “I’m the first of many to follow.”

Also recognized at the annual Commencement Weekend event were 17 graduating student-veterans who served as members of the U.S. Armed Forces and four additional ROTC cadets, all of whom are now U.S. Army officers. The ceremony took place in Metcalf Research Building, where a crowd of family, friends, special guests and elected officials filled the auditorium to celebrate Brown’s military community. Afterward, students and their guests took in the moment with selfies, hugs and non-stop laughs.

“It’s all a culmination,” said a smiling Robert C. Murray, a graduating U.S. Marine Corps veteran and former president of Brown’s Student Veterans Society. “It’s a big moment for all of us.”

‘I will always feel welcome at Brown’

For many Brown alumni, Commencement and Reunion Weekend isn’t just a chance to catch up with old friends and acquaintances. It’s also a chance for Brunonians from different classes to meet and connect.

On Friday afternoon inside Maddock Alumni Center, first-year Brown student Ruth Ukubay bonded with Class of 1968 graduate Stan Griffith when the pair found out they’d lived in the same residence hall on Keeney Quad, formerly known as West Quad.

“It used to be a party house!” Griffith joked; Ukubay marveled at how “so many things at Brown are still the same.”

Griffith recalled joining fellow students in a University Hall sit-in staged in opposition to South Africa’s Apartheid regime. Years later in the 1980s, Griffith said with pride, student demonstrations played a role in spurring a Brown Corporation vote to divest from companies doing business in South Africa.

It was that tradition of social consciousness that led Bee Davis to Brown more than 50 years later. At a reception inside the Sarah Doyle Center for Women and Gender on Friday, the 2020 master’s degree graduate recalled forming an anti-Black racism coalition with fellow students in the wake of the murder of George Floyd and numerous others. Davis said that juggling parenthood and a master’s program in engineering was a rigorous but fulfilling experience.

“It was intense, but I did it,” Davis said. “There were some challenges, for sure, but equally, there were so many supportive people here. I will always feel welcome at Brown.”

Reminiscing and reuniting on Wriston Quad

For most Brown alumni, Commencement and Reunion Weekend begins on Wriston Quad. On Friday, thousands of former students gathered to check in, collect commemorative class buttons and plan out the next three days.

Inside the check-in tent, 1983 graduates Lisha and Leroy Cole were gearing up to reunite with a long list of old classmates during the weekend — and to get reacquainted with Providence from the seats of their bicycles.

“There’s a lot here now that wasn’t here when we were students — the river, for one,” Leroy Cole said, laughing: The city uncovered large swaths of downtown Providence’s rivers in the mid-1980s.

The pair met by chance the summer before their first year at Brown, while working at a bank in Brooklyn. They “hit it off as friends right away,” said Lisha Cole, who also earned an executive MBA from Brown in 2013. They eventually became a couple “after a lot of begging on his part.” They’ll celebrate 36 years of marriage in October.

Like the Coles, 1987 graduate Eric Dobson remembers when Providence’s rivers were paved over. In the midst of city talks to uncover the water, he saved a copy of the Providence Journal featuring an article titled, “Providence: The Venice of America?” — part of an independent research project that later became a slideshow introducing incoming students to the city.

Dobson, an urban planner in the Washington, D.C., area, later donated that newspaper and more clippings to Brown’s urban studies program, where he was once a student.

“The Open Curriculum was fantastic for me,” Dobson said. “I started at Brown as an applied math concentrator, but I was taking classes in everything. When I was a sophomore, I met a senior who was in almost all of my classes. He said he was concentrating in urban studies, and I thought — ‘Oh, is that what I should be studying? Great.’”

The graduate’s father, Stan Dobson, a Class of 1958 graduate, has attended more Commencement and Reunion Weekends than he can count. Every five years, he inches closer to the front of the Sunday procession — which customarily begins with University leaders and the oldest alumni in attendance.

“When I get to the front of the line, I’m going to jog down College Street,” Stan Dobson said. “I’m not a jogger, so that should grab people’s attention.”

Remembering a trailblazing Brown scholar

As he walked across Brown’s Quiet Green with his twin daughters, possibly in the very same footsteps his late mother once trod, Michael Simmons reflected on the significance for his family of this year’s Commencement and Reunion Weekend.

Simmons, along with 11-year-olds Claire and Elisabeth, journeyed from San Francisco to Providence to attend Commencement, where they will be presented with a plaque during the Doctoral Ceremony in honor of Mae Belle Williamson Simmons, the earliest known Black woman to earn her doctoral degree from Brown. The 1962 psychology Ph.D. graduate was a trailblazing Providence native whose lasting impact as a researcher in the field of child psychology belied a life and career that were cut short by cancer when Michael was barely 2.

“People are forgotten after a while, so it’s nice that she’s remembered — and remembered for her contributions,” Simmons said as he and his daughters were guided on a tour of campus on Friday afternoon by graduating senior Emma Giventer-Braff, a student ambassador with the Office of College Admission.

Last fall, the Graduate School at Brown renamed its diversity fellowships in honor of Mae Williamson Simmons, who also earned her bachelor’s degree from Brown in psychology in 1949. The tribute to her during the Doctoral Ceremony on Sunday will bring that recognition full circle, Simmons said.

“For me, it’s incredibly exciting to be here at Brown with my daughters, and to honor my mom,” he said.

‘There’s a family feeling for this school…’

Ahead of Commencement and Reunion Weekend, more than 4,300 Brown alumni from across the generations are prepping for trips to College Hill to take part in the revelry. Some will travel from thousands of miles away — others, like Class of 1978 graduate Marc Siegel, have a shorter journey ahead.

Siegel, a writer and clinical professor of medicine at New York University Langone Medical Center, isn’t just traveling from New York to Providence to connect with old friends. He’s also planning to represent his class as a marshal, donning a top hat and tails and for the storied Sunday procession through the Van Wickle Gates.

“I love the procession, because it shows the continuity of generations,” Siegel said. “You’re not going to believe this, but I don’t think Brown has changed very much. It’s still a place where you can take a course in any subject you want, develop a personal relationship with your professors, get inspired and feel that you’re in this wonderfully supportive, loving environment.”

In addition to serving as a class marshal, Siegel will play the role of proud dad: His “powerhouse” daughter, Rebecca Siegel, will step through the gates Sunday as a Class of 2023 graduate. This summer, she’ll travel to Bologna, Italy, for an immersive semester of study; after that, Marc Siegel said, she has plans to attend medical school.

“My family loves that Brown is a very creative place with a deep investment in undergraduate education,” Siegel said. “There’s a family feeling for this school.”

The family affinity goes back further than Siegel himself. His father, Bernard Leon Siegel, another Brown graduate and a retired aeronautics engineer, turns 100 this year: “My father used to wear his Brown sweatshirt and sing the alma mater to me,” Siegel said. “No wonder I love Brown.”

Celebrating four years of friendship

Late in the summer of 2019, five strangers from three different countries united at International Orientation on Brown’s campus and quickly bonded with each other: Melissa Zhang and Sheridan Feucht from Canada; Zack Cheng and Aaron Jeyaraj from Singapore; and Momoka Kobayashi from Japan.

Nearly four years later — and after deepening their bond through countless late-night study sessions and shared meals “at the Ratty and V-Dub,” the nicknames for Sharpe Refectory and the Verney-Woolley Dining Hall, respectively — the group reassembled, along with two of their other first-year friends, Derick Toth and Rafe Erdley.

Six days before they were all set to walk through the Van Wickle Gates to culminate their undergraduate journeys at Brown, the friends huddled at the edge of the Quiet Green, donned their regalia, posed for photos, tossed their caps in the air and laughed.

“We met during the orientation, and we stuck with each other ever since,” Kobayashi said.

Pausing briefly from the revelry on their way to the gates, they stopped outside the Jameson-Mead residence hall on Keeney Quadrangle to visit a tree planted in honor of their friend and former classmate Milan Samardjiski, from Macedonia, who died in 2020.

“We wanted to take a picture with the memorial tree,” Jeyaraj said. Then he added, “I left my [graduation] cap on the tree accidentally.” Perhaps an additional testament to enduring friendships.

A week of activity, from preparations to celebrations

Activities, preparations and celebrations abounded as campus geared up for Commencement and Reunion Weekend 2023.

From celebrations hosted by departments, centers and schools, to nearly 20 festive events that comprised Senior Week 2023 organized by the student-run Class Coordinating Board, graduating students enjoyed time with each other in advance of the big weekend. This slideshow captures some of those moments. Photos by Nick Dentamaro.

An economic boom for local businesses

Brown’s three-day Commencement and Reunion Weekend is a joyous and memorable occasion for graduates, families, friends, alumni and the entire Brown community. And the celebrations can be monumental for others, too — including many business owners in Providence and other Rhode Island cities and towns.

For floral decorations, Brown relies on Studio 539 Flowers in Providence’s Fox Point. Owner Matthew Bellotti started working with the University more than 15 years ago, supplying one or two simple arrangements for speaker events throughout the year. In recent years, he's grown his business with Brown from delivering up to a few dozen orders during the event-packed spring semester, an increase he attributes to word of mouth among different offices and departments on Brown’s campus. In April, he produced arrangements to support more than 15 events on campus. In preparation for Commencement, he has hired several additional freelance floral designers to meet Brown's demand for flowers — a surge in business he compares to other busy floral holidays.

"In this business, our biggest days are usually holidays like Valentine's Day and Mother's Day, and Brown, for us, has become a third holiday," Bellotti said. "Memorial Day weekend is just as busy as a major holiday because of the massive influx of people for Brown's graduation and all of its associated festivities."

Read the full story on the News from Brown website...

Bloom where you are planted

Excitement blossomed — quite literally — as preparations were underway across Brown’s campus during the week leading up to Commencement and Reunion Weekend 2023.

Among many other preparatory responsibilities, staff from Facilities Management planted more than 1,000 flowers — 463 red, pink and red-and-white geraniums, 250 impatiens and Angelonia, 120 Supertunia and salvia, and 20 flats of other flowering annuals — around the College Hill grounds and in flower boxes under ceremony tents to provide petals unfolding with color amid the celebrations.

Trowels in hand, grounds workers Robert Farizer and Ertugrul Kaya enjoyed conversing with each other while painstakingly planting 60 pink geraniums in the garden bed surrounding the Bronze Bruno statue on the College Green on Monday, May 22, before they headed to the Van Wickle Gates to plant flowers there.

“When it comes to Commencement, we all work together — together you accomplish more,” said Kaya, who is marking his second Commencement season at Brown. “I love that. It’s been great.”

Farizer, who is celebrating his 18th year helping to get the campus ready for Commencement, noted that the blossoms are even more special than meets the eye.

“Actually, Brown grows them, too,” he said.

A Commencement tradition, the 238 red geraniums were lovingly cultivated in the greenhouse atop the Institute at Brown for Environment and Society at 85 Waterman St. Prior to planting them, Farizer said, the grounds crew spent days busily weeding, edging and mulching the garden beds to make a home for the Commencement buds.