Date May 27, 2023
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At Brown’s Baccalaureate, an opportunity to rejoice and reflect

Seniors who will graduate with the Class of 2023 celebrated the Baccalaureate with joyful performances, faith traditions from across the globe, and remarks that encouraged graduates to put action behind ideas.

PROVIDENCE, R.I. [Brown University] — The beat of Japanese Taiko and Malian drums. The reverberation of perfectly timed church bells, ringing to the march of some 1,682 graduating seniors processing down Waterman Street. The vibrations of stomps and applause resonating out the doors of the First Baptist Church in America.

You don’t need to know much about the Baccalaureate ceremony to know it’s a joyous occasion — you can feel it.

Rhythm was pervasive on Saturday, May 27, as Brown University’s Class of 2023 settled into pews on day two of Commencement and Reunion Weekend to take part in the Baccalaureate, a colorful multi-faith service with core elements that date to the University’s founding.

But the ceremony looks much different than Brown’s first Baccalaureate sermon, delivered in 1769. What used to be a quiet, solemn affair with a handful of graduates and guest preachers has evolved into the celebratory cultural showcase graduates know today, replete with Chinese lion dancers; musical, vocal and dance performances; and student-led prayers from Narragansett, Jewish, Christian, Islamic, Jain, Sikh and Buddhist traditions. Nearly every component of the ceremony on Saturday centered around thanksgiving, gratitude and the importance of giving back — themes that anchored the remarks of Baccalaureate speaker and Brown alumnus Carlos Lejnieks.

‘To whom much is given, much is required’

When Lejnieks was invited by University President Christina H. Paxson to deliver the Baccalaureate address, it was one of the highest honors of his life, he said — until a rival peak moment arrived a few weeks later in the form of a LinkedIn message from Professor Emeritus of Engineering Barrett Hazeltine.

“That’s right — Professor Hazeltine slid into my DMs,” Lejnieks said to a packed room of amused graduates.

Hazeltine, a legendary figure at Brown known for his immense dedication to teaching and mentorship, reached out to Lejnieks simply to chat and reconnect over a 45-minute Zoom call. Though it was a small gesture, it meant a great deal to Lejnieks.

“It reminded me that you’re a Brown student for four years, but a Brown alum for life,” he said.

2023 Baccalaureate Address


Brown Class of 2000 alumnus Carlos Lejnieks addressed the Class of 2023 during the Baccalaureate service, held at the First Baptist Church of America.

Lejnieks earned his bachelor’s degree in international relations from Brown in 2000, has served as a trustee of the Corporation of Brown University since 2021 and is the current president of the Brown Alumni Association.

Beyond College Hill, Lejnieks co-founded and is a trustee of the Democracy Prep charter school network that spans four states, and since 2008, he’s served as CEO of Big Brothers Big Sisters of Essex, Hudson and Union Counties in New Jersey. He has also harnessed his grassroots experience to advise on state and federal policy related to youth and family support, including service on the New Jersey Governor’s Council to advocate for families most impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic.

As a social entrepreneur, Lejnieks is emblematic of the idea that cultivating community and harnessing privilege to give back is crucial — and he urged graduates to continue that necessary and ongoing work.

“You are the culmination of a long history of people who gave themselves for this day — a long legacy that manifests itself through you,” Lejnieks said. “To whom much is given, much is required. And you’ve been blessed.”

Lejnieks, too, was blessed — though, as the son of a single mom from Ecuador who struggled to make ends meet in the United States, he said it took a lot of time, hard work and sacrifice to fully understand that.  

He shared a particularly formative childhood experience, when his mom woke Lejnieks and his brother up for a special day out of school. The two were bursting with excitement over the prospect of a “free day,” until their mother made it clear that this wasn’t a vacation: “She told us, ‘No, today’s not a day of school lessons. It’s a day of life lessons.’”

That day, in a government building in Newark, New Jersey, Lejnieks’ mother became a United States citizen. Within one minute of being granted citizenship, more than 100 people — his mother included — began reciting the Pledge of Allegiance, and he couldn’t stop thinking about the line “liberty and justice for all.”

“I had said those words thousands and thousands of times…” Lejnieks said on Saturday, “but they didn’t become real to me until that very moment, when I saw the sacrifice evident in that room.”

Yet as a teenager, something still didn’t add up for Lejnieks. While he had a profound reverence for the concept of liberty and justice, he was constantly reminded that it was just that — a concept. In his daily life, he didn’t see liberty and justice for all. He didn’t even see liberty and justice for himself.

“I used to ask myself, ‘Why? Why me?’” he said. “When we were hungry, why did we have to go to the soup kitchen? When we didn’t have food on the shelf, why did we have to go to Christ Church for their food pantry? And why, when I simply wanted to play basketball with my friends, did I have to scrub their toilets?”

After the trials and errors of adolescence — including a time when he convinced himself to drop out of high school, only to receive an “intervention” from a trusted mentor — and the discovery of his true passion in social justice, Lejnieks said he realized that those things he had hated so much in his youth were, in fact, blessings. And those blessings helped fuel his fight for liberty and justice for all.

students dance to a Baccalaureate performance
Fusion Dance Company danced alongside Shades of Brown's vocal performance during the Baccalaureate ceremony. The piece represented comfort provided to loved ones experiencing grief.

“I believe our future is bright, but it’s not bright inevitably,” Lejnieks told Brown’s soon-to-be graduates. “Our future requires a fight, a struggle and a constant level of investment… Our future requires people to make real the boldness of our claims.”

Lejnieks told the seniors that they are the ones who, by putting action behind the concept of liberty and justice for all, can achieve that: “Our world needs you, Class of 2023.”

Rejoice — and remember

While jubilance buoys the Baccalaureate, it’s also an opportunity for the graduating undergraduate class to honor those in the Brown community who are no longer present to join in the ceremony.

“Their place in our circle will always be cherished,” said University Chaplain Janet Cooper Nelson, leading the crowd through a prayer of thanksgiving and acknowledging that those lost were cheering the class on.

It was a particularly poignant moment for graduating senior Aaron Gruen, who performed J.S. Bach’s “Prelude from Suite No. 1 for Solo Cello in G Major” earlier in the ceremony.

A cellist for 20 years and a student who worked closely at Brown with University Organist Mark Steinbach, Gruen has performed during many University ceremonies, including memorial services. Last year, Gruen presented a more reflective, somber Bach piece during the memorial service of Brown student Jameson McMullen, who would have graduated this year alongside Gruen and the rest of the students filling the pews.

At the Baccalaureate, McMullen’s parents sat in the front row, again watching Gruen perform Bach — but this time was different. Despite the tragedy, Gruen said he knew it was a happy occasion, and an opportunity to both honor McMullen and share a tender moment with his parents.

“I chose [“Prelude from Suite No. 1”] because it’s familiar, exciting and really forward-looking,” Gruen said. “It’s full of joy, and that’s what I wanted to give them — and the Class of 2023.”