Date May 26, 2024
Media Contact

Build communities to challenge, inspire and uplift each other, speakers urge at Commencement

In Commencement celebrations on Sunday, addresses from Brown’s senior orators and University president noted the graduates’ strong bonds formed during challenging moments and how those have prepared them for the future.

PROVIDENCE, R.I. [Brown University] — For most members of Brown University’s Class of 2024, the last days of high school and the first days of college came at an inauspicious time. With the COVID-19 public health emergency’s arrival, graduations were canceled or held virtually, summer plans were nixed, and most students spent Fall 2020 in limbo — no longer high school students, but not yet truly college students.

And that was just the start.

From masks to mortarboards, and pandemics to protests, the last four years have offered an unconventional and at times challenging college experience for most of the class.

“It started with a global pandemic that killed too many people and ground the world economy to a near halt,” Brown President Christina H. Paxson told class members on Sunday, May 26. “It ended with dreadful violence that has claimed the lives of too many Palestinians and Israelis, and generated tension, unrest and activism on college campuses. I am certain that this was not what you expected when you applied to Brown.”

Both the difficulties of the pandemic and the impacts of the violence in the Middle East were prominent themes for speakers who addressed Brown’s graduates during Commencement and Reunion Weekend 2024. So too was the importance of creating community in times of conflict and challenge. 

Senior orator Marielle Buxbaum
Senior orator Marielle Buxbaum

Despite the fear and isolation brought about during the early days of COVID-19, students adapted, connected in unconventional ways, created communities and persevered upon their arrival to campus in 2020, according to senior orators Marielle Buxbaum and Caziah Mayers.

“We had to make extraordinary efforts to make friends and build community,” Buxbaum said. “From our extraordinary efforts came extraordinary bonds.”

Mayers marveled at the Class of 2024’s distinct camaraderie and resilience.

“We built communities online through social media when we couldn’t meet in person, we learned to run organizations with limited access to older students, ultimately we cultivated a unique Brown experience, and we made do with the hand we were dealt,” Mayers said. “I’m proud of us for moving through a time of such incredible hardship and for how we did it together.”

Caziah Mayers
Senior orator Caziah Mayers

In their addresses during the University Ceremony on the College Green, in front of thousands of family members, guests, friends and mentors gathered in the hot sunshine, Buxbaum and Mayers celebrated their peers’ adaptability, praised their spirit of activism and encouraged them to sustain each in the future.

“I encourage us to take the fears we have about life beyond Brown and challenge one another to be deeply ambitious about friendship,” Buxbaum said.

The students’ addresses marked a time-honored Brown tradition of lifting student voices at Commencement. They followed Paxson’s remarks at the College Ceremony at the First Baptist Church in America, where she officially conferred 1,944 bachelor’s degrees upon the undergraduate class. Paxson recalled that the students’ first semesters on campus in Spring and Summer 2021 were ones marked by masks, COVID tests, starts and stops of group activities — and unique pandemic-era workarounds like turning the College Green into a library, with rings of laptops charged by power strips plugged into lampposts.

“Over the past few weeks, many of you have told me that your experience during that first year at Brown created durable bonds between you, and a strong sense of class identity,” Paxson said. “Perhaps those bonds helped hold this community together during the past difficult eight months.”

Amid a time of such extraordinary geopolitical conflict, Brown, like many colleges and universities, experienced community members engaged in various forms of expression during the weekend, including at the College Ceremony, where noise from a small group of protestors caused brief interruptions. All events proceeded as planned, with many graduates, alumni and guests waving flags, carrying signs or wearing stoles to share their viewpoints.

Paxson said she hoped students’ experiences at Brown — both in the classroom, in their communities and in the midst of such significant global challenges — leave them better equipped to live, and lead, through momentous times certain to come.

“I know that you’re going to great places,” she said. “And I know you will make Brown University proud. I hope you return, again and again, to this place in the years to come.”

‘Hold on to each other, to our love for one another’

Buxbaum, a double concentrator in literary arts and theatre arts and performance studies, reflected on Brown’s values of community and connection, concepts that were reinforced when she studied abroad in Ecuador last year and experienced the role of community in creating social change. In the face of global and societal challenges, from climate change to wars, community connections will remain essential for graduates, she said.

“Engaging with these communities in Ecuador made me appreciate all the community organizing, leadership and energy at Brown that helped us weather the pandemic together, and which continue to define our impact every day,” Buxbaum said. “We cannot heal the many pieces of our hurting world unless we strengthen our bonds with each other first.”

Buxbaum also noted the efforts of classmates who have been engaged in activism this year in the wake of violence in the Middle East. She read an excerpt from a poem, “Red Sea,” by Puerto Rican Jewish poet Aurora Levins Morales, that Buxbaum had recited at a Passover Seder during an encampment on Brown’s campus in April, and called for friendship, love and solidarity.

“When we hold on to each other like this, when we are willing to see each other in all of our humanity, our love will contribute to saving us all,” Buxbaum said.

Noting that the U.S. is confronting “a national epidemic of loneliness,” Buxbaum encouraged her classmates to stay in touch with each other after graduation and carry the spirit of Brown’s close-knit community, lively exchange of ideas and creative energy out into the greater world.

“The Class of 2024’s bold, creative energy is something to be proud of,” Buxbaum said. “We are facing a future full of massive problems… yet I truly believe that through this we must hold on to each other, to our love for one another.”

‘We can never stop walking towards a better life for all of us’

For Mayers, a double concentrator in Africana studies and computer science, they shared the importance of “the people that love us the most, [who] often dream brighter on our behalf” — those who helped propel graduates to the momentous achievement of graduation and supported them past the obstacles, turmoil and self-doubt.

Mayers recalled their childhood and the unwavering support of their mother, who “bought me chemistry sets to play with and books that I would devour,” Mayers said. “More than anything else, though, she showed up for me.” When Mayers’ mother died last year, it was their Brown University community that showed up.

“Friends helped me carry the weight as the world was falling apart around me,” Mayers said. “I put out a call for strength and my friends answered me, my classmates answered me, my faculty, staff and alumni answered me. I needed help to keep moving forward, and the Brown community came to my aid.”

Drawing inspiration from generations of Brown students who have supported each other and the causes they believe in, Mayers recalled the 1968 Black Student Walkout, which spurred a greater commitment to enrolling and supporting Black students at Brown, and noted that “those students utilized their communities and resources to stand up for what they believe in.” Mayers praised their present peers for carrying forward a commitment to activism.

“We can never stop walking towards a better life for all of us, even if some of us have been walking for decades, centuries towards that brighter future,” Mayers said.

Along graduates’ journey through life, beyond the Van Wickle Gates, Mayers called on the Class of 2024 to carry its signature support and connection into the future.

“To my classmates, we aren’t only future doctors, professors, engineers or lawyers — we are artists, innovators, activists and so much more," Mayers said. “We have each other’s backs. We keep pushing ourselves forward.”