By Emily Gold Boutilier
At 11 p.m. on commencement eve, the town common was hosting a traveling carnival. There was a ferris wheel. There was cotton candy. There were teenagers.
A block south, the Amherst campus was a kind of carnival, too, with white tents scattered about, glowing in the darkness. The tents are a tradition: Every year graduating seniors and their families host high-spirited, multigenerational parties in the rented tents, often with live bands. For the almost-graduates, these parties mark their final night as college students, before they head out to whatever comes next.
And what does come next?
Leading up to graduation, The Amherst Student profiled 14 well-known members of the Class of 2012, asking them, among other things, about their post-graduation plans. Basketball star Caroline Stedman ’12 said she’d landed a job as a stats analyst at ESPN. Resident Counselor Kate Berry ’12 had accepted a position with the National Human Trafficking Resource Center.
One senior prepared to graduate.
As the Student reported, actor Michelle Escobar ’12 will spend the next year breaking into the theater scene in her hometown of Portland, Ore., and visiting family in Panama. Association of Amherst Students President Romen Borsellino ’12 is working for President Obama’s reelection campaign. Leah Longoria ’12, the first graduating major in the new Film and Media Studies Program, will begin an M.F.A. program in television at Boston University. Mathematics standout Trevor Hyde ’12 will serve as the college’s Moss Quantitative Center fellow.
On a hot, sunny commencement morning, the future was a theme of President Biddy Martin’s first Amherst commencement address. In asking students about their post-graduation plans, Martin told the crowd, “I worry that I may have reinforced the notion that you should have a plan, that your education naturally yields a plan and that you are doomed if you don’t yet have your entire lives mapped out.”
As Martin pointed out, “You’ve been students at Amherst during one of the worst economic periods in the nation’s history, so you don’t need me to tell you that you’re entering what is still a difficult economy.” But she urged the Class of 2012 to adopt neither an overly optimistic nor an overly alarmist view of the future.
In the alarmist version of reality, she said, “you are entering a world of crisis, a catastrophe even—threatened by climate change, war, terrorism, political gridlock, ideological division, failing schools, national decline and disruptive technologies over which we have no control.”
The “happier version” is the one that journalist Fareed Zakaria offered at Duke’s commencement, Martin continued: “He said you are entering one of the most dynamic societies in the world, one of the most dynamic moments in the history of the world, full of opportunity, because the great cultures of the world have never been more interdependent or more interactive.”
Martin argued that each view is too simplistic. “I worry about the alarmist narratives we hear every day, not only because they fail adequately to capture reality but because they fail us and rob us of creativity by putting us under threat,” she said. “I worry about the second narrative, Zakaria’s, because it obscures the serious downsides of many of what he portrays as opportunities.”
So what’s the answer? “Your challenge,” Martin told the graduates, “is to embrace reality in all its wonder and all of its horror, without giving in to cynicism or despair, on the one hand, or sheer fantasy, on the other, both of which are forms of narcissism.”
Martin concluded with a poem, “Salute,” by A. R. Ammons:
Family portraits are a post-ceremony tradition.
And whatever’s next for the new graduates, Amherst will be a part of their future as well as their past. That became clear a week after graduation, when, as alumni arrived for reunion, the white party tents appeared on campus once more.
Photos by Cole Morgan '13 and Rob Mattson