a student tilts her head and smiles under her mask
Members of the class of 2025 gather for Convocation, held outside on the Academic Quad.

As she looked from the stage out over the audience for Amherst’s 201st Convocation on Sunday, Aug. 29, President Biddy Martin asked, “How happy are we to be gathered in person in such a large group?” Pretty happy, it seemed.

Pandemic safety protocols meant that last year’s ceremony had to be entirely virtual, but this year’s Convocation featured almost all of the traditional elements, the most notable of which was togetherness. True, the gathering was outdoors on the quad rather than in Johnson Chapel, but the faculty still processed in their regalia through the audience of first-year and transfer students, and four professors—Sara J. Brenneis, Jen Manion, Katharine R. E. Sims and Christopher S. van den Berg—received honorary master of arts degrees. Face masks didn’t stop the Choral Society, under the direction of Arianne Abela, from singing “Three Gifts” and the “Hymn to Amherst,” complete with American Sign Language interpretation of the lyrics.

the crowd at Convocation
The class of 2025 attending Convocation on the Academic Quad on Sunday, August 29, 2021.

Even the president’s address was themed around a familiar classic, namely the Emily Dickinson poem that begins, “‘Hope’ is the thing with feathers—That perches in the soul….” “What sort of ‘thing’ is hope?” Martin wondered—a complex question in an era characterized by so many threats and sources of uncertainty: COVID, attempts to undermine democracy, climate change, racial injustice, desperation in Afghanistan, a hurricane in Louisiana. In times like these, hope might be something that comes and goes from us.

faculty in regalia at Convocation
Faculty members greet each other on the Academic Quad at the start of Convocation.

However, Martin told the new students, “there’s so much hope in your avidity to learn.” She praised the questions that students asked at the previous day’s DeMott Lecture, delivered by Assistant Professor of English Shayla Lawson, and echoed Lawson’s ideas about moving forward from defensiveness and fear. Martin also discussed a recent New York Times op-ed by Esau McCaulley, who wrote:

The pandemic has disabused us of the illusion of time as a limitless resource and of the false promise that the sacrifices we make for our careers are always worth it. … The pandemic has reminded us that life is more than what we do. It is about whom we spend our lives with. We cannot hug a career or laugh with a promotion. We are made for friendship, love and community.

“Friendship, love and community,” the president repeated to the students and faculty: those are the things that keep that little bird alive within us.

Convocation 2021 Video

Sunday, August 29

In the first formal gathering of the first-year students, President Martin and the faculty welcome the students to the College. The ceremony includes a formal procession and performances by the Amherst College Choral Society.