May 18, 2012

On Sunday, May 20, Amherst College will celebrate its 191st Commencement at 10 a.m. on the school’s Main Quadrangle. The day’s exercises will feature addresses from College President Biddy Martin and senior Elias Johansson-Miller, as well as the awarding of bachelor of arts degrees to 441 graduates and honorary doctorates to seven distinguished guests.

This year’s ceremony will stand in sharp contrast to the college’s first Commencement, on Aug. 28, 1822. Though that event featured only two graduates—Ebenezer Strong Snell and Pindar Field—the festivities lasted all day, with a break for a dinner at midday. The exercises included 10 speakers; more than a dozen presentations with orations in Latin, Greek and English; and topics ranging from “The Diversity of Human Character” to “The Gospel Carried to India” to a “Comparative View of the Intellectual Power of the Sexes.” One of the speakers on this last topic was the poet Emily Dickinson’s father, Edward, who himself graduated from Amherst in 1823. There were also dialogues, prayers, a poem and a colloquy. (To learn more about Commencements past and view some historical images, check out the Commencement Traditions pages created by Frost Library’s Archives and Special Collections team.)

Commencement today may seem a modest affair in comparison to that first graduation. However, many of the original traditions remain, in whole or in part, and Commencement is, as always, a special event.


What follows are just seven things to look forward to about Amherst’s upcoming Commencement Weekend:

1. Hearing the honored guests speak. This year’s honorary degree recipients include Sheila Bair, former UMass professor and Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation chair; Martin Duberman, playwright and gay-rights activist; Ulric Haynes Jr. ’52, Iran hostage crisis negotiator; David K. Lewis ’64, chemistry professor; and Anthony W. Marx, New York Public Library president and CEO and former Amherst College president. They will talk about undergraduate research, the gay-rights movement, education and ethics and more. (CNN journalist Christiane Amanpour and acclaimed narrative nonfiction writer John McPhee will also receive honorary degrees but are unable to deliver lectures that day.)

2. Noshing on the weekend’s food. This year’s Commencement spread features 3,600 chicken breasts, 500 pounds of asparagus-and-couscous salad, 800 roast turkey sandwiches, 275 pounds of potato salad, 3,600 brownies, 2,700 sugar cookies and 6,500 assorted pastries, among other goodies.

3. Listening to some beautiful music. As in years past, the Commencement festivities have a soundtrack of their own. The Amherst College Choral Society—which includes the Women’s Chorus, Men’s Glee Club and Concert Choir—will hold in a concert in Buckley Recital Hall on May 18, as will the Madrigal Singers. But that’s not all: Amherst musicians will also perform during Saturday morning’s Baccalaureate service and Sunday’s Commencement itself.

4. Learning about the future plans of the Class of 2012. Even in a tough job market, the graduates are finding work. Positions accepted by the seniors include research associate for, physics teacher for the Collegiate School in Richmond, Va., investment analyst for HIMCO, research technician for Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center, language and cultural assistant for the Spanish Ministry of Education, deputy digital director for Obama for Iowa, junior developer for ThoughtWorks and second lieutenant for the United States Marine Corps, among many other positions at various businesses, nonprofits, charitable organizations and graduate school programs.

5. Meeting the graduates’ friends and families. An estimated 5,000 visitors attend Commencement every year, and they spend the weekend driving around the Pioneer Valley, sightseeing and patronizing local businesses.

6. Recognizing some familiar faces on campus for the weekend. 75 of the members of the Class of 2012 are sons or daughters of alumni, and many of those former Amherst students will be returning to campus as proud parents.

7. Watching the 441 graduates receive their bachelor of arts degrees. This year’s seniors hail from 31 countries (including Canada, Brazil, Ghana, France, Hong Kong, Jamaica, Nepal, Qatar and Vietnam, among others) and 35 states, plus Washington, D.C., and Puerto Rico. 217 of them wrote theses, and 44 of them have been elected into Amherst College’s chapter of the Phi Beta Kappa Society, the oldest undergraduate academic honors organization in the U.S. Eight seniors received J. William Fulbright Fellowships for study and teaching abroad (as did two alumni), and two were named Thomas J. Watson Fellows for 2012–13. What’s more, 122 members of the class played varsity sports during their college years, and many were either members of national championship teams (women’s ice hockey in the 2008–09 and 2009–10 seasons, women’s basketball and men’s tennis in 2010–11) or individual champs themselves (swimmer Ryan Lichtenfels won two national titles, and runner Ben Scheetz nabbed one).

See the Commencement webpages for the weekend schedule, audio of speeches, photos and more.