Submitted on Friday, 6/6/2014, at 3:27 PM

May 25, 2014

The members of Amherst’s Class of 2014 toss their
caps after receiving their degrees

AMHERST, Mass. — Quoting two-time Pulitzer Prize-winning poet and Amherst College alumnus Richard Wilbur, Amherst President Biddy Martin today urged the members of the Class of 2014 to celebrate their many impressive achievements and “ramify”—branch out, extend or become more complex.

Martin’s address was preceded by an often humorous talk by Katherine E. (“Kate”) Sisk, of Sudbury, Mass., who was chosen by her classmates to deliver the traditional student speech during the college’s 193nd Commencement this morning.

Sun, 70-degree temperatures and a slight breeze made the outdoor event pleasant for an estimated 5,000 families and friends, who gathered to see the 474 students receive their bachelor’s degrees. Commencement  included the awarding of honorary doctorates to seven distinguished guests, and capped a weekend of activities that included lectures, concerts and other festivities. (Audio of talks given by the honorees and photos from the weekend can be found on the college’s Commencement website.)

Amherst President Biddy Martin poses with a student
for a “selfie” during the ceremonies

Martin began her address by inviting Wilbur, a member of Amherst’s Class of 1942 and the John Woodruff Simpson Lecturer at the college, to read his 1974 poem “Seed Leaves.” The homage to late Amherst faculty member and fellow poet Robert Frost ends with the line, “And now the plant, resigned/To being self-defined/Before it can commerce/With the great universe,/Takes aim at all the sky/And starts to ramify.” Martin noted Wilbur’s  nonstandard use of the word “ramify,” here meaning  “the process of branching out, extending, becoming more complex, taking shape as we take aim.”

“The purpose of your education at a place like Amherst,” she told the graduates, “is not to determine the shape you will take …. but to provide an environment in which you can ramify.”

Martin went on to describe the members of the Class of 2014, by the numbers. They came from 372 different high schools, she said, and transferred from 18 different colleges. They wrote more than 180 senior theses and won numerous high-profile awards. Seventy-seven percent of them took a language class at Amherst and 41 percent took a course in poetry. She discussed their activities, their successes on the playing fields and in the classrooms, and their future plans.

“Despite all the emphasis these days on measurable outcomes and returns on investment, neither we nor you, and not even [honorary degree recipient] Nate Silver, can fully measure the impact that your educational experience has already had or will ultimately have,” she said. “The benefits of education …. take time to make themselves felt, to ramify, which is a compounding process …. Learning, giving and deepening take cultivation and time, and then, in their own timing, they ramify.”

Martin also touched on the hardships many seniors faced as individuals or as members of groups during their college careers. “You sometimes may have felt that you were running a gauntlet; you may feel your faith has been tested at times while you were here,” she said. “I hope that some of the ways in which you were all tested will ultimately ramify in ways that serve us well.”

In wrapping up her address, Martin encouraged the students to “take your decency, your earnestness, your gratitude and your hard work out into a world in urgent need of all those qualities, a world in which it is too easy to be cynical, to express outrage and rip things apart from the safe and cowardly confines of anonymous blog posts or comments sections …. I hope you will cultivate a capacious-enough intellect and a generous-enough heart to want to understand, rather than merely to unmask others.”

“Your education is here is a well-earned treasure,” she said, closing with another reference to Wilbur’s poem. “Celebrate what you have achieved and ramify.”

Katherine E. (“Kate”) Sisk exits the stage after giving
the student address

Prior to Martin’s remarks, the graduates heard from Sisk, who talked about her personal growth during her college years in an address that drew laughter and applause.

“There are so many intensely different and scattered moments and emotions that complicate this process of looking back,” she said. “The moments that make me feel happiest and proudest and most thankful for the opportunities I’ve been offered—those are by far the most powerful and resonant memories in my mind, and the dearest to my heart.”

She spoke about the community of smart, passionate and caring people she joined, and what that community has given her.

“My mom used to say, ‘Love the game and it will love you back,’ and, despite heartbreak and bad luck, it’s been largely true for me so far,” Sisk said. “I’m encouraged enough by the example you have set that the right amount of passion and compassion can make our lives great—and that even if it doesn’t, at the very least it will make them better. That even if we fall short or sideways of what we were aiming for, we’ll be okay, and we might be happy, and we won’t let our fires die.”

Sisk ended: “While we’re at it, do shoot for your dreams, because—why freakin’ not? If I believe in anyone, it’s you and me.”

In addition to the awarding of bachelor of arts degrees to the assembled graduates, honorary doctorates were presented to seven special guests: Political and cultural commentator David Brooks, Olympic gold medal-winning swimmer Cullen Jones, tech entrepreneur Thai-Hi Lee ’80, statistician and writer Nate Silver, contemporary artist Sarah Sze, the late American studies scholar and transportation expert Yasuo Sakakibara (accepted posthumously by his daughter, Richi Sakakibara ’88) and former Amherst Board of Trustees chair and businessman Jide Zeitlin ’85.

Other honorees included Douglas C. Grissom ’89, who was awarded the 2014 Medal for Eminent Service for exceptional and distinguished service to the college for a great period of time. Teachers Allyson Eaton, an English teacher at R.L. Paschal High School in Forth Worth, Texas; Erick Hueck, a chemistry teacher at Miami Senior High School in Miami; and Donald Pietroski, a mathematics teacher at Oceanside High School in Rockland, Maine, were honored with Phebe and Zephaniah Swift Moore Awards after being nominated by graduating seniors whom they had taught in high school. Carolyn Pruyne W ’56 served as the honorary marshal for the ceremonies.

The Obed Finch Slingerland Memorial Prize, given by the trustees of the college to members of the senior class who have shown by their own determination and accomplishment the greatest appreciation of and desire for a college education, was awarded to Raysa Gabriela Cabrejo La Torre of Miami.

The Woods-Travis Prize, an annual gift in memory of Josiah B. Woods and Charles B. Travis of the Class of 1864, was awarded for outstanding excellence in culture and faithfulness to duty as a scholar. It went this year to Shanghui Li of Singapore.

For more photos, audio and text of speeches, go to the Commencement website.