In a world too full of “serial monologues, talking heads endlessly repeating themselves, and hate-filled rants,” “practice forms of friendship that match the complexity of the world and can address its complex problems,” Amherst President Biddy Martin urged the class of 2017 at the College’s 196th Commencement today. “It matters that you use your head and your hearts to find the basis for genuine connection, not only with those with whom you are familiar and already agree but with those who differ.”
An estimated 5,000 family members and friends gathered to cheer the seniors as they received their bachelor of arts degrees and hear Martin and Amir Denzel Hall ’17 deliver Commencement addresses during the ceremony on the College’s Main Quad. The event featured the awarding of six honorary doctorates, performances by the student Choral Society, and plenty of laughter and tears. It capped a weekend of lectures, concerts and other festivities. (Audio of talks given by the honorees and photos from the weekend are posted on the Commencement website. More photos will be posted this week.)
The incalculable value and necessity of friendships
Martin began her address by describing some of the achievements and post-graduation plans of the members of the class of 2017—a group that includes three Watson Fellows, as well as young leaders who, while on campus, established an organization for first-generation college students, created a mentoring program for women in the sciences, developed programming for student military veterans, and won three NCAA championships, among other accomplishments.
“Many of you have also worked hard to change what needs to be changed at the College,” she said. “You have shown that it can ultimately bring people together, rather than drive them apart.”
“A liberal arts education is the form of education best suited to uncertainty and change,” Martin continued, because it fosters intellectual versatility and problem-solving. “Its purpose has never been to prepare people for a job that may well disappear or a career. Its purpose is to promote freedom of thought and the disciplined and dogged pursuit of truth.”
“Truth matters,” she added for emphasis, to a round of applause.
Martin observed that there was a unifying theme to three talks that seniors delivered in the past month to their classmates. “Friendship flows from the kinds of humanity that education is meant to foster, and its value is incalculable, completely inefficient, and absolutely essential to individual flourishing and the health of communities.”
But in order for friendship to operate “fully and fruitfully” beyond personal relationships, the meaning of the word needs to be broadened, she said. “It can’t just be about seeking comfort, or about gravitating towards those who are familiar to us or with whom we already agree. It needs to encompass relationships of respect, understanding and even affection between people who differ—and working together in good faith across those differences towards solutions to the complex problems we face together.”
“This is what we must all redouble our efforts to do,” she said. “This is the harder form of friendship, but it can also be the most rewarding. It is certainly the most necessary right now.”
Martin quoted the philosopher Hannah Arendt, as well as honorary degree recipient William Cronon, the Frederick Jackson Turner and Vilas Research Professor of History, Geography and Environmental Studies at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, both of whom have written about the importance of friendships and the liberal arts.
“I believe in the promise of residential [liberal arts] education,” Martin continued, “because I know that, on a private level, friendship makes our lives worth living, but also because we see that the absence of friendship as a public good—the full engagement of human beings with one another in the public sphere—this absence threatens the principles and processes that support democracy.”
Before ending with the poem “Salute” by A.R. Ammons, Martin reminded the graduates of their own power to affect change. “The fact that you cannot take for granted the things that we would all like to…the fact that we are seeing the fragility of human bonds, of democratic processes, and of the earth itself show that our relationships and our actions matter and can be seen as an opportunity for people like you to provide the change that will help us through.”
“We will carry each other through”
In addition to Martin, Hall, of Chaguanas, Trinidad and Tobago, addressed his fellow graduates. He was chosen by his classmates to deliver the traditional student speech during the 196th Commencement.
Hall, who spoke just before Martin, started by lovingly recalling a memory of his 14-year-old self being carried by his father from the family car and tucked into bed by both of his parents.
“Where did you come from? How did you arrive?” he asked the assembled seniors, quoting poet Bhanu Kapil’s “Twelve Questions.” His own answer was “my father’s arms, my mother’s gaze and the comfort of their sheets.” When he polled some classmates, he said, they responded with, among other answers: “my mother’s womb”; Abuja, Nigeria; Columbia, Md.; a public school in Cleveland.
“Ten years down the line when someone asks, ‘Where do you come from?’ Amherst College will be added to the long list of places we name,” he continued. “When someone asks, ‘How did you arrive?,’ hopefully you will remember the people you met here who helped carry you along the way. Who will you think of? Who carried you?”
He described his relationship with Rhonda Cobham-Sander, the Emily C. Jordan Folger Professor of Black Studies and English. Cobham-Sander “has been at every corner and crossroad,” providing advice, comfort and even home-cooked meals, he said. “Sometimes I think she knows my future and just tells me what to do in order to get to it.”
“When I think of how I arrived here, I think of the faculty and staff members like her, who have carried me through some tough spots,” he continued. “I also think of the students who carry each other and this campus in significant ways.”
Hall cited the Amherst Uprising sit-in that took place on campus in November 2015 as another example of members of the community carrying each other. He praised students, faculty and staff for not just participating in difficult conversations about race and community but also doing smaller things—like providing sleeping bags, bringing breakfast and encouraging one another during that student protest.
“That was when I realized how much students help carry each other through,” he said.
The death of Hall’s father during his junior year served as a heartrending reminder of this support. “The Amherst College community took me through one of the most difficult periods of my life—even when I was not physically here,” he said, adding that he was in Trinidad at the time. “What this shows is the capacity for this community to extend beyond the campus’ physical peripheries.”
He ended by thanking parents, staff and faculty members, and, lastly, fellow students. “These are the people who will stand at your wedding altars, and come to your book-signings. They will text with you through boring meetings at work. They will attend your future graduations and spoil your children. They will be here for you.”
“And,” he said, “we will carry each other through.”
Honorary awards and other prizes
In addition to the awarding of bachelor of arts degrees to the assembled graduates, honorary doctorates were presented to six outstanding leaders:
Steven Chu, former secretary of the Department of Energy and winner of the 1997 Nobel Prize in Physics, who was unable to attend the ceremony
William Cronon, the Frederick Jackson Turner and Vilas Research Professor of History, Geography and Environmental Studies at the University of Wisconsin—Madison and a Pulitzer Prize-nominated environmental historian and author
Esther Duflo, the Abdul Latif Jameel Professor of Poverty Alleviation and Development Economics in the Department of Economics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and award-winning poverty economics researcher
Yanira Castro Negroni ’93, a dance, performance, theater and visual artist and founder of the collaborative group a canary torsi
Barrett J. Rollins ’74, pioneering chief scientific officer and faculty dean for academic affairs at Dana-Farber Cancer Institute in Boston and the Linde Family Professor of Medicine at Harvard Medical School
Peter J. Rubinstein ’64, director of Jewish community and the Bronfman Center for Jewish Life at 92Y in New York and Newsweek magazine-recognized “influential rabbi.”
Other honorees included Katherine Chia ’88, who was awarded the 2017 Medal for Eminent Service for exceptional and distinguished service to the college for a great period of time. Teachers Daniel Adler, an economics, geometry and government teacher from Long Beach Polytechnic High School in Long Beach, Calif.; R. Nicole Gharda, an English teacher from Ernest S. McBride Sr. High School in Long Beach, Calif.; and Elisa Murphy ’94, a biology teacher from the Spence School in New York City, were honored with Phebe and Zephaniah Swift Moore Awards after being nominated by graduating seniors whom they had taught in high school. Wei Sun Christianson ’85 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 two students, Beselot Birhanu of Bronx, N.Y., and Hall.
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 Yen Nhi Truong Vu ’17 of Ho Chi Minh, Vietnam.