Many are familiar with the typical commencement traditions: processions of students in graduation gowns and faculty in colorful robes; the playing of “Pomp and Circumstance”; the joyous tossing of caps in the air.

While Amherst does all of this, it also has a unique tradition: Immediately after receiving a diploma, every graduate also receives a cane.

The canes are a 19th-century College tradition revived and reshaped by the class of 2003 to celebrate class unity and spirit. Made possible by a gift from Brian J. Conway ’80 and Kevin J. Conway ’80 to endow the Fund for College Canes, what are now known as the Conway Canes are presented to all Amherst seniors to mark their graduation and to serve as an enduring symbol of their connection to their class, to a unique tradition and to the graduates’ alma mater.

The graduates aren’t the only ones who leave Commencement with canes. This year,  honorary degree recipients, the winner of the College’s Medal for Eminent Service, the honorary marshal and three Phebe and Zephaniah Swift Moore Teaching Award recipients will also receive them.

The canes will be on full display at Amherst’s 196th Commencement on Sunday, May 21, at 10 a.m. on the College’s Main Quadrangle. (The event will also be webcast for friends and family members unable to make it to campus.)

Here are some more fun facts about this year’s graduates and Commencement itself.

The Class of 2017

  • Diplomas personally signed by President Biddy Martin: All 478 of them.
  • Nations and states represented by this year’s seniors: 25 countries (including Canada, China, Egypt, Ethiopia, Guatemala, Poland, Thailand, Trinidad and Tobago and Zimbabwe) and 41 U.S. states and territories.
  • Percent of the senior class who are the first in their families to graduate from college: 19.
  • Members of the class of 2017 elected into the College’s chapter of the Phi Beta Kappa Society, the oldest undergraduate academic honors organization in the United States: 50.
  • Top five most-declared majors: Economics, English, mathematics, political science and psychology.
  • National award winners: 16 as of May 18. Three are Watson Fellows and 13 have been offered Fulbright scholarships. (Two students from the class of 2018 also earned prestigious awards.)
  • Total time spent by the seniors in Amherst classrooms (more or less): 65 years, two months, one week, one day, 12 hours, 13 minutes and 18 seconds.
  • Seniors with siblings now attending Amherst: 8.
  • Amount donated to the Annual Fund by the seniors as a parting gift to the College: $5,500 as of May 18. Eighty-five percent of the senior class has contributed to the gift. Among those who donated, 46 percent chose to support financial aid.  
  • National Collegiate Athletic Association championships won by Amherst during the past four years: three. The winning teams included men’s tennis in 2014, men’s soccer in 2015 and women’s basketball this year.
  • New England Small College Athletic Conference championships won by members of the class of 2017: 14. Twelve were earned by teams and two were individual titles earned by swimmers Connor Haley and Alex Dreisbach.
  • Sports victories during the seniors’ four years on campus: 1,144. (The College’s four-year overall athletics record as of May 18 was 1,144-405-49.)
  • Sports victories in contests against Williams College, Amherst’s longtime rival, during the seniors’ four years on campus: 73. (The overall athletics record against Williams since 2013 is 73-48-7.)


  • This will be Amherst’s 196th Commencement. The College’s first Commencement, on Aug. 28, 1822, featured only two graduates—Ebenezer Strong Snell and Pindar Field— and the festivities lasted all day, with a midday break for a dinner. The exercises included 10 speakers and more than a dozen presentations, with orations in Latin, Greek and English on 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 went on to graduate from Amherst in 1823. There were also dialogues, prayers, a poem and a colloquy.
  • Commencement speakers this year: two. The day’s festivities will include addresses by College President Biddy Martin and senior speaker Amir Denzel Hall.
  • Honorary degrees to be awarded: Six. The recipients are artist Yanira Castro Negroni ’93; former U.S. Secretary of Energy and Nobel Prize winner Steven Chu; Pulitzer Prize-nominated environmental historian and author William Cronon; award-winning poverty economics researcher Esther Duflo; pioneering cancer researcher Barrett J. Rollins ’74; and Newsweek magazine-recognized “influential rabbi” Peter J. Rubinstein ’64. (Learn more about Amherst’s 2017 honorary degree recipients.)
  • Meals served on campus during Commencement weekend: an estimated 5,000. This year’s spread includes 10 gallons of white bean artichoke hummus; 1,400 sandwiches; 2,800 grilled chicken breasts; 300 pounds of kale, cabbage and cranberry slaw and 500 pounds of tortellini salad.
  • Seats for graduation spectators: 5,000 on the Main Quad. That’s in addition to nearly 4,000 seats in the alternate Commencement location, and 1,500 chairs that Amherst’s buildings and grounds crew arranges in front of Valentine Dining Hall for meals. There are also 18 tents set up around campus for parties.
  • Graduates, friends and family members spending the weekend in the Town of Amherst: Approximately 5,000.
Amir Denzel Hall gives the senior class speech

Commencement Speeches & Photos

Watch videos of the presidential address and the senior class speech, and see photo albums and more on the Commencement website.