Commencement cap decoration

There’s a good chance that if you stopped by Amherst President Biddy Martin’s office this week you would have found her at the conference table in her office, pen in hand, personally signing every graduating senior’s diploma.

That a president at the College or any another institution would risk a debilitating hand cramp to undertake such an arduous assignment is not without precedent. But Martin’s view of the task is that it represents much more than a checkmark on her pre-Commencement to-do list, said Bett Schumacher, chief of staff and secretary of the board of trustees.

“Biddy cares deeply about our students, and she takes the time to reflect on them and their four years at Amherst when she signs their diplomas,” she explained. “It’s a last gesture that I think really shows the respect and affection she feels for each one of them, and, by extension, the people who supported them along the way.”

Evidence of such loving last gestures will be found everywhere during the College’s 197th Commencement ceremonies this weekend. From the meticulous grooming of campus grounds to the careful preparation of meals to the thoughtful planning of the celebrations, the College has taken great pains to give the seniors a grand send-off into the real world.   

Here are some interesting facts about Commencement itself, as well as the day’s most important people, the graduates.

The Class of 2018

  • Number of seniors eligible to receive their degrees at Commencement: 485.
  • Number of pens employed by Martin over the course of a week to sign diplomas: three. The president uses Pigma Graphic 1.0 archival document pens purchased specifically for the job. (Prior to this year, she used a Sharpie Ultra Fine Point.)
  • Nations and states represented by this year’s seniors: 29 countries (including Australia, Botswana, China, Germany, Iceland, Kazakhstan, Nepal, South Africa, Switzerland and Taiwan) and 41 U.S. states and territories.
  • Members of the class of 2018 elected into the College’s chapter of the Phi Beta Kappa Society, the oldest undergraduate academic honors organization in the United States: 49.
  • Top five most-declared majors: Economics, English, mathematics, political science and psychology.
  • Percent of the graduates earning multiple degrees: 41.
  • Senior theses completed by members of the class of 2018: 189.
  • National award winners: 16 winners as of May 16, including 14 Fulbright winners (seven to conduct independent research and seven to teach English abroad), one Marshall Scholar (who also won a prestigious Schwarzman Scholarship but declined it to take the Marshall) and one Watson Fellow.
  • Total number of college classes taken by the students: 16,762, up 1,802 from 14,960 last year.
  • Time spent in Amherst classrooms (more or less): 84 years, six months, 16 hours, 52 minutes and 10 seconds.
  • Seniors whose parents both graduated from the College: 13.
  • Graduates with siblings who attended or are attending Amherst: 36. 
  • Sets of twins graduating: Two. 
  • Amount donated to the Annual Fund by the seniors as a parting gift to the College: $3,705 as of May 16. Sixty-three percent of the senior class has contributed to the gift, and, among those who donated, 50 percent chose to support financial aid.
  • Appearances by Amherst teams or individuals in National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) contests: 28.
  • NCAA championships won during the past four years: five. The winning teams included women’s basketball in 2017 and 2018, men’s soccer in 2015 and women’s squash in 2015 and 2017.
  • New England Small College Athletic Conference championships won by members of the class of 2018: Eight.

Commencement Activities

  • Date of the College’s first Commencement. Aug. 28, 1822. The festivities featured only two graduates—Ebenezer Strong Snell and Pindar Field—and 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 ceremony will include addresses by College President Biddy Martin and senior Noor Qasim, from Wilmette, Ill., who was voted the student speaker by her classmates.
  • Honorary degrees to be awarded: Six. This year’s honorary degree recipients include acclaimed Nigerian writer and feminist icon Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie; classicist and political theorist Danielle Allen, the James Bryant Conant University Professor at Harvard University and director of Harvard’s Edmond J. Safra Center for Ethics; civil rights activist Morris Dees, co-founder and chief trial counsel for the Southern Poverty Law Center; environmental security advocate Sherri Goodman ’81, senior fellow at the Woodrow Wilson Center’s Environmental Change and Security Program and Polar Initiative and former U.S. Deputy Undersecretary of Defense (Environmental Security); art historian and curator Kellie Jones ’81, professor at Columbia University and a 2016 winner of a prestigious MacArthur Foundation Fellowship (also known as a Genius grant); and children’s health advocate Philip J. Landrigan, professor of environmental medicine and pediatrics and dean for global health in the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai. (Learn more about Amherst’s 2018 honorary degree recipients.) 
  • Canes distributed this Commencement season: 502. 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, the aforementioned six honorary degree recipients; Peter Nadosy P’01, the winner of the College’s Medal for Eminent Service; Emily Stern ’83, P’18, the honorary marshal; three Phebe and Zephaniah Swift Moore Teaching Award recipients, and six honorary members of the class of 2018 will also receive them.
  • Seats for graduation spectators: 5,000 on the Main Quad. That’s in addition to 3,500 chairs in the Commencement rain location, LeFrak Gymnasium, and 1,500 chairs that Amherst’s buildings and grounds crew arrange in front of Valentine Dining Hall for meals. There are also 18 tents set up around campus for parties.
  • Yards of extra-wide purple and white grosgrain ribbon used for a special surprise installation on campus honoring the graduates: 400 yards.
  • Meals served from Friday night to Saturday afternoon: 9,100.
  • Pounds of asparagus from nearly by Hadley farms used in Commencement weekend meals: 504; if placed end to end, the asparagus would create nearly one whole green mile. Other veggies, fruits and goodies served to the graduates and their guests include 400 pounds of farro salad—“a low-gluten option and a great source of protein!” according to Joe Flueckinger, director of Dining Services—416 pounds of strawberries, 250 pounds of Book & Plow Farm lettuce mix, 450 gallons of beverages and 500 pounds of watermelon.
  • Graduates, friends and family members spending the weekend in the Town of Amherst: Approximately 5,000.

Commencement Weekend 2018

Watch videos, hear audio, and see photos of from Commencement 2018.