Three student marshalls lead the class of 2019
Student Marshals: Louis Briones ’19, Joseph Schneider ’19 and Joanna Booth ’19

Under a canopy of vibrant green leaves on the Amherst College Quad today, President Biddy Martin sent the members of the class of 2019 off into the world by urging them to do their part to “use disagreement in search of the common good, a good that acknowledges the life we share with trees.”

An estimated 5,000 family members and friends sat among the Quad’s oaks and maples as Martin spoke, and then cheered for the seniors as they received their bachelor of arts degrees. The event also featured an address by student speaker Helena Burgueño ’19, the awarding of seven honorary doctorates, and performances by the Choral Society. It concluded a weekend of lectures, concerts and other festivities. (Audio of talks given by the honorees, videos of speeches and photos from the weekend will be posted by 5/29/19 and linked to from this story.)

Martin’s use of trees as a theme was especially fitting given the day’s setting. An unseasonably rainy spring resulted in an even lusher Quad than normal, and audience members fortunate enough to be in the shade—the temperature topped out above 80—were dappled with green and yellow light filtering through the leaves above.

President Biddy Martin speaking at the podium during commencement

Martin began her address by recounting the removal of a copper beech tree in her yard. The activity took place while she was writing her Commencement address, and she found herself watching the spectacle out the window.

“I stood looking out at the tree’s great height and expanse, its deep plum-red leaves and the trunk that still gave the appearance of solidity,” she said. “I began to feel a sense of loss, the loss of what had felt like shelter.”

That the tree was a beech reminded her of another of its kind on campus—one recently planted behind Webster Hall as a memorial to Christopher Collins ’20, who died last year. “Within minutes of [the beech’s] planting in the earth, the branches began to lift and the tree seemed to raise its arms and fill out, as if on cue,” she said. That planting and a subsequent exchange with two of Collins’ baseball teammates struck a chord: “In hard times, if we clear out the debris and ignore the noise, we are reminded of the things that matter.”

Martin went on to quote from Song of Trees, in which author David Haskell writes that to “listen” to trees “is to learn how to inhabit the relationships that give life its source, substance, and beauty.”

“To learn how trees communicate, and how they protect one another by emitting chemical and other kinds of messages, is also a great lesson and a humbling one to us humans, who so readily set ourselves apart,” Martin continued. “To listen to other people, even those who think otherwise” is to learn “what gives our lives their source and beauty—our interdependence and our belonging in embodied networks.”

The president then cited Bertolt Brecht and Adrienne Rich as poets who wrote of trees as a way to make political statements about fascism and civil rights, respectively. “Today, more than in the late 1930s or mid 1970s [when the authors lived], it is necessary to talk about trees, not in order to obscure, deny or ease us into truth and dread; it is necessary, because the forests they once made up are essential to living networks, and the shelter they provide and represent is disappearing even as the numbers of persecuted human beings and extinct species seem to grow.”

She observed that she was thinking about losses in general nowadays—not only of people and trees and other species, but also of principles, rights and protections, threats to which “destroy shelter for the embodied networks of which humans are one part.”

Martin then spent several moments describing the many achievements of the class, listing specific examples.

She marveled at the graduates’ abilities in classrooms and labs, in community service and athletics, in theater, art and music. She marveled also at their commitment to “make Amherst a better place” through protest, student government, newspaper reporting and work in the College’s resource centers, as well as their determination to bring greater attention to mental health, climate change and marginalized groups, and their courage in exploring “the possibilities of discovery, truth and change,” as evidenced in their theses.

“Tension and conflict are a crucial part ... changes to networks—they work when we are willing to take risks in truth-telling and when our interlocutors or listeners are as forgiving as possible of our mistakes,” she said. “Our perspectives change by virtue of our interactions with others and with the things of this world; they change with our awareness of our interconnectedness.”

Before wrapping up the ceremony by reciting A.R. Ammons’ “Salute”—a tradition of hers for many years—she left the graduates with one last charge: “You have what you need to do well, also to create more truth, better politics and the relationships worth having,” she said. “Go out and plant trees. Remember they do not stand alone—and neither do you.”

Helena Burgueño
Senior class speaker Helena Burgueño ’19

Senior speaker Burgueño: “We all went to Amherst”

Prior to Martin’s address and the awarding of the degrees, Burgueño, from Hamden, Conn., spoke to her classmates. She hadn’t told her parents that she was the student speaker and only informed her father while she was at the podium.

In her speech Burgueño, a film and media studies major, explored what she considered to be common themes of the graduates’ time at Amherst.

“If you think about it, the class of 2019 has been through a lot together, because Amherst has been through a lot in the past four years,” she said. She cited student protests in 2015, the selection of the Mammoth mascot in 2017, the demolition of two residence halls to make way for the new Science Center and, humorously, the fact that self-serve blenders are no longer available in the College’s dining hall.

 “Acknowledging hardship doesn’t devalue the entire experience of being here,” she said. “If anything it makes today feel like more of a celebration.”

A family cheers for their graduating student
Senior class speaker Helena Burgueño wanted to surprise her family and purposely didn't tell them that she would be speaking at Commencement. The surprise worked!

She recognized other things that she and her classmates share, starting with one sentence: “We all went to Amherst.”

“But, for me, that sentence feels notably incomplete,” she said. “It lacks all of the details that made being here so significant.”

That “significant” experience included other commonalities. She listed them as education—“one that allowed you space to grow, encouraged you to question what you perceived as fact”—a place—“this little campus, the colors of the Holyoke range in October, the thrilling return of the Adirondack chairs the instant the temperature goes above 60 degrees”—and people—“the faculty and staff who reminded you that, on top of being a student, you are also a human being,” as well as “small, subtle acts of friendship and “the gallery of faces that belong to people who share your space but maybe not your community.”

She concluded with her thought process writing her speech and heading into Commencement.

“I’m thinking about this moment in history that we all just happen to have shared by virtue of being in this very particular place at the same time,” she said. “I’m thinking about all of the people that have come and gone during our time here. ... I’m thinking about the impact that we’ve had on one another, how every single one of us has helped someone else to grow.

And finally: “I’m thinking about how one of the things that makes me most excited about my post-Amherst life is the possibility that I might bring some of you into it with me.”

Honorary awards and other prizes

Honorary degree recipients

In addition to the conferring of bachelor of arts degrees on the assembled graduates, honorary doctorates were presented to seven leaders:

  • Harvard neuroscientist David P. Corey ’74
  • Photographer Annie Leibovitz
  • Cape Town, South Africa, Archbishop Thabo Makgoba
  • Book author, science writer and scriptwriter Charles C. Mann ’76
  • Massachusetts Institute of Technology astrophysicist Nergis Mavalvala
  • Journalist, book author and former Amherst Board of Trustees chair Cullen Murphy ’74
  • Ford Foundation President Darren Walker.

Other honorees included Paula Rauch ’77 P’00 ’08, winner of the College’s Medal for Eminent Service for exceptional and distinguished service to the College.

Educators Heather Anderson, a math teacher from Pathfinder Regional Vocational Technical High School in Palmer, Mass.; Z. Aaron Barkon, a music teacher from Hamden (Conn.) High School; and John Hoerster, an English teacher from Oak Park and River Forest High School in Oak Park, Ill., were honored with Phebe and Zephaniah Swift Moore Awards. They were nominated by their respective former students and graduating seniors Katherine (Kat) Cyr, Burgueño and Anjanique “Jana” Barber.

Andrew Kendall ’83, P’19 ’22 served as the honorary marshal.

President Biddy Martin and amie Tucker-Foltz ’19
President Biddy Martin with Jamie Tucker-Foltz ’19

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, Hilary Bediako ’19 of Gaithersburg, Md., and Elorm Yevudza of Accra, Ghana.

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 Jamie Tucker-Foltz, a computer science and mathematics double major from Boulder, Colo.

Students toss their graduation caps at the end of the ceremony

Celebrating All Things Commencement