After charging members of the class of 2020 “to be the generation that renews civic responsibility and demands the changes that have so long been needed,” Amherst President Biddy Martin officially awarded bachelor of arts degrees to 452 students today during an online celebration.
It was an unprecedented moment in the history of the College. COVID-19 and the switch to remote learning in March made an in-person commencement for the seniors an impossibility, so Amherst decided to postpone the on-campus exercises to spring 2021 and instead hold a virtual “Celebration of the Class of 2020.” This online event was designed to be meaningful and celebratory but not to take the place of a proper commencement.
President Martin served as the emcee for the proceedings, speaking live from her home on campus.
She kicked off the celebration noting the students’ academic accomplishments in the face of adversity—43 percent completed theses, for example—and commending class members for their courage and persistence. She also thanked Amherst’s faculty and staff for their roles in the students’ academic careers.
Martin then asked the graduating seniors to open special packages that the College had mailed to each of them. In addition to a congratulatory letter from her, the boxes contained several gifts: an aerial photo of campus in the form of a jigsaw puzzle, a class of 2020 Mammoths baseball cap, a commemorative glass, celebratory buttons for friends and family, a stuffed mammoth toy, a mortarboard with a 2020 tassel and a teabag with Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s face.
U.S. Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg
The teabag was a reference to Justice Ginsburg’s October 2019 talk at Amherst. It was also a hint of what would come next in the celebration: a surprise, congratulatory video from Ginsburg herself.
Justice Ginsburg said the members of the class should feel confident in their ability to deal with setbacks in life, and she urged them to work to make life “more sustainable for those people in need.” Her closing wish for the seniors: “As you progress from knowledge to wisdom, may you experience satisfaction and joy along the way.”
Martin then announced the winners of two annual prizes for the graduating class. 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,” went to Justin Chen ’20 and Kathleen Krieg ’20. The Woods-Travis Prize, a gift in memory of Josiah B. Woods and Charles B. Travis of the class of 1864, was awarded to Gregory Carroll ’20 for “outstanding excellence in culture and faithfulness to duty as a scholar.”
Up next was a video from Stanley O. Dunwell III ’20, elected as speaker by his classmates. Dunwell’s video began with a humorous skit involving versions of himself from each of his four years at Amherst talking to one another about the speech.
“I hope you and your loved ones are staying safe, both mentally and physically, amidst this global pandemic and current injustices faced in America,” he said as he transitioned to the address itself. “Now, more than ever is a time to be close to those that we love and protect those that are vulnerable.”
Dunwell continued: “Whether you all want to accept it or not, we have grown. As a class, we are both collectively and individually different ... we are not done yet. Amherst College provided us with the necessary relationships, skills and tools to overcome obstacles we wouldn’t have dreamed of.”
Dunwell concluded with a reminder: “Amherst has strengthened us through all its experiences to overcome any challenge. In those times of uncertainty, fear and doubt, know that you have a community in the class of 2020, but you also have all you need within yourself.
Following a touching video rendition of College standard “Three Gifts” by current and former members of the Choral Society, Martin spoke on the theme of “truthfulness and truthfulness as a source of hope and action.”
“To say that this is a difficult time in this country is to vastly understate the case,” she began, referencing COVID-19. In addition to “decimating lives and livelihoods,” the pandemic laid bare extreme forms of inequality and racism that characterize the world today, she said. The result is that many are suffering “an ambient and ambiguous grief, not only about lives lost, jobs lost … but at the erosion of democratic ideals and institutions.”
The year 2016, when most of the seniors began at Amherst, marked a time when realties became harsher for many of them, particularly those students who are on visas from Muslim-majority countries, undocumented, transgender and nonbinary, gay or people of color, she said. “All of us are affected by these things, they erode the very possibility of community ... as does the chaos and confusion that follow from purposeful spread of mis- and disinformation.”
Martin said she’d attended the night before the virtual 50th reunion celebration of the class of 1970, who lived through the civil rights movement, the Vietnam War, the assassination of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and much more during their college years. She said she was heartened and inspired by the openness with which the 1970 alumni spoke of their tragedies and losses, and also by their discussions of the “transformations that came when those losses were properly named and properly grieved.” Martin continued: “It would help us all to acknowledge more openly our shared sense of loss and shared vulnerabilities … [since] the denial of vulnerability and loss can be a calamity for the people who live in denial. We are seeing that denial of truth and the hatred for science and expertise can be a calamity for everyone in the denier’s orbit.”
She wrapped up her remarks by reading a passage from Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates, who spoke at Amherst in 2016. Then Martin spoke the names of two people of color: George Floyd, killed last week after Minneapolis police officers kneeled on him during his arrest, and Breonna Taylor, who was killed during a police raid in March.
“We have to work really hard to be truthful with ourselves as well as with others,” Martin said, “to name what we’re seeing in order to restore the sanity that comes with shared reality. We need to restore American ideals to their proper place: freedom and equality, the rule of law, the separation of powers. We must advocate for knowledge, science, reason and the forms of discourse that ... make the world human.”
She charged the new graduates with helping ensure that all U.S. citizens are able to vote in a fair election. “However small a gesture it seems and however ambivalent you feel, make sure you vote” — and help others to do the same. “You will not work alone on these things,” she concluded, before officially conferring on them their degrees en masse. “There are people all over this country, largely invisible, who are organized and determined to do their part.”