hat is perseverance? Jordan Andrews ’21 finds many answers to that question. The word can refer to persistence. Or resolve. Or the consumption of “a bowl of nails for breakfast without any milk.” Speaking to his classmates inside Coolidge Cage, Andrews, the senior speaker at Amherst’s 200th Commencement on May 30, said that, for the class of ’21, persevering has meant renewing themselves, seeking love and support from others, working hard in difficult classes and even getting help at the Counseling Center. But most of all, persevering has meant “knowing when to stand against injustice, even when the odds are against you.”
Andrews was elected by his classmates to speak at the Bicentennial Commencement, and he addressed the graduating seniors in a subdued but joyous indoor ceremony. The exercises had been planned for Pratt Field this year as dictated by the College’s COVID-19 protocols, which also restricted the entire audience to about 1,250 people — less than a quarter of the size of a Commencement audience in a non-pandemic year. But with driving rain and heavy wind gusts in the forecast, organizers shifted the ceremony indoors. Facilities staff arrived at the gym before dawn to make the space feel as special as possible.
The event was live-streamed online and to giant screens in LeFrak Gymnasium, where the guests sat; down the hall, graduating seniors and faculty assembled in Coolidge Cage, where the stage displayed visual reminders that this is Amherst’s 200th graduating class. The seniors wore Bicentennial-themed medallions and purple stoles over their robes.
“‘Never let anyone — any person or any force — dampen, dim or diminish your light’”
Perseverance was an apt theme for Andrews’ address. As he noted, this year’s 438 graduates — 389 of whom were present for the ceremony, while 49 opted to take part via live-stream — faced exceptional challenges during their undergraduate years. In addition to COVID-19 upending a third of their college careers, they coped with “the disconcerting continuum of racial violence” and a tumultuous U.S. presidential election. “But,” he said, “we persevered.”
In his address, Andrews expressed gratitude to the Black Student Union and Multicultural Resource Center for “making Amherst an interesting and vibrant place”; described lessons learned (“Yes, you can get bruises on your eyeballs from rugby”); and recalled taking the course Quantum Chemistry. “The class was a consistent struggle for me until the very end,” he said. “Afterward, I felt defeated. … Chemistry was an immovable object and I was a very stoppable force.” But, he said, he persevered.
Andrews quoted the late civil rights icon and U.S. Rep. John Lewis: “Never, ever be afraid to make some noise and get in good trouble, necessary trouble.” “I believe Congressman Lewis would be proud of this class thanks to the ‘good, necessary trouble’ we got ourselves into,” Andrews continued, citing a few examples: the #BlackMindsMatter Walkout; a vigil organized by the Asian Student Association for victims of anti-Asian crimes and the #AmherstActs campaign, a fundraiser for the NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund, the United Negro College Fund and the Pioneer Valley Workers Center. “Amherst College students, and, especially the class of 2021, know how to stay strong and unify in the face of injustice,” Andrews said.
After encouraging his classmates to do their best in life by their own standards, Andrews read an excerpt from another of Lewis’ famous speeches: “Never let anyone — any person or any force — dampen, dim or diminish your light.”
“Terras Irradient — let them give light to the world!” Andrews concluded, quoting Amherst’s motto before giving a final nod to the College’s Bicentennial: “Each and every one of you watching, either in person or at home, has a vibrant light that the world deserves to see. Whether you decide to let it shine in 200 hours, 200 days or 200 months is up to you.”
“The world has never needed you more”
The College’s anniversary also featured in President Biddy Martin’s remarks, which interwove themes of continuity and progress. Her first sentence drew an immediate laugh from the crowd: “Two hundred years ago, Amherst’s first president, Zephaniah Swift Moore, arrived on horseback from Williamstown with a satchel of books and 15 Williams students who were, wisely, transferring to Amherst.” Adding to the picture of those early days, she cited Ralph Waldo Emerson, who in 1823 visited Amherst and remarked that students “write, speak, and study in a sort of fury, which, I think, promises a harvest of attainments.”
Martin noted that in his 1921 Centennial Commencement address, her predecessor President Alexander Meiklejohn had defined the College’s aspirations in terms that resonate strongly today. Speaking in 1921, shortly after the end of World War I and during a period of rising inflation, increasing inequality, anti-immigrant sentiment and the 1918 flu pandemic, Meiklejohn asserted the importance of moving beyond “the supremacy of Anglo-Saxon culture.” He reminded his audience of the College’s mission to support every one of its students in reaching their unique potential. And he asserted the foundational role of a liberal arts education in preparing citizens with the critical intelligence and ethical understanding necessary in a democratic society.
“Meiklejohn was arguing in 1921 for what today we call diversity, ‘for welcoming boys of other stocks,’ as he put it back then,” Martin said. Amherst has “succeeded in assembling a very diverse group of students, fulfilling Meiklejohn’s prophecy in that way,” she noted, “but we have not yet created the conditions that would make Amherst as inclusive and equitable as it needs to be, to the detriment of too many of our students.” She promised that continuing the work to ensure that all students “have equal access to the best of the place so each can thrive...is our aspiration and our concrete intention.”
Martin went on to remark on the eerily similar types of challenges the seniors had faced during their four years: a global pandemic, extreme economic and racial inequalities and “the scourge of bigotry in overt white supremacist speech and violence,” among others. Referencing Emerson’s remarks, she noted: “Yet, you have studied in a sort of fury, as Amherst expects. You [have risen] to the challenge while also challenging the wrongs.”
She spoke of friendship as well.
“College is for intellectual development, for acquiring habits of mind that will serve you throughout your lives not only in your careers but in relations with yourselves and with others,” Martin said. “College is for making friends and for the development of the qualities that friendship requires. And at their best, these two projects — the intellectual and the interpersonal — inform and enhance one another.”
Martin ended by praising the students for their “insistent critiques” that have moved Amherst forward. “Even when we have not agreed about the pace of change or the process, I have had the greatest respect for your determination to create a better Amherst and a better world,” she said. “I know you will advance every institution or cause you take up. The world has never needed you more.” (Watch video and read the transcript of Martin’s address.)
“I’m really excited to be finally surrounded by my class all in one place”
Happy but sleep-deprived, the seniors gathered in Middleton Gymnasium at 9:30 a.m. to line up in alphabetical order. To many, that hour and a half spent together before the ceremony felt like a commencement and a reunion rolled into one.
Armando Brito ’21, Andrea Webb ’21 and Kalley Wasson ’21 arrived from Hitchcock Dorm, and that final walk together felt bittersweet. Inside the gym, they were excited to greet friends they hadn’t seen in a year — classmates who’d been studying off-campus during the pandemic. Webb summed up the feeling: “It’s like a family reunion.”
They said they’d learned this year to appreciate the little things: those walks together from Hitchcock, connections with professors, quiet time with friends: “Your social relationships will literally get you through anything,” said Wasson.
Brito reflected on that same theme: “At Amherst, we talk a lot about building community. Part of it is showing up for each other and also realizing we need each other. I like to think Amherst needed me this year, and I needed Amherst.”
Other students pointed to additional lessons learned this year. They discovered how adaptable and resilient they are. They learned that it’s possible--and important — to maintain deep friendships from afar. They remembered to be patient, and kind, and to take nothing for granted — including the ability to have an in-person commencement ceremony at all.
“I’m really excited to be finally surrounded by my class all in one place,” said Ayodele Lewis ’21, a neuroscience major who was senior chair of the Black Student Union and member of Amherst Hillel. “It’s as thriving and vibrant as my first day here.”
Ben Gilsdorf ’21, one of the three class marshals, was philosophical about the ceremony moving indoors. He realized that the class of 2021 can weather anything, including weather. “It was one more adjustment in a year of adjustments,” he said. “I thought we might get a break, but the weather was one more wrench thrown into our plans. But this class is so resilient and we can handle it.”
Gilsdorf posed for a group photo in the gym with his fellow marshals Lauren Simpson ’21 and Isabella Edo ’21. Simpson was an organizer on many fronts in mental health, including events centered on Domestic Violence Awareness Month and The Clothesline Project. She said she was feeling “a mix of nostalgia and sadness” as she prepared to lead her students in the procession.
Edo also reflected on the moment: “I’m excited for all of us and proud of all in my class for making it here. All we’ve gone through this year makes me feel so close to my classmates. We endured a lot. And now we’re feeling like we’re at the edge of a cliff about to take a deep dive. I’m proud to be able to say I know these people, and can’t wait to see what they do.”
Honorees and Award Winners
Educators Ralph D’Ambrosio, a chemistry teacher from Garden City (N.J.) High School; Alexandra M.C. McIntyre, a history and humanities teacher from Mulgrave School in West Vancouver, Canada; and Paul O’Rourke, a Latin, Greek and Hebrew teacher from Pierrepont School in Westport, Conn., were honored with Phebe and Zephaniah Swift Moore Awards. They were nominated by their respective former students and graduating seniors Andrew Nagel, Rafael Eduardo D’Atri Gonzalez and Willa Grimes. O’Rourke died during Grimes’ first year at Amherst, so his son, Liam O’Rourke ’00, an English teacher at Pierrepont School, accepted the award on his father’s behalf.
The Obed Finch Slingerland Memorial Prize, from the income of a fund established by an anonymous donor, is awarded by the Trustees of the College to a member of the senior class, who, during their first three years at Amherst, has shown by determination and accomplishment the greatest appreciation of and desire for a college education. This year’s recipient was Manuel Rodriguez ’21.