Three student marshals lead the procession of graduates during the Commencement ceremony at Amherst College.

Class marshals (left to right) Reeya Patel ’24, Lorett Alarcon ’24, and Mufaro Mazambani ’24.

At a time when war is being waged in various spots around the world, trust in institutions is plummeting, and rates of depression and anxiety are hitting record numbers, President Michael A. Elliott nonetheless urged members of Amherst’s class of 2024 during Commencement today to embrace two qualities that are embodied by the College and its peer institutions: “unapologetic hope and unfettered curiosity.”

“A liberal arts college is a special place, a place where we give free rein to curiosity, no matter what the subject—a place where we are not only open to, but actually invite, the criticism and challenge of every idea,” he explained in his address during the event. “It is a place where no orthodoxy can escape skepticism, and where we must offer protection and support for our own critics. … Amherst College is a campus, yes, a set of buildings, a body of people—but it is nothing if it is not first an idea, a commitment to the power of thinking, to a conviction that we should come together and learn together with passion, with openness, alive to possibility.”

Elliott made the remarks before he awarded 464 bachelor of arts degrees to the students, conferred six honorary doctorates to special guests, and honored an alumnus and three high school teachers of graduates for their respective service. Approximately 5,000 friends and family members attended Commencement—Amherst’s 203rd, if you can believe it—and also partook in two days of activities prior to the event. Commencement Weekend featured lectures, musical performances, luncheons and, of course, joy in abundance.

“Be That Doer”

A student, wearing a graduation cap and gown, speaks from behind a podium.

Taha Zafar Ahmad ’24, selected by his peers, speaks to the graduating class of 2024 at Amherst College.

Before Elliott delivered his address, senior Taha Zafar Ahmad, who was chosen by his classmates to serve as senior speaker, took the stage. His speech focused on “finding delights”—a reference to Ross Gay’s The Book of Delights, the assigned reading for the class of 2024 when they began at Amherst in 2020.

Ahmad noted the reality of daily life at the College at that time and the many contradictions in it. He arrived, he said, brimming with both dreams and doubts. He went from the top of his class in high school to occasionally falling behind peers in some Amherst classes. He was reassured that “everything is OK,” but his beloved grandfather was dying. The resulting sorrows, insecurities and anxieties” that arose from these challenges sometimes overtook him.

At the same time, he encountered plenty of everyday delights—a “hi” from Reneé Álvarez, a beloved staffer at Valentine Dining Hall; coffee at the library with a professor; visiting Book & Plow Farm—while also accomplishing bigger things: learning two new languages, building houses in the local community and becoming an activist. “When I first arrived at the College, I could never have imagined any of these achievements or predicted the hardships I faced along the way,” he said. “Every single one of these experiences required a conscious choice to push myself into challenging positions.”

After Amherst, he told the students, there will be many instances in which they will have to take risks—small and large. “Even if you are lost and have little idea what to do with your life, keep ‘doing.’ … If it gets tough, remind yourself that ‘all is well,’ [and] keep moving forward. I promise you that you won’t regret it a few decades later.”

He continued with a quote from a speech President John F. Kennedy made at Amherst in 1963: “Privilege is here, and with privilege comes great responsibility.” Ahmad concluded, “Our education, the collection of the sorrows and the delights, the failures and the triumphs, the experiences and the lessons both within and outside of the classroom, cannot be faithfully surmised, nor concluded, through the words on this diploma—it is a privilege and a mindset that requires hard work, so that it continues to grow as we move forward. What you choose to do with this privilege is entirely up to you. Be a doer, believe in yourself, just as much as your professors, your friends and your family have believed in all of us.”

“Be Ready with Your Sunglasses” 

Jordan Trice, in regalia at Commencements, waves.

Jordan Trice ’24 waves at Jeanne Herdocia, the teacher he nominated for a Swift Moore Teaching Award.

Following Ahmad’s speech, the conferral of honorary degrees and presentation of the Phebe and Zephaniah Swift Moore Teaching Awards and Medal for Eminent Service, the ceremony paused briefly when some members of the audience peacefully chanted, “Free, free Palestine.” When the protestors were finished, Elliott took a moment before his remarks to recognize the deep concerns related to current events in Gaza that the protestors and many others in attendance were likely feeling, as well as some anger directed at him and the College’s administration.

“I acknowledge and respect all of the different emotions and commitments that we bring to this quad, and that our celebration of this class does not in any way diminish the real pain that we are feeling right now,” he said. “All of us, in our own ways, are seeking to find balance in the tumult of the world, and peace in the midst of conflict and violence.”

He went on to recall the solar eclipse this past spring and noted that many members of the community gathered on the quad to witness the celestial event together. “For a college that prides itself on activity and action, where everyone seems to be busy some 26 hours in the day, it was a rare moment where we could all pause and find delight in the way that the natural world could reveal its wonder to us with such simple grandeur, and in the sheer pleasure of seeing each other—our fellow Mammoths—take it all in.” 

The president contrasted that moment with what he called the “perfect inversion of the eclipse”—the spring of 2020 at the onset of COVID-19. “Instead of turning our attention upward and out to the magnificence of the heavens, the shutdown made our world smaller—squeezing us into rooms not built to contain the whole of our lives, shrinking our interactions into the small boxes of our laptop screens, reducing our human contact to trying to read the eyes above the mask as we scrupulously observed a 6-foot distance between us.”  

Many of the graduates began their college careers during the pandemic, Elliott noted. “At a time when so many people were withdrawing and becoming suspicious of one another, you chose curiosity by coming to study here, with each other, in a community devoted to close colloquy,” he said. “Hope and curiosity—these are qualities that are the foundation of what Amherst College means, of everything that we do here.” 

Michael A. Elliott, president of Amherst College, speaking at Commencement.

President Michael A. Elliott address the graduating class of 2024.

Praising Ahmad and his classmates as examples of “what hope can look like,” Elliott went on to thank the graduates for their stories of perseverance, devotion to democracy, advocacy of civic responsibility, and willingness to talk with and listen to people of differing opinions. That last item, in particular, is something that naysayers of higher education and the liberal arts don’t take the time to see, he noted. 

“During the last six months, the media and the U.S. Congress have reminded us repeatedly how little public trust there is in colleges and universities,” said Elliott. “I wish that our critics—whether on Capitol Hill or in the press—could witness what I get to witness at Amherst. I wish that they were here today to meet the class of 2024, to see what academic excellence looks like. … They would have a very different perspective on how we pursue academic excellence; they would have seen and heard the power of curiosity.”  

He concluded his remarks with a charge to the graduates that cued the theme of the address and the aforementioned celestial event. “Wherever you go, whatever you do, do not allow the world to blunt your curiosity,” he told them. “Do not let cynicism and mistrust diminish your sense of hope. And, if all else fails, remember the simple lessons of our recent eclipse: Take time for the unexpected pleasures, find joy in the company of others and always be ready with your sunglasses.”

Other Honorees

Matt Popoli ’98, P’24, ’24, and Paula Traub Popoli ’98, P’24, ’24, served as honorary marshalls of the ceremonies. 

John Kirkpatrick ’51 was this year’s winner of the Medal for Eminent Service for exceptional and distinguished service to the College.

Educators Jeanne Winand Herdocia, an English and English for Speakers of Other Languages teacher at Jefferson High School in Tampa, Fla.; Dawn McRoberts Strauss, a Latin teacher at Kenwood Academy High School in Chicago; and Julie Filliez, a French teacher at GlenOak High School in Canton, Ohio, were honored with Phebe and Zephaniah Swift Moore Awards. The prizes, created in 1997 and named after the first president of Amherst and his wife, recognize teachers who challenged, inspired and moved members of the graduating class. This year’s winners were nominated by their former students Jordan Trice, Anayah Scott and Hannah Gariepy, respectively, all of whom are members of the class of 2024.

Lorrett Alarcon Perez, from Englewood, Fla., was recognized with the Obed Finch Slingerland Memorial Prize. The annual award, which was created from the income of a fund established by an anonymous donor, is awarded by the trustees of the College to a member or members of the senior class, who, during their first three years at Amherst, showed by determination and accomplishment the greatest appreciation of and desire for a college education. 

The Woods-Travis Prize, an annual gift to a member of the graduating class in memory of Josiah B. Woods of Enfield and Charles B. Travis of the class of 1864, was awarded to Kathy Xing, of San Jose, Calif., for “outstanding excellence in culture and faithfulness to duty as a scholar.” 

Students toss their graduation caps at the end of the Commencement ceremony.