Amherst College graduates 460 at indoor ceremony

  • Amherst College graduates rise and applaud for their parents and loved ones who watched their commencement Sunday in LeFrak gym due to COVID regulations. Maria Stenzel/AMHERST COLLEGE

  • Graduating student Manuel Rodriguez was awarded the Obed Finch Slingerland Memorial Prize at Amherst College’s commencement Sunday. Maria Stenzel/AMHERST COLLEGE

  • President Biddy Martin addresses the graduating class. Maria Stenzel—Maria Stenzel © Amherst College

  • Ben Gilsdorf '21, heart shaped greeting to another senior. Maria Stenzel—Maria Stenzel © Amherst College

For the Gazette
Monday, June 07, 2021

AMHERST — Amherst College’s bicentennial commencement, which took place last Sunday, had one major theme: Perseverance.

One after another, faculty and student speakers congratulated graduating class members on their grit and tenacity over their college careers. After a year marked by racial injustice, social distancing measures and online courses, Amherst’s graduating class of 2021 shared pride, stories and lessons learned at an in-person ceremony.

The ceremony, led by President Biddy Martin, honored 460 graduating students, who all received bachelor of arts degrees. Many annual awards couldn’t be presented during the ceremony due to grading delays, Martin explained during her opening address. Despite this, she praised the class of 2021 for academic excellence and rigor.

According to Martin, the class collectively wrote 44 senior theses, won eight Fulbright scholarships, earned two Watson fellowships and produced one Rhodes scholar.

Manuel Rodriguez, a graduate who studied Latinx culture at Amherst, was awarded the Obed Finch Slingerland Memorial Award for the “greatest appreciation of and desire for a college education” from the college’s board of trustees. Martin shared his college accomplishments — which included several leadership positions and a senior honors thesis — and complimented his “insatiable intellectual curiosity” while giving him the award.

Martin and Provost Catherine Epstein conferred the degrees and handed out purple diploma tubes to each graduate. Actual diplomas will be mailed later this summer, once final grades are calculated.

An online FAQ page about Amherst’s commencement states, “President Martin will offer congratulations to each senior as they cross the stage and each graduate will receive a diploma tube and Conway Class Cane, but there will be no handshakes or physical contact this year due to COVID-19 protocols.” At the ceremony, however, Martin remained maskless and shook each student’s hand as she handed off the tubes.

Due to inclement weather, the commencement was moved inside. Graduating students filled Coolidge Cage, while parents and other guests viewed a livestream of the speeches and stage-crossing from LeFrak Gymnasium. Retired Hampshire County sheriff Robert Garvey led the procession of students through the gymnasium on the way to their seats in the Cage so that attending families and friends could watch part of the celebration in person.

The commencement did not feature any outside speakers or faculty speeches. Instead, Martin gave a traditional centennial speech, mirroring the one given by then-president Alexander Meiklejohn in 1921. Then, she said, Amherst College was struggling with many of the same issues it faces today, including racism in academia and recovery from a pandemic — Spanish influenza.

“Here we are now, in 2021, a world that is different and not different enough from the world of Alexander Meiklejohn in 1921,” she said. “We are seeing the damage to democracy that results from denials of science, evidence and the pursuit of truth. We are living with the undeniable consequences of extreme economic and racial inequalities.”

Martin listed some of the ways that COVID-19 has exacerbated these inequalities, and praised the class of 2021 for their tireless efforts to make the world and Amherst College a more just place.

“You all have pointed out that, as a college, we have not done enough,” Martin said during her speech. “And I accept that criticism.”

The theme of social justice was echoed by Jordan Andrews, the elected student speaker from the class of 2021. He explained that the class of 2021 got into what he called “good necessary trouble,” a nod to the late Congressman John Lewis.

“This year alone, we had Black students leave their classes and occupy the space in front of Frost Library for the Black Minds Matter walkout,” Andrews said. “The Asian Student Association organized vigils for victims of anti-Asian crimes, fundraised for the Amherst ACTS campaign and organized the Anti Asian hate rally on Garman Lawn.” He also thanked students in Sunrise Amherst for their dedication to divesting from fossil fuels.

“Amherst College, and especially the class of 2021, know how to stay strong and unified in the face of injustice,” Andrews said.

After each graduate received their diploma tube and Martin officially conferred the degrees, Garvey officially concluded the ceremony. The newly minted graduates progressed once more out of Coolidge Cage and through the gymnasium to reconnect with loved ones.