With leaps, cheers, cartwheels and tears, the class of 2012 celebrated the University’s 244th Commencement Weekend, recognizing the accomplishments of graduates and honoring President Ruth Simmons as her 11-year tenure as leader of the University comes to an end.
In her last Commencement as University president, Simmons conferred 2,444 degrees, including 1,603 bachelor’s degrees and eight honorary degrees.
Graduating seniors marched down the hill to the First Baptist Church of America Saturday in the wet heat of the afternoon to attend the Baccalaureate ceremony, marking the beginning of official Commencement exercises.
In her Baccalaureate address, Simmons conveyed the wisdom she has gained through her own experiences, weaving a visual and lyric narrative of her journey to the University.
The youngest of 12 children, Simmons said she was fortunate to have the opportunity to come of age when her family moved to a city in Texas that offered advantages even as it highlighted the injustices blacks faced at the time. The relocation was “a happy deliverance from my birthright,” Simmons said, adding that by avoiding a life of sharecropping, she was able to attend school each season and advance by excelling in academics.
School became her retreat from the “quasi-human” living situation institutionalized by the Jim Crow laws of the time, Simmons said. As she studied, she said she discovered that she wanted to be able to “define the world as I wished it to be,” not just as it was.
This “glimpse of change can do wonders for hope,” Simmons said. She spoke of the wonderful possibility she saw when she was asked to lead Brown as its 18th president, stating that this hope for change motivated her to accept the position even as she feared the potential for negative repercussions associated with her race.
Graduating students must “learn to live with the uncertainty that life inevitably brings,” Simmons said.
A processional of graduating seniors marched through the Van Wickle Gates Sunday, led by alums, graduating students of the University’s graduate and medical schools, senior fellows of the Corporation and distinguished faculty and guests.
Many students held hands with friends, some marching quietly while others took the moment to joyfully celebrate their final moments as Brown undergraduates. Two students were perched on the shoulders of their peers. Some wore pirate hats, and one student began his Commencement juggling green pins.
Senior orator Tara Prendergast ’12.5 spoke to a crowd gathered on the Main Green about the importance of reflecting on the privilege Brown affords and the responsibility that comes with a University diploma.
Diplomas “are a powerful currency in the world,” Prendergast said. She told graduating students to celebrate the perspectives they gained from their time at Brown and to be open to the importance of a full global perspective. Through their time at the University, students have learned to live with strength, compassion and joy, and “we have no need to fear” the future, she said.
Senior orator Leor Shtull-Leber ’12, a former Herald design editor, spoke of the importance of learning to make decisions with confidence “as we navigate the next steps of our lives.” Using her experience as a leader of a group of teenagers traveling to Alaska last summer, Shtull-Leber explained how faith in choices comes from skills that can only improve over time and with hard work. Only in her senior year has she been able to step back and say with confidence, “I’m a Brown student. How great is it to be a Brown student?” she said.
Biochemist Carolyn Bertozzi, actress Viola Davis, Rep. John Lewis, D-Ga., Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist Marilynne Robinson ’66, musician Sebastian Ruth ’97, journalist Diane Sawyer, political theorist Gene Sharp and engineer Wei Yang PhD ’85 accepted honorary degrees. Simmons also accepted an honorary degree as a leader who “has left and indelible mark on the Brown community,” said Donald Hood PhD ’70, secretary of the Corporation.
An honorary degree was not the only recognition Simmons received this week. In commemoration of Simmons’ contributions to the Brown community, the Corporation announced at a dinner Thursday night honoring the departing president that Lincoln Field will be renamed the Ruth J. Simmons Quadrangle. The quadrangle, part of Brown’s campus in 1770, is the sole portion of the University’s original land that has been named in honor of an individual.
In her final moments during the Commencement exercises Sunday, Simmons told the audience “what a beautiful, beautiful experience it has been.”