As most seniors march down the aisles to receive long-awaited diplomas this weekend, the seniors of the women's rowing team are thousands of miles from College Hill, eyeing a literal finish line. Their aisles? The buoyed lanes of Lake Natoma in Gold River, Calif., where they are racing for their third national championship title in four years.
Though it's a conflict that might seem a nightmare to many students and their parents, the team's seniors didn't hesitate when faced with the choice.
"For us, nationals is what we train for the whole year, so it was never really a question about what our goal was," said Sarah Palomo '10, one of seven seniors on the team.
"(I'd) be much more upset if I (were) at graduation, because that would mean we didn't get to nationals," agreed Anna Vresilovic '10, who missed her high school graduation for a rowing competition as well.
"This is par for the course," she quipped. "This is how I graduate."
Brown's Commencement and the women's Division I rowing championship last fell on the same weekend in 2007, when members of this year's class were first-years. The team won the championship that year while the seniors' classmates tossed their mortarboards back in Rhode Island.
"A lot of people are like, ‘Oh my God, I can't believe you missed your graduation,'" said Sarah Brooks '07, a member of the team that year. But she has no regrets about missing the ceremony.
Competing in the national championship regatta "was really a dream and something we were working for every day," she said. Thinking about "missing graduation really didn't come for me until six months later."
Most current members of the team view the upcoming race through the same lens — not as a sacrifice, but as desirable and fitting closure for their Brown experience as a whole.
"Since rowing has been such a huge part of my life, it will be nice to have this great opportunity to go to nationals," said Sarah Huebscher '10. "Having my time here culminate in an athletic event is just as exciting as graduation."
The possibility of such a conflict first emerged for the team in 1997, when Brown shifted its Commencement day from Monday to Sunday. Before 1997, since the competition ended on a Sunday, "we would be on the first thing moving to get back," said Head Coach John Murphy.
But with racing this year lasting through Sunday morning on the other side of the country, that is no longer an option.
"It is something we have worked very hard to fight," Murphy said, but the students have taken the conflict in stride.
When such conflicts occur, Brown holds a special event in University Hall the Monday before Commencement for those who cannot attend the official ceremony. Administrators, professors, family and friends attend the event.
The team is made up of close friends, Vresilovic said, which makes having an early ceremony that much more special.
"The people I know and care about will be graduating with me," Vresilovic said in advance of the ceremony. "The special ceremony celebrates what my time at Brown was really about."
"I'm excited to have a more personal graduation," Huebscher agreed. An engineering concentrator, she said she preferred graduating in an intimate setting — with close friends and family looking on — to a large departmental ceremony.
And though the seniors cannot be at their actual graduation, they may at least get a shout-out. In 2007, President Ruth Simmons announced the team's national championship to the student body before the ceremony began.
"I heard everyone just screamed and was really excited," Brooks said. When the team returned to campus, "every single person said congratulations," she said. "That meant a lot. It made everything worthwhile."