On Sunday, over 2,000 members of the Class of 2021 and graduates of the professional schools gathered on Memorial Field for their commencement ceremony.
After remarks from members of the Class of 1971 — the fifty-year class — played on the stadium’s big screens, a brass quintet’s rendition of “Pomp and Circumstance” rang out across the field as graduates circled around the track and filed into their seats. Many undergraduates held canes signifying membership of senior societies.
Outgoing Provost Joseph Helble, chief marshal of the ceremony, opened the academic procession, introducing co-presidents of Native Americans at Dartmouth Alayah Johnson-Jennings ’21 and Steven Jump ’21. The two acknowledged the native land and history of the College, which included “the express purpose of educating Indigenous tribes on this continent,” though this goal was not given serious attention, they noted, until the tenure of former College President John Kemeny nearly 200 years later.
In the invocation, Tucker Center dean, chaplain and Rabbi Daveen Litwin, said that the unique difficulties the members of the Class of 2021 faced in their senior year serve as a testament to the graduates’ resilience and strength.
“For everyone, there has been a necessary cultivation of courage and perseverance to navigate the constant readjustments and changing realities of these passing months,” Litwin said. “We have learned through their achievements that the Class of 2021 is strong and talented and innovative, but we have also discerned through their acts of kindness — large and small — that they have the capacity and the determination to rise to any challenge, to create caring community and to work for the common good.”
The first degrees awarded during the ceremony were conferred to graduates in the Tuck School of Business, Thayer School of Engineering, Guarini School of Graduate and Advanced Studies, and the Geisel School of Medicine.
The College then conferred seven honorary degrees to “celebrate the lives and accomplishments of an extraordinary group of individuals,” Helble said. The first six recipients, attorney and economist Roger W. Ferguson Jr.; poet and essayist Louise Glück; founder and CEO of the online learning platform Khan Academy Sal Khan — who addressed the Class of 2020 at last year’s virtual graduation — Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist, artist and poet N. Scott Momaday; nuclear physicist Ernest J. Moniz and choreographer Moses Pendleton ’71, accepted their degrees in pre-recorded speeches. The seventh recipient, Annette Gordon-Reed ’81, this year’s commencement speaker, accepted her Doctor of Humane Letters and delivered her address in person.
Gordon-Reed’s speech reflected on her time at Dartmouth, her professional accomplishments and the strengths of 2011 commencement speaker Conan O’Brien’s speech, which she said nearly deterred her from ever becoming a commencement speaker herself. However, at the request of College President Phil Hanlon, Gordon-Reed accepted, adding that “there was no group of young people I would rather address, and no place I would rather make that address, than right here at my alma mater.”
Quoting the alma mater, she told students to “‘greet the world, from the hills, with a hail,’” adding that “[a] world that badly needs your spirit and enthusiasm is waiting for you.”
Several seniors interviewed after the speech found the commencement address underwhelming, disappointed that it focused heavily on O’Brien’s speech and on Gordon-Reed’s own Dartmouth experience.
“I thought the valedictorian speech was more touching and relevant,” Caleb Jackson ’21 said. “If I wanted to hear about Conan’s speech, I would have just watched his speech.”
After a rendition of “Dartmouth Undying” from the Aires a cappella group, Amanda Chen ’21, one of six members of the Class of 2021 with the highest graduating grade point average, delivered the valedictory address. As a founder of the Dartmouth Mental Health Student Union, Chen emphasized in her speech the importance of students prioritizing their mental health and acknowledged the challenges and losses that the Dartmouth community has faced in the last year.
“In truth, this is a really hard speech for me to write because no words can capture the loss that we experienced this past year,” Chen said. “I'm sorry that I don't have the language to convey everything we’re feeling today.”
Chen also reflected on her “two lives, one as a student and one as a mental health advocate” — and the “striking differences” these identities hold. While her work as a student allowed for consistent assignments, feedback, and rewards, her work in mental health was comparatively unpredictable — “nothing was guaranteed,” she said.
“I was able to make it through because of the people by my side,” she said. “I am thankful in knowing that my peers are talented, smart and passionate. If we want change to happen in whatever field, now is the time to do it.”
After Chen’s address, the roughly two-hour process of conferring 1,169 degrees of Bachelor of Arts on the Class of 2021 began. Due to COVID-19 precautions, graduates did not shake Hanlon’s hand or receive their diploma as they walked across the stage. The most popular majors among underclassmen this year were economics, government, computer science, engineering and biology, according to the Office of Communications.
Though masks were required per Dartmouth’s COVID-19 rules, many guests and graduates alike shed masks as the ceremony went on. Additionally, to escape the heat, graduates whose names had already been called or whose names came much later in the alphabet sought refuge from the sun inside Leverone Field House.
“We’ve been in here since the Cs or Ds, at least a half hour,” Trevor Ballantyne ’21, Mike Carty ’21 and Westley McLaughlin ’21, who had shed their regalia and sprawled out on the floor of Leverone, said. “The whole experience is a bit of a haze because we haven't slept in 36 hours.”
Other graduates, however, braved the heat — which saw a high of 84 degrees — in its entirety, staying seated on the even warmer artificial turf for the entire 4-hour ceremony.
“I had so many family members, and so much community at home watching me, that I wanted to be outside every moment for them, and so that I could just soak in the experience,” Claire Green Young ’21 said. “No one in my family has graduated from an Ivy League before, so this is a really big moment not just for me but for everybody at home. I've received such an influx of love and support, and so it meant a lot for me to just be sitting out there representing my community and my culture as a member of the Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma.”
Graduates inside Leverone were asked to rejoin their class outside as the names of the final graduates were called. Hanlon delivered his closing remarks, followed by graduates ceremoniously tossing their caps.
As the Class of 2021 filed out of the stadium, the final words from Hanlon resonated with the crowd.
“Through the shared journey, and challenge of this journey that we’ve taken together, you’ve learned the value of your friendships and the importance of drawing strength from the Dartmouth fellowship,” Hanlon said. “So when you return to the Hanover plain for your fifth, or your 25th, and your 50th reunions, I know you’ll feel the joy that comes from being in each other’s presence as much as you do today.”