Written by

“Resilient” Class of 2021 Celebrates Commencement

Resilience and perseverance were the unofficial themes of Whitman College’s 135th Commencement ceremony. The Class of 2021, who had almost a third of their college journey interrupted by the coronavirus needed both to arrive at the momentous occasion of graduation.

Chair-elect of the Board of Trustees Joe Davis ’80 opened the ceremony by welcoming graduates and acknowledging that although his own commencement day 41 years before was literally clouded by the eruption of Mount St. Helens, it could not compare to this day, with grads in masks seated six feet apart and with no parents or faculty in attendance to cheer them on.

“You have faced massive disruption, of a magnitude not seen since WWII. You adjusted. You have probably hurt inside, or do now. But you are here. You are here in this moment. You have persevered,” Davis said. “I believe you have built a level of resilience that will give you strength upon which you can draw as you face future challenges.”

Optimism and Empathy

President Kathleen Murray, who spoke next, also remarked on the unprecedented times and noted that the Class of 2021 would stand out in the college’s history in part because of the challenges and transformations brought by COVID-19, but also due to the “extraordinary resilience, determination, compassion, empathy, and love” that its members demonstrated throughout their Whitman careers.

She continued, asking the graduates to applaud the family, faculty and staff who had supported them and urging them to remember the good along with the bad when they reflect on this historic time:

“I believe things will return to something closer to normal in the coming months, but we can’t ever forget what we’ve experienced, what we’ve learned, in these last 15 months. We are certainly changed by all of this, and I hope we are changed for the better, that we are more empathetic, less cynical, more responsible for and to each other.”

A Class Act

Class Speaker Lauren Rhodes ’21 was next at the lectern. She began by asking her classmates to close their eyes and take a moment to remember those lost to the coronavirus and racial violence as well as the frontline workers, activists, allies and others who stepped up to fight against those plagues.

Rhodes went on to speak about how the graduates’ collective and individual experiences—good and bad—at Whitman and in the world helped make them the “class filled with compassion, a great sense of balance” they are today.

“Looking back, we are indeed a resilient group of individuals. Our senior year is a testament to that. We have endured a lot. We have had to adapt to adversity, tragedy both personally and globally. We did not just survive our senior year, we thrived.”

Turning Adversity into Accomplishments

In the final address before the graduates walked across the stage to receive their diplomas, Commencement Speaker Jena Griswold ’06, Colorado Secretary of State, also noted the unprecedented obstacles they’d faced and shared some of her own.

Griswold spoke of the struggles she saw her impoverished family and others like them endure when she was growing up and how they shaped her goals for herself and her career. Despite—and perhaps because of—the adversities she experienced, Griswold has gone from being the first person in her working-class family to attend and graduate from a four-year college to being the youngest Secretary of State in the U.S.

In her speech, she detailed some of her accomplishments in that role, including fighting for expanded vote-by-mail, blocking federal attempts to construct obstacles to voting and enacting measures that led to the highest voter turnout in a presidential election in Colorado history.

Griswold closed with some advice for the Class of 2021:

“As you walk down your path, push yourself to take risks.  Be wary of complacency and identify your passions. If you bet on yourself, all of those choices you make, all of those experiences you’ll have, will lead you to where you are intended to be.

“Create a good life with purpose and laughter. Leave your communities, our country, and our world in a better place than you found it.”