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At Commencement, Talk of Perseverance, Care, Grit

graduate and woman hug as other graduate takes photo
A graduate is congratulated. Photo/Derek Palmer

Members of the Class of 2021 acknowledged the struggles of the past year, honored their perseverance, and most of all, celebrated each other in a joyful, if unorthodox, in-person commencement ceremony held Sunday, May 2, at Fenway Park.

A similar ceremony was held later in the afternoon for the Class of 2020, which was unable to graduate in person last year due to the COVID-19 pandemic (see below for coverage).

The day’s events would also be the last time President Lee Pelton would commend the graduates to receive their degrees. Pelton is leaving Emerson in June to become president and CEO of The Boston Foundation.

woman wearing mortarboard decorated in pink reading What Like It's Hard?
Photo/Derek Palmer

With the virus still circulating and many not yet vaccinated, the ceremony was structured differently this year. Rather than leading a procession of faculty and graduates to the stage, drum ensemble Grooversity hyped up the crowd from atop Fenway’s “Green Monster” left-field wall as graduates sat with their family in the stands in socially distanced pods. Instead of crossing a stage to shake Pelton’s hand, graduates’ names and photos were flashed on a screen over Center Field as their names were read. One or two of the day’s speeches were delivered remotely via video.

Undergraduate speaker Naomi Jones – Creative Writing major, class president, EBONI president, Flawless Brown, member, an Orientation Leader, and much more – recognized that the Class of 2021 began their Emerson careers in 2017 with protests over the way students of color were treated, and ended with a pandemic. Yet throughout, she said, her classmates found ways to create, tell stories, and catalyze change in the College and beyond.

Naomi Jones speaks at podium at Fenway Park
Class of 2021 undergraduate commencement speaker Naomi Jones. Photo/Derek Palmer

“Something about this class, the Class of 2021, just said ‘persevere,’” Jones said.

“We took these challenges, honored them, refined our driven personalities, dusted off the scars, wiped our tears, and asked what can we do to keep going?”

Some of the class will be “lifelong advocates,” others, “lifelong learners,” Jones said.

“That’s what the world needs. People who will not stop pushing until we meet our limitations.”

Graduate student speaker Livia Meneghin, who received an MFA in Creative Writing with a concentration in poetry, talked about being diagnosed with cancer in 2019, and all of the love and support that got her through that experience.

“Last summer I was declared cancer free,” Meneghin said to applause. “It was a new beginning, and yet the world was grieving.”

This year taught everyone that “productivity isn’t everything,” and that amid the hard work and activism and perseverance, it’s important to find ways to nurture yourself.

graduate and family silhouetted in Fenway stands
A graduate and family watches the commencement ceremony at Fenway Park. Photo/Derek Palmer

“This combination of resistance and rest has bloomed into a shared powerful and beautiful persistence. I find it in myself in unexpected ways, and I see it in all of you,” Meneghin said. “Now our aspirations are stronger than ever. Today, honor yourself, honor your community, and feel joy – really, it’s OK.”

To honor the founding of the Marlboro Institute for Liberal Arts and Interdisciplinary Studies – a result of Emerson’s alliance with Marlboro College in July 2020 and “something truly special that will be with us for generations,” according to Provost Michaele Whelan — Felix Bieneman, a graduate who came to Emerson this year from Marlboro, was invited to deliver a speech.

Bieneman, in a pre-recorded video, talked about how Marlboro taught its students “how to live and work as members of a community where we all took care of each other.” The liberal arts is more than just a broad academic pursuit, it’s a way of thinking and relating to the world and each other that goes well beyond content, Bieneman said.

“I know most of you didn’t go to Marlboro College,” Bieneman said, “but the lessons I learned at Marlboro and throughout this past year are lessons we can all take…

“The world will keep changing, for better and for worse. If we engage deeply with people and causes we care about, we might be able to shape that change, hopefully for the better. Find something you care about and take the time to shape it. Care for your community, and don’t forget to ask questions.”

Lee Pelton in regalia and sunglasses speaks at podium at Fenway
President Lee Pelton gives the valedictory address. Photo/Derek Palmer

In his final valedictory address at Emerson, Pelton referred to a book he had read about the 2008 Great Recession, precipitated by subprime mortgages and predatory lending. One of the victims who led and won a class action lawsuit against the big banks who shared the blame for the crisis.  She said, “My daddy used to say, ‘Drop a little good in the hole before you go.’”

“Drop a little good in the hole before you go – that’s what I want each and every one of you to do,” Pelton told Sunday’s graduates.  

“You are ready to make music, soul-awakening, foot-stomping, life-affirming, joyful music, wherever you live, or work, or play. And if you do, I promise you that the world will hear you, and having heard you, will be a better place for it.

I have come to realize that at Emerson I have received much more than I have given. What a joy it has been. Thank you so much for the opportunity to serve as your president. I will miss you very much.”

In a surprise tribute to Pelton, Whelan thanked him on behalf of Emerson students, faculty, staff, alumni, and parents, for his “belief in our collective humanity, despite our fallibility, for your assurance that we have the collective grit to shape the College and the world.

President Lee Pelton gives a thumbs up as he walks into Fenway Park for the Class of 2021 Commencement Exercises. Photo/Derek Palmer

“Thank you for having the strength, for sharing your personal stories, for challenging us to be better. We will miss you,” Whelan said.

On the screen, a collage of student portraits and photographs from across the College morphed into a portrait of Pelton.

In addition to the speeches and tributes, several student and faculty awards were presented:

2021 Teaching Awards:

Helaine and Stanley Miller Award for Outstanding Teaching: Kimberly McLarin, associate professor, WLP

Alan L. Stanzler Award for Excellence in Teaching: Allyson Sherlock, senior affiliated faculty, VMA

Alumni Award for Teaching Innovation: Maria Agui Carter, assistant professor, VMA

Conferring of Emeritus status: Professor Tom Cooper (VMA), Associate Professor Kathleen Donohue (Performing Arts), Associate Professor William Gilligan (School of Communication), Associate Professor Hassan Ildari (VMA), Associate Professor Diane Lake (VMA)

In addition, Whelan recognized Communication Sciences and Disorders Professor Emeritus David Luterman for 60 years of service to the College, and remembered Performing Arts Professor Bob Colby, a nearly 40-year veteran of the department who died last month.

2021 Student Awards:

Undergraduate Dean’s Award: Harper McKenzie

Graduate Dean’s Awards: Jenna Lourenco (School of the Arts) and Miriam El-Haoui (School of Communication)

President’s Citation: Naomi Jones

Class of 2020 Commencement

three women in gowns and masks wearing sashes and a lei
Members of the Class of 2020 at their in-person commencement, held at Fenway on Sunday, May 2. Photo/Alicia Carlson

Later in the day, several members of the Class of 2020 and their families and friends arrived at Fenway to receive an in-person commencement nearly one year after their degrees were conferred.

Undergraduate student speaker Lily Scher, a Media Arts Production major with a concentration in Writing for Film and TV, recorded a video for the class from Los Angeles, where she is pursuing a career in screenwriting.

None of the Class of 2020 was prepared for a global pandemic, a social justice reckoning, a contentious election, and a year of isolation, Scher said, but there were and are many things that are within everyone’s control.

This past year has dealt us clarity beyond measure,” Scher said.

“Listening to ourselves and making decisions setting us up for happiness … Listening to the stories and experiences of people of color and demanding change. These choices are in our hands. Taking the time to appreciate our families and loved ones and telling us what they mean to us while we can, these choices are in our hands.”

Scher said she’s not worried about any Emersonian “creating their own path,” because “being an Emersonian takes guts.”

The world is full of people who will tell you what you can’t do and why, Scher said.

“Emersonians disregard these people and follow their gut instinct to create, and by doing so, they make the world a better place … We must use our own form of expression to make a difference.”

graduate in cap, gown, and mask sits in stands at Fenway next to man
Graduating at Fenway. Photo/Alicia Carlson

Teresa Houser, one of two graduate student speakers, earned an MA in Communication Management last year. Houser is vice president of enterprise leadership at Fidelity Investments in Boston, and started her Emerson program after working in communications for nearly 30 years.

Houser left her classmates with a few pieces of advice:

“Be owners of our learning, because ultimately, we are responsible for our own growth. Look underneath for the answers to why we do what we do, and that will lead us to how to do it. Take the teaching reins ourselves and pass along [what we’ve learned].

“Find time to play, because playing inspires creativity. Set learning goals that we keep aspiring to, and when we meet those, set new ones,” Houser said.

The second graduate student speaker, Webster McDonald, earned an MFA in Theatre Education and Applied Theatre, and is currently pursuing a PhD in Performance Studies at the University of Kansas.

In a video address, McDonald exhorted the class to constantly ask “what is wrong with the world we live in … how did we get here?”

“What about the world can I change within the community I identify with?”

“Nothing exists without power,” McDonald said, and it’s important to bring this awareness to any social justice work we do.

“Transform and elevate whoever you come into contact with. Congratulations, but I hate to also break it to you: This is just the beginning.”

The ceremony also honored Lucas Flint, a Media Arts Production major and member of the Class of 2020, who was fatally struck by an automobile in December 2018.

2020 Student Awards:

Undergraduate Dean’s Award: Lyuwenyu (Ann) Zhang

Graduate Dean’s Awards: Nehal Mubarak (School of the Arts) and Esther Duke (School of Communication)

President’s Citations: Raz Moayed (Undergraduate), Brittany Severance and Youssef Hesham Amin (Graduate)

woman in cap and gown and mask walks up ramp in Fenway with phone in hand
Moving forward. Photo/Derek Palmer
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