College Community Delights in Return to Fully In-Person Commencement
The concept of “liquid time,” invoked by President Valerie Smith and recalled by other speakers at Commencement, captured the essence of Sunday’s celebration.
"During the past couple of years, we’ve noticed the way our sense of time and the illusion of its linearity depend upon rituals, whether personal, familial, or institutional,” Smith said. “When those are suddenly snatched away from us, they upend our sense of temporality and plunge us into ‘liquid time.’"
The subtext was not lost on the graduates and their families and friends, nor faculty and staff of the College, gathered under sunny skies on Mertz Lawn. A reprieve from the uncertainty and anxiousness of the past two years, Swarthmore’s 150th Commencement was both a celebration of the classes of 2022 and 2020 and a collective exaltation.
“We waited a long time for this,” said the parent of one of the 2020 grads, nodding and flashing a wide smile. “Then a couple more years.”
It began with grads streaming in from all directions — one last early-morning appointment on campus. Many stopped at Parrish Beach, an appropriate moniker with the sweltering heat, for a final photo opp with friends on the Big Chair.
The grads applied sunscreen, careful not to smudge their black gowns, and fanned themselves with their caps. They stopped by the Rose Garden to be pinned with their flowers, and gathered in small groups around Parrish.
Outside Trotter Hall, staff and faculty rushed to direct the classes of 2022 and 2020 as well as a few members of 2021 to their spots in the procession. There were a lot of tight and lasting hugs between members of the different classes — long-missed connections.
About 30 minutes before the procession, the sun burst through the clouds right as “Bittersweet Symphony” played, with snapshots of the students’ time at Swarthmore on the big screen. There was a summer concert vibe, with the graduates’ families strolling to their seats.
The Clothier Bell Tower rang at 10 a.m., marking the start of the procession. The grads passed back through the Rose Garden, where Scott Arboretum staff beamed and pattered applause for every last person, before making their way to Parrish.
There, some parents jockeyed for photo positions, while others hoisted signs and balloons. A little girl pointed her bubble maker at the graduates, and a dad celebrated his son in more of a college football voice.
The procession made its way down Magill Walk. One student called out for her professor, telling him she had submitted a paper to the National Science Foundation. (The grind never stops.) Two grandparents used a selfie stick to capture themselves against the backdrop of Mertz and South Campus.
As “Let it Be,” wound down, the students took their seats. Cross-functional to the end, they used umbrellas for shade, their programs as fans.
They engaged with the speeches, nodding along with references of the passages of time, and of the world of opportunities before them. President Smith’s shout out for Dining Services drew a hearty cheer.
Then, one by one, the graduates took to the stage, giving an elbow bump (and one meaningful hug) to the College president. The 2022 grads got their diplomas, the 2020 (and 2021) grads, a print illustration of Parrish Hall; Provost Sarah Willie-LeBreton underscored the uniqueness by referencing “delayedus pandemicus.”
Smith asked the crowd to hold their applause for individual graduates, but smiled in recognizing how “futile” that was. Classmates, families, and friends kept erupting in cheer. (In fairness, they were told to hold applause. Nothing about cowbell.) A father celebrated by hoisting the Ghana flag. Engineering students took turns spraying a banner to reveal “Putting the B.S. in the liberal arts” for their annual prank.
Smith tied a bow on the affair by telling the graduates “Swarthmore is now and will forever more be yours.” They left the stage area for the embrace of family and friends.
The crowd started making its way to a reception by Clothier. A five-piece mariachi band, brought to campus by the family of Olivia Vasquez Ponce ‘22, emerged and headed up Magill Walk, eliciting surprise and delight. A faculty member in full academic regalia blew bubbles.
Then, the final obligation for the smiling but sun-drained graduates: family photo time.
One group stopped right in front of Parrish, with the graduate’s father, sister, and grandmother rotating in and out of shots. Then, his mother approached, giving him a tight hug before settling into her place. Mixed emotions lit her face: joy, wistfulness, celebration, uncertainty.
The moment captured, they stood together for an extra beat or two. Then, the mother stepped away and broke any tension with two words: “I’m schvitzing.”