They rose to the challenges of a rigorous Lawrence University education and persevered through obstacles no one could have imagined when they arrived on campus four years ago. On the morning of June 13, with Commencement moved to the Banta Bowl to better accommodate pandemic protocols, the Class of 2021 was celebrated for not only their many accomplishments but also their resilience and courage.

“Despite the circumstances life throws at us, we must find those glimpses of hope and joy,” said Jailene Rodriguez ’21, who served as senior speaker.

It was a theme echoed frequently during the ceremony, one held in the midst of an unusual June heat wave that provided its own challenges.

 “You have shown grit and determination, and you have thrived,” Commencement speaker Dr. John R. Raymond Sr. told the nearly 300 graduates, most in person but some looking on remotely. “Facing enormous challenges, you responded with courage, resolve, exemplary professionalism and volunteerism—and you have shone brightly, brilliantly.” 

Students social distancing during Commencement ceremony at the Banta Bowl
For the first time ever, the Banta Bowl served as the setting for Lawrence’s Commencement ceremony. It was moved to the Banta Bowl to better accommodate pandemic protocols.

The graduates’ journey through Lawrence was, of course, much more than persevering through the COVID-19 pandemic. But there was little doubt the pandemic, which dramatically altered the class’s final four terms, weighed heavily on the experience. The presence of masks, social distancing, and limited seating at Commencement spoke to that, as did the Banta Bowl setting, which subbed in for the traditional Main Hall Green.

Raymond, the president and CEO of the Medical College of Wisconsin (MCW) and a frequent guiding voice for Lawrence and others during the pandemic, spoke in glowing terms about how Lawrence and its students stepped up despite unrelenting public health and economic challenges.

“Your responses have made you stronger, have tested your resolve, and have tempered you so that you will turn future challenges into opportunities,” he said. “And you have validated the Lawrence experience as formative and essential to who you are, and who you will be.”

Watch a video replay of the Commencement ceremony 

Dr. Raymond behind the podium during commencement
Dr. John R. Raymond Sr., president and CEO of the Medical College of Wisconsin (MCW), delivers the Commencement address.

With COVID vaccines now readily available, and confirmed cases of the coronavirus across the country in rapid decline, Commencement returned to an in-person celebration following a year in which the pandemic forced the 2020 ceremony to be presented virtually.

Graduates on Sunday were shuttled from the main campus to the Banta Bowl, and faculty, led by Faculty Marshal Kathy Privatt, showed out with traditional regalia. The pomp and circumstance was back, although graduates and faculty were able to remove their robes for portions of the ceremony because of the heat.

Things were different, but there was much familiarity, even as temperatures soared into the high 80s and volunteers worked to keep everyone hydrated. Graduates who couldn’t be there in person were shown on a big screen. Decorated mortar boards reflected the hopes, struggles, and gratitude of the graduates. Fist bumps replaced handshakes as graduates crossed the stage. Families gathered after the ceremony back on the main campus for hugs, photos, and tears.

Students at commencement
Warm temperatures didn’t dampen the excitement at Sunday’s Commencement in the Banta Bowl.

Commencement included the presentation of three faculty awards—the Award for Excellence in Scholarship to Gustavo Fares, professor of Spanish; the Award for Excellent Teaching by an Early Career Faculty Member to Rebecca Perry, assistant professor of music theory; and the Award for Excellence in Teaching to Massimiliano Verità, instructor of Arabic, Italian, and Religious Studies.

See story on faculty award winners

It also included farewell citations for five retiring faculty members following long and distinguished careers at Lawrence­—Terry Gottfried, a professor of psychology since 1986, Gerald Metalsky, a professor of psychology since 1992, Alan Parks, a professor of mathematics since 1985, Jerald Podair, a professor of history since 1998, and Bruce Pourciau, a professor of mathematics since 1976.

And the ceremony concluded with a surprise for President Mark Burstein, who was overseeing his final Commencement after eight years leading Lawrence. Cory Nettles ’92, the incoming chair of the Board of Trustees, and Provost and Dean of Faculty Catherine Kodat presented Burstein with a degree of Doctor of Humane Letters, honoris causa, citing his “innumerable contributions to the welfare of Lawrence University, which you have served so well and with such abiding devotion and care.”

But for the bulk of the ceremony, the focus was squarely on the graduates and the possibilities that await.

Burstein’s message to the graduates was all about joy, gratitude, and deep respect.

“At Lawrence we often say that we intend to prepare our students for a rapidly changing world,” Burstein said. ‘You, the members of the class of 2021, truly know what that means. Just in your last year at Lawrence, the pandemic, one of the most partisan presidential elections in the history of this country, a riot in the Capitol, and the persistent killings of Black people reinforcing the systemic racism that grips this country, all of these events have changed in deep and essential ways our lives and the society in which we live.”

President Mark Burstein, overseeing his final Commencement at Lawrence, was surprised near the close of the ceremony with an honorary degree.

The challenges and frustrations stacked up quickly and robustly, altering conversations and priorities on campus, in Appleton, in Wisconsin, and across the country.

“Every time another event threatened my confidence in the future of this great country and my belief in human progress, your leadership, your passion for each other, and your care for the future of human society lifted me up,” Burstein told the graduates. “In a time when community has become so hard to sustain, and when people of different backgrounds and views are more likely to argue, compete, or ignore each other, you came together to learn, to celebrate, and to struggle—and at times agreeing to disagree—as one Lawrence community. … You have renewed my confidence and raised my expectations for what is possible.”

Jailene Rodriguez, behind the podium, addressing her classmates during commencement
Jailene Rodriguez ’21 served as senior speaker.

Rodriguez spoke of the resilience and support she has seen from her classmates. An ethnic studies and Spanish double major from New York, she said she saw that strength in the classroom, in her involvement in numerous student organizations and causes, as a student athlete, among her Posse members, and while serving as a manager and bartender in the Viking Room.

“This pandemic has been quite the testament to our strength and perseverance,” she said.

Rodriguez said the lessons learned as a student at Lawrence go well beyond academics, lessons that will inform the journey to come.

“I quickly learned the importance of establishing who I am and being comfortable in my individuality,” she said.

She then encouraged her fellow graduates to embrace their own individuality as they move on to new adventures, opportunities, and challenges.

“Do not let anyone determine who you are,” she said.

Burstein, meanwhile, called the day bittersweet. Like the graduates, he too is in a moment of transition, with all the emotions that come with it.

“My years at Lawrence have provided me a clear sense of the power of community and the need to live a life of meaning rooted in the values our university represents,” he said. “But I also know it is time for me, as it is for you, to pick up life’s journey elsewhere and bring what we have learned into the world.”