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After Tumultuous Year, A 'Bittersweet' Commencement For Hampshire College Grads

New Hampshire College graduates celebrate by throwing their caps and diplomas in the air. (Carrie Jung/WBUR)
New Hampshire College graduates celebrate by throwing their caps and diplomas in the air. (Carrie Jung/WBUR)

The Hampshire College Library Lawn in Amherst was a busy place Saturday morning. By 10 a.m. most of the school’s 295 graduates were lined up just outside a large white tent, getting ready for the ceremony.

“I’m scared. I’m sad. It’s bittersweet,” said astrophysics major Andy Cohn, who was putting the finishing touches on a bright blue graduation cap decorated with googly eyes in the shape of a galaxy.

Hampshire doesn’t require that students wear a cap and gown for commencement, so about half of the students used that freedom to get creative with their outfits. That flexibility is part of why Cohn loved the college.

“It’s part of this idea that at Hampshire, we’re all such individuals,” said Cohn. “But we’re all here together.”

Cohn added while it’s exciting to graduate and be around friends and family, it’s hard not to think about how tumultuous this year was. Over the winter, school leadership announced the institution was facing financial hardship. That eventually led to leadership changes, layoffs and plans to cut the size of the school in half. The school is also in danger of losing its accreditation because of the financial uncertainty.

Still, many students said they’re choosing to look at the college’s plan to restructure in a positive light.

“I think this is all a really powerful opportunity to make Hampshire better than we’ve seen it be,” said Koby Leff. “I feel really hopeful for the next year.”

As the ceremony got underway, interim President Ken Rosenthal congratulated the students and wished them well.

“You are now about to become a member of a special group: Hampshire College alums,” said Rosenthal. “Enjoy the benefits. Embrace the obligations.”

Like most of the commencement speakers, Rosenthal acknowledged the pain involved with the changes in store for the school.

“The need to downsize the college for a time means the departure of some dear friends and colleagues,” he said. “To you, I say to some extent, we all share the pain of your going, and I thank you again for all you have given us.”

Javiera Benavente, the director of the school’s Ethics and the Common Good Project, said the idea of coming back to a school with dramatically fewer students and staff is hard. She added, in a way, school employees find themselves in a similar position as the 2019 graduates — facing a new beginning.

“There’s definitely some loss and some sadness and I think some possibility,” said Benavente. “It’s like we’re stepping into a reality that’s not fully cooked. It’s not fully made, and we’re going to have to make it by walking into it.”

Despite the uncertainty, the tone of the day was mostly positive. The students, staff and families who gathered on the library lawn said this year’s commencement was a much needed celebration.

After the ceremony came to a close, a group of students rang a bell to signify they had completed their work at Hampshire. Student Ryan Jiroux said he’s walking away with a sense of hope. He’s optimistic about what the future holds for him and his beloved school.

“It’s a new chapter opening up,” he said.

This article was originally published on WBUR.org.

Copyright 2019 WBUR

Carrie began reporting from New Mexico in 2011, following environmental news, education and Native American issues. She’s worked with NPR’s Morning Edition, PRI’s The World, National Native News, and The Takeaway.
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