Ethan Brown ’94 was 15 when he first started to contemplate the interconnectivity of all living creatures. But it would take years for him to truly understand his own truth, and even longer for him to put it into action as the founder, president and CEO of the wildly successful plant-based meat company, Beyond Meat, he told the 380 members of the Class of 2021 at Connecticut College’s 103rd Commencement on Thursday, May 20.
“As I matured, including on this campus, I became less convinced that the world is simply as it is, and more committed to the idea that the world is as we make it, for better or worse,” he said.
Brown told the story of how he wrestled with the question that came to define his life and work as a dedicated environmentalist and visionary entrepreneur—whether or not humans have primacy over animals—and encouraged each graduate to “seek your own personal truth as a foundation for your life.”
“Believe endlessly in yourself. If you let them, people—even entire institutions—can assign limiting beliefs to you, or, sometimes equally debilitating, graft expectations onto your life. At your age, you are likely carrying a mix of both around with you. It can be heavy freight to carry forward, and with time, will only become heavier,” he said.
“How do you shed this weight? Do the difficult and probing work of finding what is in your heart and allow your mind and your life to serve it. Doing so connects you to a life force that is within you. It will give you remarkable strength to overcome challenges.”
Brown told the graduates that they are now part of a network of Connecticut College alumni who have “gone on from Connecticut College not to accept the world as it is, but to strive toward that which we can make it.”
“You are part of this challenger institution, part of a generation that is marching, pushing and demanding change,” he said. “Keep challenging. Keep broadening the circle of who and what matters. Free of limitation, reach deep into the beauty of your heart and fill the blank canvas that awaits you today with your own special story.”
Prior to the keynote address and in honor of his commitment to representing the best kind of change a Connecticut College education can bring to the world, Brown was awarded an honorary doctor of humane letters honoris causa by President Katherine Bergeron.
During her remarks, Bergeron spoke about how grateful she was to be celebrating in person with the “incomparable Class of 2021,” and thanked the faculty, staff, students and families who made the academic year and Commencement ceremony possible.
“Every graduation is momentous, but this year, honestly, it feels like a miracle,” she said.
Bergeron also discussed the history of Connecticut College’s 750-acre arboretum and the wisdom that can be derived from trees.
“Don’t be afraid to speak what you believe, and don’t stop when people push back. Just push harder. Keep doing your research and building your allies, because your seed of an idea could just be the next breakthrough. And there can be no breakthrough if you aren’t willing to plant something,” she told the graduates.
The graduates were also addressed by senior speaker Emir Kulluk ’21, a film studies and philosophy double major and Center for International Studies and the Liberal Arts (CISLA) scholar from Istanbul, Turkey.
Kulluk reflected on the challenges he and his classmates have had to face, including “a pandemic; an economic recession; and so many other issues slowing our pursuit for a better world—the rise in gun violence and hate against Asian people, Black people, and immigrants. All these are reminders of the fragile world we live in,” he said.
To cope, Kulluk said he would often turn to a poem by one of his favorite Turkish poets, Nazim Hikmet, called “On Living.” He adopted the poem’s first line, “Living is no joke,” as his personal motto, he told the audience, before describing how he and his classmates “got busy” living and thriving amidst so much uncertainty.
“Our experiences over the past four years, and especially the past two, have set us up well for the rich and beautiful challenges ahead,” he said. “I encourage you to stay adaptable, informed, and forever open to growth. Seize this life with your whole heart, as you have done throughout your time at Connecticut College. And never forget that living is no joke.”
During the ceremony, the Oakes and Louise Ames Prize for most outstanding honors thesis was awarded to Justin Nnaemeka Nwafor ’21, an ACS-certified chemistry major and mathematics and physics double minor from East Hartford, Connecticut. Nwafor’s thesis, “Why are Glycines 31, 33, and 35 Highly Conserved in all Fluorescent Proteins?” is a significant and thorough look at a novel question that impacts the general understanding of fluorescent proteins at the chemical level. Nwafor’s work specifically examines the role of three glycines that are conserved in more than 90% of organisms with fluorescent proteins and investigates why these glycines are found in the same locations in such diverse organisms as jellyfish, corals and sea squirts. His experimental analysis suggests that the three glycines play a crucial role in the folding pathway of fluorescent proteins and will soon be submitted for publication in a peer-reviewed academic journal.
The College awarded the Anna Lord Strauss Medal for outstanding public or community service, including service to the College, to Grace Frances Amato ’21, gender, sexuality and intersectionality studies and Latin American studies double major and Holleran Center for Community Action and Public Policy scholar from Melrose, Massachusetts. A strong leader, engaged scholar and passionate change-maker, Amato has demonstrated a deep commitment to food justice; racial equity; LGBTQIA+ equity, advocacy and inclusion; gender-based violence prevention; and immigrants’ rights. Her extensive and impressive resume includes thesis research into women of color’s efforts in the United States and Puerto Rico to address long-standing injustices related to imperialism, racism and sexism; tutoring and fundraising work at Janet S. York Correctional Institution; internships at FRESH New London and the Immigrant Advocacy and Support Center; and service as an assistant librarian with the New London Public Library, as an administrative assistant with Hearing Youth Voices, and as a Holleran Center Fellow; among numerous other service and leadership efforts on campus and in the community.
The College’s highest honor, the Connecticut College Medal, was conferred on Board of Trustees Chair DeFred G. Folts III ’82 for his exemplary stewardship through nine years of distinguished service on the Connecticut College Board of Trustees. Folts joined the Board in 2012, becoming vice chair in 2016 and chair in 2018. Under his leadership, the College advanced key priorities of the strategic plan, including the opening of the new Hale Center for Career Development; the expansion of the College’s signature Academic Resource Center; the adoption of a comprehensive Action Plan for Equity and Inclusion; and the launch of The Agnes Gund ’60 Dialogue Project. Most significantly, Folts led Connecticut College with a steady and compassionate hand during a global pandemic, ensuring that the College would remain on stable footing during a period of profound challenge for higher education, the country and the world.
“In every way, you have contributed to the success of Connecticut College, burnishing its reputation as a leader in purpose-driven, integrative, equity-minded education,” Bergeron said to Folts during the ceremony.
At the conclusion of the ceremony, Ariel Salerno ’21 and Gabrielle Veilleux ’21 joined Bergeron in singing the Connecticut College “Victory Song,” with musical accompaniment by the New London Big Band. Earlier in the program, Salerno and Veilleux sang the Alma Mater and Megan Aldrich ’21 sang “America the Beautiful,” also accompanied by the New London Big Band.
Commencement events began last week with the induction of 40 graduating seniors into Phi Beta Kappa, the national academic honor society; certificate ceremonies for senior scholars in the College’s centers for interdisciplinary scholarship; and special gatherings for student-athletes, international graduates and Posse scholars. Baccalaureate, the annual celebration of the spiritual diversity of the graduating class, was Tuesday, May 18, in Harkness Chapel and featured remarks by Class Vice President Jordyn Turnin ’21; prayers for healing; a dance performance; a poem by Kairis Rivera ’21; and reflections by Associate Professor of Dance Shani Collins-Achille, Dean of the College Jefferson Singer, and Dean of Institutional Equity and Inclusion John F. McKnight, Jr.
Now graduates, members of the Class of 2021 are heading to locations around the world to pursue a diverse range of opportunities. One has received a Marshall Scholarship to pursue research in diaspora studies and international development at SOAS University of London and University College London; two have been awarded Watson Fellowships to study marginalized languages in Peru, Bolivia, Morocco, the Netherlands, Luxembourg, Russia, India and Japan and how Black women experience post-colonial oppression and misogynoir in Canada, Jamaica, Burkina Faso, the United Kingdom and South Africa; and two have received Fulbright Fellowships to teach English in Brazil and Spain. Members of the class have been accepted to graduates programs at Duke University, Cornell University, Johns Hopkins University, Boston College, University of Massachusetts Medical School, Tufts University, New York University, University of Connecticut and Northeastern University, while others have accepted positions at companies and organizations including Microsoft, 3M, MetLife Investment Management, Travelers Insurance Company, FDIC, Tufts Medical Center, Live Nation, Scholastic Books, Pearl Meyer and Northwest Mutual.