Washington University in St. Louis celebrated its 160th Commencement not once, but eight times on Thursday, May 20, and Friday, May 21. The Record kept a diary of the days’ sights and stories, including three alumni who competed on Francis Olympic Field and returned there to watch their children graduate; five Olin student-athletes on their way to NCAA Division III baseball championships; and one very elated chancellor thrilled to lead his first in-person Commencement. The university does it all again when the Class of 2020 returns for three ceremonies on Sunday, May 30.
7:45 a.m. Thursday, May 20
Chancellor Andrew D. Martin arrives at the Olympic rings sculpture to lead McKelvey School of Engineering students onto historic Francis Olympic Field for the first of eight Commencement ceremonies. Dressed in full regalia on an already warm morning, Martin is ready for a two-day marathon of speeches, cheers and tossed mortar boards.
“We’re going all-in on my first in-person Commencement — eight this week and three next week for the Class of 2020,” Martin said.
A year ago, on what should have been Commencement day, Martin walked through an empty campus and felt sadness for the students whose college careers had been cut short by the deadly coronavirus and for the parents, faculty and staff who supported them along the way.
“Today is totally different,” Martin said. “We’re seeing smiles on this campus for the first time in a long time. This marks closure for a really sad time for our university. We are able to celebrate in person because of our students’ hard work. Honestly, I’m just in awe of them. They pulled together like no other student body in the United States.”
1:15 p.m. Thursday
Three-year-old Sarah is nibbling on her dad’s sandwich while her 1-year-old sister stirs in her stroller.
“It was such hard work to get my degree with babies, but looking at them today, it has all been worth it,” said Dayo Oluwagbule, enjoying lunch under a shade tree with his daughters and his wife, Fola.
Oluwagbule just earned his master’s in law from the School of Law and is a specialist in health-care compliance.
“I chose WashU for its rich culture, and I love how the school welcomes a lot of races and cultures,” Oluwagbule said. “That has touched my heart.”
2:50 p.m. Thursday
Today may be the climax of their classmates’ college careers, but not for this group of Olin Business School student-athletes. Next month, they will compete in the NCAA Division III Baseball Championship for the university’s 24th national championship.
“I don’t think any of us feel like anybody else here,” said Henry Singer, of the No. 1-ranked Bears, as he and his teammates cued to enter Francis Olympic Field. “For them, this is the last thing they’ll do for WashU. We have one more stop on this journey.”
The friends were devastated last spring when the pandemic cut short their promising season. But they bounced back this year, achieving a 28-3 record, one of the best in team history.
“From the moment we came back, we knew we could have an amazing team,” said Johnny LaMantia. “We’ve been having a blast. We don’t want it to end.”
9:43 a.m. Friday, May 21
Alumni Anne and Juan Arias fell in love on Francis Field more than 30 years ago. Today, they returned to watch their daughter Olivia Arias graduate with a degree in environmental studies from Arts & Sciences.
“I can’t believe that 30 years later, we had a child graduating here at this place where we spent so much time,” Anne Arias said.
“It feels really good,” added Juan Arias, who, along with Anne, has continued to attend Washington University track meets over the years. “This is like our backyard.”
Even sweeter, the Arias family got to celebrate with dear friends, former Bears record-holder Susan Culican, her husband — and School of Medicine alum — John Pruett, MD, PhD, and their son, Jack Pruett, who earned a degree in linguistics from Arts & Sciences. Olivia and Jack were born one week apart and celebrated their birthdays together for years.
“I’ll never forget that she showed up for our run and said, ‘Anne, I’m pregnant.’ And I said, ‘Susan, I’m pregnant,’” recalled Anne Arias.
“We literally grew up together,” Olivia Arias said.
Still, Olivia and Jack were surprised to learn both had applied and been accepted to WashU.
“It was a total coincidence and a happy one,” Jack Pruett said.
11:35 a.m. Friday
Seven years ago, Geoff Childs, professor of anthropology in Arts & Sciences, met Kunsang Lama while leading a health clinic in the remote Himalayan village where Lama’s family lives. Today, he watched her graduate.
“I could see she was very smart and curious, but also incredibly levelheaded in a way that showed maturity beyond her years,” said Childs, who attended Lama’s graduation with his daughter, Washington University rising sophomore, Lienne Childs. “I knew she could succeed at WashU.”
And she has, earning a degree in anthropology from Arts & Sciences and a spot in a competitive PhD program at the University of Washington, where she will study water management and native populations.
Lama credits Childs for her success. Advocate, mentor and surrogate father, Childs paved the way for Lama to attend WashU, helping her negotiate the admissions process and encouraging her when classes got tough. Along the way, Childs introduced her to Missouri’s state parks and included her at holiday dinners. And when COVID-19 struck campus, Childs’ family invited Lama to live with them for the summer.
“Dr. Childs and his family opened their home to me,” said Lama, whose father died when she was young. “If I needed a ride from the airport or help moving or anything at all, he was there for me. He takes me as his family. And he is my family.”
2:30 p.m. Friday
Fueled by Diet Coke, Gina Tramelli is making what could be her hundredth round trip between Francis Field and the Olympic rings, where students of the Graduate School and University College are starting to cue before the penultimate ceremony of the day.
“So far, so good,” said Tramelli, whose team has worked past midnight for weeks. “This is the hardest thing our team has ever done. Everything is different and new.”
Tramelli and Michelle Gelven, director of Commencement, have managed every detail of the university’s 160th Commencement, from booking keynote speaker Kareem Abdul-Jabbar to hiring the lighting and sound crews to ordering the Class of 2021 face mask. And when the CDC cleared the way for students to invite more of their loved ones to Commencement, they communicated new guidelines, found more chairs and ordered 10,000 boxed meals from local caterers. The end result: a Commencement that looked and felt like, well, Commencement.
“The energy from the parents has been amazing,” Tramelli said. “There was so much anxiety coming into Commencement — a new location, different ceremonies, safety precautions. People didn’t know what to expect. But once they were here, they were like, ‘This is great.’”
6:40 p.m. Friday
Joyfully, the huddle was back. The School of Medicine’s decade-old tradition honors those last few moments of togetherness among a graduating class and reflects on the lifelong bonds formed during four or more years of academic and emotional intensity.
Led by Lisa M. Moscoso, MD, PhD, associate dean for student affairs and professor of pediatrics, the huddle occurs each Commencement in the fleeting minutes before the students’ ceremonious march toward becoming doctors of medicine.
There was no huddle last year because of COVID-19. Moscoso wasn’t sure if there would be one this year. In the weeks before Commencement, students, including Class President Connie Gan, began asking about the huddle’s fate. Fortunately, thanks to vaccines, masking and other safety protocols, the huddle returned.
“We form a circle to give students space to get centered and be present to the moment,” Moscoso said. “It’s a way for them to get in touch with themselves so they can savor all that they’ve accomplished. It also encourages them to look around and catch the eyes of their classmates. This is the last time they will gather as a class. The huddle is a space of gratitude.”
Moscoso concludes the huddle with a quote by Maya Angelou: “If you must look back, do so forgivingly. If you must look forward, do so prayerfully. However, the wisest thing you can do is to be present in the present … gratefully.”
— Kristina Sauerwein
8:30 p.m. Friday
As the last graduates exit Francis Olympic Field, Martin smiles for a final round of photos and offers congratulatory fist bumps.
“I’m just blown away by students who got through this and the team that pulled it together,” Martin said. “This was one of the most fun celebrations of my life — one I will never forget.”
Visit here to read Abdul-Jabbar’s full speech.
Visit here to read Chancellor Martin’s address to graduates.
Visit here to read Senior Class President Michelle Wang’s address to graduates.
Note: A collection of photos from the 2021 Commencement ceremonies will be available for viewing and downloading by Friday, May 28.