The first Washington University in St. Louis Commencement Debra Perskie Schwartz attended was her own. On May 21, 1982, Schwartz, who earned a bachelor’s degree of fine arts, and some 2,100 fellow graduates marched into Brooking Quadrangle, listened respectfully to economist Andrew F. Brimmer and then made a quick exit.
Forty years later, Schwartz was back, this time to attend the graduation of son Daniel Schwartz, who earned a degree in psychology in Arts & Sciences at WashU’s 161st Commencement. The experience could not have been more different. Now staged on Francis Olympic Field, the ceremony was followed by a campus-wide festival featuring live music, yard games and food from two dozen local eateries.
“The atmosphere has been awesome, and the campus looks beautiful. It’s hard to believe that where we’re standing was once a parking lot,” said Schwartz of Tenafly, New Jersey, surveying the scene at Tisch Park, where graduates and their families were playing corn hole and eating cupcakes. “What a way to celebrate the graduates.”
This new “way to celebrate graduates” materialized from a call to action last year by Chancellor Andrew D. Martin to Michelle Gelven, director of Commencement, and Gina Tramelli, assistant vice chancellor for special events and university ceremonies, to re-imagine Commencement. Martin was wowed by the results.
“Our goal from the start was to honor all the graduates — undergraduate, graduate and professional students — in a way that was fun and memorable for them and their friends and families,” Martin said. “Today’s celebration certainly matched the moment. It was grand, and it was appropriate.”
Washington University celebrated this year’s Commencement on May 20, 2022, before a crowd of some 3,800 graduates and 12,000 family members, faculty and staff at Francis Olympic Field, Commencement’s new home. There, Commencement speaker Mae Jemison, the first woman of color to travel into space, urged the Class of 2022 to “Look up.”
“Whenever you start to feel down, look up from your device, go outside, look up at the sky, and acknowledge that you are part of this universe and you have as much right to be here as any speck of stardust,” Jemison told the graduates.
Tramelli said the university moved Commencement from the august confines of Brookings Quadrangle to Francis Olympic Field permanently to accommodate the growing graduating classes and their guests. (Last year’s Commencement was on Francis Olympic Field so everyone could spread out due to the pandemic.) Unlike many universities, Washington University does not limit the number of guests graduates may invite to the ceremony.
“Commencement is a big deal, not just for our students but for the parents and siblings and aunts and uncles and friends who have helped our graduates along the way,” said Tramelli, herself a member of Class of 2022, earning a master’s of legal studies degree from the School of Law. “We want to celebrate them too.”
After the ceremony, revelers were encouraged to stay on campus and walk from Mudd Field to Brookings Quadrangle to Tisch Park. Along the way, entertainment such as St. Louis’ Red and Black Brass Band and circus performers delighted the crowd. And there were plenty of activities: Students snapped photos with the Bears mascot, played Jenga and tried their hand at fowling, a hybrid of football and bowling.
And there was the food — lots and lots of food. Thirsty? How about ice-cold Fitz’s root beer or Kaldi’s cold brew? Like barbecue? How about pulled pork sliders from Salt & Smoke or brisket from Pappy’s? Prefer something light? How about Vietnamese chicken salad from Nudo or arugula, watermelon and pork belly salad from Clara B’s? These options — and more — were plentiful.
What did Martin eat?
“The question is what didn’t I eat,” said Martin after finishing off a fried chicken slider from Grace Meat + Three.
“Our goal was to give families a taste of some of St. Louis’ iconic flavors,” Tramelli said. “For years, they’ve probably been hearing about Ted Drewes and toasted ravioli and gooey butter cake. Well, now they’ve had a chance to try it.”
The university also made a point of introducing visitors to Black and female-owned businesses such as Trolley Stop Bakery, founded by proud WashU parent Diane Wood, who had attended two prior ceremonies.
“They were wonderful events, but there is a special atmosphere this time,” said Wood, who served 3,000 perfectly chewy chocolate chip cookies. “As soon as I walked on campus, I could feel the energy.”
So could Jacara Betts, who earned her master of social work from the Brown School. She is staying in St. Louis to work at the nonprofit neighborhood organization Park Central Development.
“Every 15 feet, there’s something to eat or a place to take pictures or a game to play,” said Betts, who was playing corn hole with a friend. “It feels very communal — everyone being together at this place that has been our home.”
Diane Toroian Keaggy, AB ’90, is senior news director of campus life.