Antioch’s altered, but heartfelt, commencement
- Published: July 1, 2020
Fourteen students graduated from Antioch College on Saturday, June 20. No one clapped or snapped. No one processed. No one hugged. Commencement speaker Julia Reichert addressed the graduates from a podium set up near Antioch Hall with the quiet afternoon as her witness.
Due to COVID-19, the sixth commencement of the relaunched college took place as an online ceremony rather than the customary in-person one, with live and recorded speeches streamed at 1 p.m. Recorded performances from the World House Choir were also part of the virtual festivities. Those who wish to watch the event can do so at antiochcollge.edu/commencement.
Yet if COVID-19 changed the format of the ceremony, a spirit of celebration and appreciation prevailed among the student, faculty, staff and alumni speakers. Opening the event, President Tom Manley praised the “small but mighty class of 2020” for their contributions on campus and the broader world.
“We thank you, we stand for and with you,” he said.
In place of clapping, Manley offered the gesture of putting his hand over his heart, and did so several times during his remarks at the beginning and close of the ceremony.
“Consult your heart,” he counseled graduates in his concluding remarks. “It is far bigger and fuller of wisdom than you might imagine.”
A sense of gravity and purpose ran through the event. Several speakers touched on the deaths of Black men and women at the hands of police, and the video included a visual tribute to Black Lives Matter.
In her invocation, Mila Cooper, vice president for student affairs and senior diversity officer, acknowledged the presence of the COVID-19 pandemic and the persistent “Black pandemic” of racism in American society.
“Class of 2020, some call this the year of clear vision. And oh, what our eyes are watching,” she said.
Cooper, in common with other speakers, expressed confidence that the graduates would rise to the profound challenges of the time.
“Run for justice and don’t stop. You were built for this, and I’m counting on you,” she said.
Student speakers Athina Peterson and Truth Garrett vividly described their experiences at Antioch, reflecting on the college’s strengths and shortcomings.
Peterson, who came to Antioch from the Bronx, N.Y., and graduated with a self-designed major in “critical race and economic justice,” acknowledged by name the many faculty, staff and students who had offered support, mentoring and friendship during her time at the college.
Yet Antioch had been “far from a fairytale,” she said. Some of her experiences as a Black woman at the college filled her with pain and despair, and she felt at times “broken, unappreciated, both hyper-visible and incredibly neglected and devalued,” she explained.
Despite these experiences, Peterson credited Antioch with giving her skills to fight and survive, noting that as a Black woman, “I have had to work for everything.”
“Antioch gave me the tools to survive life,” she said.
Peterson ended her address playfully, acknowledging her own efforts to persist and triumph.
“I have come and I have conquered Antioch,” she said.
For his address, Garrett offered a spoken-word piece accompanied by filmed scenes of himself at several different locations on campus with a piece of tape covering his mouth. In some scenes, his arms are in a “hands up” posture.
Garrett, who is from Indianapolis, Ind., and graduated with a self-designed major in “hip hop education,” said he was “richer in understanding of myself and others” as a result of his time at Antioch. Yet the college is far from perfect, he added.
“I am the things this world has been taught to fear and the root of all things it holds dear. On this campus, Truth was still not present; it’s like no one knew who they were addressing,” he said, punning on his first name.
Also during the piece, he reflected, “Antioch still has a lot of work to do on itself and the world.”
However, like Peterson, Garrett said Antioch had provided him with valuable tools.
“Antioch taught me to create my own keys and blaze a path all can see,” he said.
Garrett ended his piece with a riff on one of Antioch’s most cherished phrases from its first president, Horace Mann, “Be ashamed to die until you have won some victory for humanity.” Garrett updated the phrase, expressing his intention to “win victories for human unity.”
Commencement speaker Reichert offered a deeply personal reflection. The Oscar-winning documentary filmmaker, village resident and 1970 graduate of Antioch described how she came to the college from a working-class background, and grew into an understanding of both class and gender during her time on campus. Her talk was filled with anecdotes and personal photos from her childhood and college years.
Reichert recalled working with classmate Jim Klein to create the documentary that became her first film, “Growing Up Female.” Begun as her senior project at Antioch, the film explored the lives of women and girls in communities around Yellow Springs. Today it is recognized as the very first film of the modern women’s movement and is part of the National Film Registry.
A core theme of Reichert’s address was that Antioch had prepared her to enter and change the world through her filmmaking. She urged graduates to use their work to make a better world, quoting from Marge Piercy’s poem, “To Be of Use.” “The people I love best / jump into work head first,” that poem opens.
Reichert acknowledged that the class of 2020 was entering a world rocked by change and challenge, as had been true of her own class, which graduated just weeks after the Kent State shootings at the height of the Vietnam War.
“You are graduating at an unprecedented time, but you are ready,” she said.
Also acknowledged during the ceremony were faculty member Luisa Bieri Rios, winner of an excellence award from the Southwestern Ohio Council for Higher Education, or SOCHE; past Antioch presidents Joan Straumanis and Bob Devine; and longtime faculty member Louise Smith, who is retiring from the college.
Prior to commencement, on Thursday, June 18, Antioch presented another virtual event, this one offering glimpses of senior “capstone” projects undertaken by graduating students. During the two-hour colloquia event, hosted over Zoom, 11 graduating seniors presented their projects and answered questions from some of the 76 online audience members, a mix of faculty, staff, alumni and others. Projects ranged from environmental science research to an art installation to interviews toward the making of a documentary film.
As one example, graduating senior Adam Green explored the hypothesis that inequality is a cause of environmental degradation. His research examined socioeconomic and racial data across Ohio in tandem with the locations of EPA-identified toxic sites within the state. Green, whose self-designed major is “environmental science and ecological economics,” found correlations between the proximity of these sites and communities where incomes and educational attainment are lower. He also noted correlations between such sites and rural parts of the state home to greater numbers of Black residents.
An online gallery of all projects from Colloquia 2020 is available at colloquia.cargo.site.
Saturday’s ceremony concluded with a virtual procession to the mound near Antioch Hall. Though no one was marching, the camera circled the mound, a site new graduates have historically stepped over or, in an updated tradition respecting Indigenous people, walked around. Shadow and sunlight played on the lawn. The ceremony was done.