The End of Yet Another Swarthmore Tradition? Commencement 2022: Reflections from Students, Alumni

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President Valerie Smith shared an email on Tuesday, Nov. 2 providing an official announcement regarding the location of Commencement for the Class of 2022. The message conveyed the decision that the ceremony will be held on Mertz Field, as it was for the Class of 2021, instead of in the Scott Outdoor Amphitheater.

The statement cited spatial and accessibility concerns in the Amphitheater, COVID-19 transmission rates, and overall misalignment with the college’s mission as reasoning for the change in ceremony venue.

“The [amphitheater] can no longer accommodate the size of the crowds we host at Commencement. Our graduating classes have grown over the past 20 years, and we’ve had to limit the number of guests students have been permitted to invite to view the ceremony in person,” wrote Smith.

The allure of graduating in the outdoor amphitheater continues to be advertised to prospective students via the college’s online campus tour, where the admissions office designates the amphitheater as “one of Swarthmore’s most treasured spaces.” In addition to past Commencement ceremonies, First and Last Collections, Baccalaureate, and other distinct college events are held in the space.

“The Amphitheater is sadly no longer conducive to hosting events of this magnitude in ways that are inclusive and align with our mission. That is why I have decided that we will move Commencement to Mertz Lawn for the 2022 ceremony and continue to explore alternative campus locations for the ceremony in the future,” expressed Smith.

Commencement for the Class of 2020 was most heavily influenced by COVID-19 infection rates in and around Delaware County, resulting in a fully virtual ceremony. As COVID-19 infection rates decreased and vaccinations became increasingly available, the Class of 2021’s graduation festivities were split into an unofficial in-person celebration as well as an official virtual component. However, the Class of 2022’s Commencement appears to be influenced by other factors, including accessibility.

“The Amphitheater presents significant accessibility challenges, which have prevented some graduating seniors and their guests, as well as faculty and staff members, from participating fully in the ceremony … graduates who use wheelchairs or those who have certain physical disabilities have been excluded from processing with the rest of their class,” claimed Smith.

Hannah Watkins ’21 was involved with the Commencement Planning Committee as the secretary for the Class of 2021. Her responsibilities included communicating with the senior class about Commencement planning updates, as well as assisting with configuration of ceremony details. In an email interview with The Phoenix, Watkins reflected on last year’s celebrations.

“I had mixed feelings in the spring of 2021: I was extraordinarily grateful for the opportunity to gather in person with as many members of my class as possible, yet I missed the people who could not be present at the unofficial celebration. I was sad to miss out on many of the traditions that I looked forward to all four years, most importantly walking in the Amphitheater and collecting a rose from the rose garden,” wrote Watkins.

After learning of President Smith’s announcement of a similar plan for the Class of 2022’s celebration, Watkins shared her thoughts.

“My initial reaction was intense disappointment that another beloved Swarthmore tradition seems to have been lost, even indirectly, to the pandemic. The explanations given — that the amphitheater limits guests to two and limits accessibility — both are good points. Without the social distancing requirements from May 2021, I can see that Mertz Field could potentially accommodate many more guests,” wrote Watkins.

In regards to the justification provided for the change in Commencement location, Watkins raised attention to the accessibility component of the reasoning.

“I am a little more confused about the accessibility factor, since I assumed that wheelchair-accessible ramps were brought in in previous years. It’s worth noting that the podium erected on Mertz Field in May required a wheelchair accessible ramp to be rented and brought in anyway, and required wheelchairs to navigate muddy, swampy lawns,” she wrote.

Current senior Chelsea Semper ’22 also shared thoughts about the choice to move graduation from the Amphitheater to Mertz Field.

“I am incredibly frustrated by the administration’s decision for the 2022 graduation to be on Mertz Lawn. Graduating in the Amphitheater is a time honored Swarthmore tradition, and in a time where COVID has changed so much about our campus culture, crossing the stage in that beautiful outdoor space that has so much emotional meaning to me has been one of the events I have been greatly looking forward to,” she wrote in an email interview with The Phoenix. 

Similar feelings are sensed by underclassmen students as well. Shannon Friel ’24 commented on the rationale of the announcement and its ramifications for underclassmen students.

“I think that the administration is mainly concerned about COVID infection rates. If the other issues had been the main cause, I think this move might have been done earlier. That being said, I wonder if there is any way that the amphitheater can be made more accessible, since it is a very important issue. This shouldn’t only apply for graduation, but for all other events held there,” wrote Friel in an email interview with The Phoenix.

The student body is hopeful that the administration will be open to other commencement locations around campus. Semper suggested possible secondary options to the amphitheater in her interview.

“I think there are lots of alternatives the administration could explore. For one, there are many beautiful locations on this campus and Mertz Field, squished between several dorms, the train station, and the unsightly Sharples construction project, is not one of them. Alternate locations like the Cherry Blossom Garden could be used. I would even accept the turf [an athletic field] because at least I have lots of fond memories of field hockey practices and games from there,” she wrote.

Regardless of the controversial aspects surrounding the decision to transition from the traditional landscape of the amphitheater to a new location on campus, Friel illustrated some of the irreplaceable qualities of the amphitheater.

“[During the Class of 2024’s ‘second collection’,] I felt like the trees and the leaves were giving us a warm embrace as a sign of welcome. There is a feeling of closeness and togetherness that you get from sitting on [the amphitheater] steps that you can’t get anywhere else. A flat field cannot achieve that. The idea of losing the warmness, the togetherness and the history that that place has for current and future graduations is just heartbreaking,” emphasized Friel.

1 Comment

  1. I’m obviously sympathetic to those who will
    is the amphitheater, but I’m glad graduation got moved and I hope it doesn’t return there next year for my graduation. I was never keen about the idea of graduating in the woods. Every graduation I ever went to was in a convention center or a stadium, and i’ve come to like the idea of a formal event with a real stage and facilities. If graduation HAS to be outdoors, the 2021 graduation should be the model in my opinion.

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