College Moves Commencement to Parrish Lawn Amid Geothermal Drilling 

Commencement for the class of 2020 and 2022 on the campus of Swarthmore College in Swarthmore, PA on Sunday, May 22, 2022. (Laurence Kesterson/Staff Photographer)

On Wednesday, Feb. 22, President Valerie Smith announced in an email to students, faculty, and staff members that Commencement will take place on Parrish Lawn in front of Clothier Memorial Hall and Parrish Hall. While Commencement has historically taken place in the Scott Outdoor Amphitheater, the COVID-19 pandemic virtually ended this tradition. In Spring 2020, the Commencement ceremony took place virtually, and in Spring 2021 and Spring 2022, Commencement took place on Mertz Lawn. 

Smith’s announcement came amid uncertainty from students concerning the location of this year’s Commencement. Because of the college’s Zero By Thirty-Five energy plan involving geothermal drilling currently taking place, Mertz Lawn remains unavailable for use. 

Although Commencement will not be returning to the time-honored location in the amphitheater, Smith acknowledged that it “remains a special venue” and will continue to serve as the location for this year’s Last Collection and Baccalaureate. 

The new location for this year’s Commencement, Smith stated in her Feb. 22 email, will offer many benefits for the community and will be able to accommodate all seniors, family members, and students who wish to attend this year’s ceremony.

“[Parrish Lawn is in] close proximity to restrooms and indoor viewing locations, [has] an accessible procession route, and a limited amount of shaded seating, all in a beautiful setting framed by Clothier and Parrish Hall,” the email wrote.

Another change to this year’s Commencement ceremony is that it will be open to the public. In past years, graduating seniors would receive three guest tickets for the ceremony, and according to the college’s website outlining the 2023 Commencement schedule, no tickets will be required this year. Additional indoor, air-conditioned seating will be offered, as a telecast of the ceremony will be available in the Lang Performing Arts Center and Kohlberg Hall’s Scheuer Room.

The college’s selection process began last summer, and they considered other potential locations for this year’s Commencement ceremony, including Clothier Field Stadium and Cunningham Fields. In an interview with The Phoenix, Vice President of Communications Andy Hirsch explained that the alternative locations would create significant obstacles regarding accessibility and proximity to the center of campus.

“We determined that Cunningham Fields would be logistically challenging for a number of reasons, including the distance from the heart of campus and the challenges with the processional route having to cross Chester Road,” he said. 

Hirsch also highlighted potential challenges with hosting Commencement on the Clothier Field Stadium. 

“Clothier Field Stadium presented several obstacles, including ensuring that the stage and heavy foot traffic wouldn’t damage the new turf field. In addition, the event production vendor we partnered with on Commencement informed us that the turf field would make it feel 15 to 20 degrees warmer, which, depending on the weather, would be extremely uncomfortable for the graduates, their families and other guests.”

Despite the potential benefits of hosting Commencement on Parrish Lawn, many students have questions about the feasibility of the new location. In an interview with The Phoenix, Cynthia Shi ’23, who will be graduating this Spring, described her initial reaction to the announcement. 

“I just have so many questions … Where will the stage be? Will there be enough shade? I [also] don’t know how feasible the seating will actually be since the Parrish Beach is slanted,” she reflected. “This might call into question the true accessibility of the new location.” 

In an interview with The Phoenix, Josie Thrasher ’21, who participated in the Commencement ceremony when it first moved to Mertz Lawn in 2021 and also returned to campus for last year’s ceremony, commented on the potential benefits of the new location. 

“Of course it’s sad to me that the amphitheater will no longer be a part of Commencement ceremonies, but I at least hope that this means more people will be able to attend with increased seating capacity,” she said. 

Thrasher recalled that the 2021 Commencement took place in rainy weather and cold temperatures.

“Everything was a muddy disaster, in classic ‘Mertz lake’ fashion,” she said. 

Jaydeep Sangha ’21 also recalled the weather conditions that occurred during the 2021 Commencement and mentioned that the new location may provide a more comfortable environment in the case of inclement weather.

“Mertz field … bakes in the sun or floods in the rain if the weather does not cooperate. The nearby access to facilities on Parrish Lawn is a plus, especially for family members who may have accessibility issues or just even for refreshment,” he said. 

Last year’s Commencement ceremony took place in extreme heat and sun. Thrasher said she felt that the previous Commencement location on Mertz Lawn did not provide adequate shade to accommodate the sun and extreme temperatures. 

“I remember watching many students take refuge under the trees and in Mertz to get out of the sun,” she recalled. “It was pretty comical that students had to leave their own Commencement because of the heat and sun, so I hope that doesn’t happen again this year.”

Both Thrasher and Sangha discussed possible strategies the college could use to deal with extreme weather. Regarding the heat, Sangha mentioned that it would be beneficial for the college to provide more shaded areas in the event of extreme heat or sun. Thrasher added that the addition of a tent could provide both shade and protection from the rain. 

With these suggestions in mind, Sangha and Thrasher remain optimistic about the new venue; unlike Mertz Lawn, which is adjacent to Swarthmore’s SEPTA station, Parrish Lawn has the potential to be a more picturesque site, they noted. 

“The rolling hill framed by Clothier Hall and Parrish Hall will provide an architecturally impressive backdrop to the ceremony,” Sangha said.

1 Comment

  1. I agree with Cynthia. Logistically, how they gon seat everybody on Parrish lawn? Some parts of it are literally almost at a 45 degree decline from level. Will they build an enormous raised platform?

    In my opinion, I think the school has grown/is growing enough to the point that it’s time to just bite the bullet and rent out a convention center. It would be a departure from tradition and we wouldn’t get to have an outdoor graduation, but at least all the speakers, faculty, staff, students, and guests would be cool, dry, and seated safely.

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