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Perseverance, Pride, Progress Characterize 189th Commencement

CLass of 2021

Wesleyan’s 189th Commencement Ceremony was held on May 26. More than 700 students received degrees from Wesleyan. (Photo by Olivia Drake MALS ’08)

Twin brothers Jake Kwon ’21 and Jack Kwon ’21 celebrate their graduation. (Photo by Tom Dzimian)

(Written by Katie Aberbach with contributions from Himeka Curiel, Allie Otlowski, and Sam O’Neill.)

Perseverance, pride, progress, and graduating during a unique moment in history were on the minds of the hundreds of graduates and their families at Wesleyan University’s 189th Commencement ceremony on Wednesday.

“It was a difficult year,” said Aidar Raev ’21, a Posse Veteran from Kyrgyzstan who majored in the College of Social Studies with minors in international relations and Russian, East European, and Eurasian studies. (The Posse Veterans program supports veterans of the United States armed forces who are earning bachelor’s degrees at American universities.) Raev decided to study remotely during the spring semester but returned to campus to walk in Commencement.

“It was important to me to be here today,” he said, as he prepared to line up for the traditional procession onto Andrus Field. “I’m a first-generation American; my parents got degrees in the Soviet Union but I got naturalized here in America when I joined the military.” Completing his degree was “a 13-year journey.”

Julio Evans '21

Julio Evans ’21

Nearby on Foss Hill, Julio Evans ’21 described a similar feeling of accomplishment. “I’m a first-generation college graduate, so being here at Commencement today means breaking a lot of chains for my family and starting a legacy,” he said. An American studies major and Caribbean studies minor from Brooklyn, Evans said he planned to move to Miami after graduation to pursue his interests in political activism and social justice by working as a peer advocate.

In Commencement Address, President Roth Expresses Pride in “Courageous” Class of 2021


Wesleyan President Michael Roth ’78 made remarks during the 189th Commencement Ceremony on May 26. (Photo by Tom Dzimian)

From an excitement-filled Arrival Day to the unpredictable final three semesters of campus life that unfolded during the COVID-19 pandemic, “so much has changed in your lives since you were first introduced to Wesleyan,” President Michael Roth ’78 said in his remarks to the graduating Class of 2021, who sat in front of him on Andrus Field in a socially distanced 189th Commencement.

Besides the obvious impacts of the pandemic, Roth was referring to social and political divisiveness in the country, which has increased in recent years, “exacerbated by” irresponsible media platforms. “Attacks on those considered ‘outsiders’ are a sick symptom of this addiction to outrage,” he said, “but so are the insidious tendencies of many to stop listening to people they deem to be failing some sort of political litmus test.”

Yet, Roth said, “we should take heart from the efforts made by so many across the country, and right here on campus, to rebuild trust, to create caring communities.” Reminding the graduates that “we are counting on you” to take on “new challenges beyond the university,” Roth expressed pride in—and awe for—the Class of 2021.

Chong ’21 Talks Solidarity Amid Hardship in Senior Class Welcome: “Juxtaposition”

Chong '21

Bryan Chong ’21 delivered the Senior Class Welcome during the 2021 Commencement. (Photo by Tom Dzimian)

Bryan Chong ’21, a double major in government and psychology, delivered the Senior Class Welcome at Wesleyan’s 189th Commencement.

In a speech that was at moments emotional and rousing, Chong reflected on “an extraordinary year that has restructured the ways we socialize.” He emphasized the ways that this time of “generation-defining change” has challenged students to re-examine their time at Wesleyan and the juxtaposition of coming together in unexpected community despite being forced apart by the pandemic. “Many say that we discover our true selves during times of crisis,” he said. “This year, I discovered that amidst all the chaos and change, it is exactly from the abolition of division where Wesleyan’s true identity emerged as a site of solidarity.”

Chong was motivated to submit his speech for consideration to capture the communal experience of persevering through crisis and to “emphasize the beauty of our collective journey through this difficult year,” encouraging his peers to carry those lessons forward. “It is a great honor and joy for me to be able to highlight the special moments that showed how we endured crisis by standing strong together,” he said.

Betts Reflects on Time, “What We Owe Each Other” in 2021 Commencement Address

Reginald Dwayne Betts delivered the 2021 Commencement Address during Wesleyan's 189th Commencement Ceremony on May 26.

Reginald Dwayne Betts delivered the 2021 Commencement Address. (Photo by Tom Dzimian)

Award-winning poet, memoirist, scholar, and social justice advocate Reginald Dwayne Betts delivered the 2021 Commencement Address during Wesleyan’s 189th Commencement Ceremony on May 26.

In a powerful speech tinged with moments of humor, Betts focused on the theme of time and understanding our duty as part of an expansive community that includes lesser-seen members outside the traditional campus. Reflecting on how “these [COVID-19] pandemic days have turned time different,” Betts drew parallels to his own past history and that of other currently or previously incarcerated individuals, including eight students from Wesleyan’s Center for Prison Education program, who were among those earning bachelor of liberal studies degrees this year. He referenced the pandemic’s isolating effect on the graduates’ final year at Wesleyan and acknowledged the work they had done “of believing that education matters enough to keep doing it even as the world is falling apart,” and reassuring them that “this is just a start to figuring out what you’re meant to do in the world, but what a glorious start it is.”

As a 16-year-old, Betts was sentenced to nine years in a maximum security prison, during which time he studied literature and poetry, laying the groundwork for a career path that would include a BA, an MFA, a JD, and soon a PhD, as well as a National Magazine Award–winning essay in The New York Times Magazine, a Radcliffe Fellowship, a Guggenheim Fellowship, NEA Fellowships, and years of work in public defense, advocacy, and public service. He is also the founder and director of The Million Book Project, which “harnesses the power of literature to counter what prison does to the spirit.” During the ceremony, Betts was awarded an honorary doctor of letters degree from Wesleyan.

Betts’s remarks are below:

Thank you to the Board of Trustees and President Roth. This is a true and rare honor and I am grateful.

Flowers Speaks about “Listening,” Environmental Justice at 2021 Commencement

Catherine Coleman Flowers

Catherine Coleman Flowers delivered her Commencement remarks virtually.

After being named a 2021 recipient of Wesleyan’s honorary doctor of science degree, Catherine Coleman Flowers delivered a pre-recorded speech thanking the University for the honor and exhorting Wesleyan’s Class of 2021 to go forth and “quickly dismantle the historical and structural inequities that have existed in this country since its inception.”

Flowers, a native of Lowndes, Alabama, gained national recognition through her tireless efforts to bring attention to failing water and waste sanitation infrastructure in rural areas (beginning with her hometown), in so doing highlighting structural inequities that perpetuate health and socioeconomic disparities. For her work, Flowers was awarded a 2020 MacArthur “Genius Grant” Fellowship, and was recently appointed to the Biden-Sanders Task Force on Climate Change.

In the 2018 documentary series The Accidental Environmentalist, Flowers explained her activism by saying, “I’m an environmentalist because you cannot talk about the environment and not talk about health; you can’t talk about the environment and not talk about how we treat nature. Part of environmental science is knowing about waste water, and how you treat it. And how it impacts the environment, how it impacts the water bodies. All of that [is] connected. . . . Some people think you’re only an environmentalist if you care about polar bears, but if you care about people, if you care about land, if you care about God’s creation, you’re an environmentalist. And I’m very very interested in what we do for seven generations to come in terms of leaving a perfect place for our children to live.”

As the founding director of the Center for Rural Enterprise and Environmental Justice, an Alabama-based policy and advocacy organization devoted to addressing the root causes of poverty in the state, Flowers is committed to developing multidisciplinary, grassroots solutions and models that can be replicated in rural communities throughout the country.

Gottlieb ’94: Apply Wesleyan Spirit to “Decisive Juncture in History”


Scott Gottlieb ’94 made remarks during the 189th Commencement Ceremony, (Photo by Olivia Drake MALS ’08)

Scott Gottlieb ’94, a physician, public health and policy advisor and advocate, received an honorary doctorate of science during Wesleyan’s 189th Commencement on Wednesday, May 26. Gottlieb, who earned a BA in economics from Wesleyan, was the commissioner of the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) from 2017 to 2019. He is currently a special partner with the venture capital firm New Enterprise Associates, and a resident fellow at public policy think tank the American Enterprise Institute (AEI).

In his speech, Gottlieb drew distinctions between his time at Wesleyan 25 years ago and the experiences of the Class of 2021. Yet he highlighted characteristics shared by all Wesleyan students: the “seriousness” in academic studies, the belief that actions can “transcend the University boundaries to influence the country,” and the feeling of “obligation” to make a difference in individual communities.

“I hope you take that spirit into this uncertain period we’re in, at this very decisive juncture in history, when the country may be more ready than it’s been in many years to hear your voices, and to set about making lasting changes,” he said.

He made the following remarks (as prepared) during Wesleyan’s 189th Commencement Ceremony:

It’s an honor to be here with you today. Twenty-five years ago, I sat here at my own graduation. it was very different. We didn’t have masks. We weren’t social distancing. Senior year was a lot different.

Betts, Flowers, Gottlieb ’94 Receive Honorary Degrees

During Wesleyan’s 189th Commencement on Wednesday, May 26, the University presented three honorary degrees to Reginald Dwayne Betts, Catherine Coleman Flowers, and Scott Gottlieb ’94 for their significant contributions to the social, environmental, and public health of the United States.

Roth and Reginald Dwayne Betts

Wesleyan President Michael Roth ’78 and Reginald Dwayne Betts Hon. ’21

Reginald Dwayne Betts, who also delivered this year’s Commencement address, was named an honorary doctor of letters in recognition of his impact and influence as a poet, scholar, and advocate and for his “perseverance . . . poetic sensibilities, and embrace of education to empower life [and] use of that empowerment and those sensibilities to improve the lives of others.”

An award-winning author and memoirist, Betts is also the founder and director of the Million Book Project, a social justice initiative that seeks to extend meaningful and transformative access to books (on poetry, literature, history, social thought, and other curated topics) for incarcerated people across the prison system and to increase their engagement with the literary community.

Himself sentenced to nine years in maximum security prison at age 16, Betts has since earned a BA from the University of Maryland, an MFA from Warren Wilson College, a JD from Yale Law School, and is currently pursuing a PhD in Law at Yale University. He has received an appointment from Governor Ned Lamont to Connecticut’s Criminal Justice Commission, the state body that hires all state prosecutors, and he continues to lecture on his formative experiences and the importance that grit, perseverance, and literature have played in his success, as well as the intersection between literature and advocacy.

Wesleyan’s 189th Commencement to Be Held May 26 In Person

monogramWesleyan’s 189th Commencement will take place in person on Wednesday, May 26.

“This year’s Commencement was previously planned for May 30; however, due to a number of factors, including current pandemic conditions and cancellation of an in-person reunion weekend, we have decided to move up the date,” Wesleyan President Michael Roth ’78 said in a campus-wide email.

The University is hoping that conditions will allow for two guests per graduate to attend the ceremony. Wesleyan is pursuing plans to accommodate the seniors and other graduates who have been studying remotely to return to campus for Commencement exercises.

As with all of Wesleyan’s COVID-related policies and guidelines, these plans are tentative and subject to change if conditions necessitate. The University will continue to communicate regarding more specific details of Commencement in the coming weeks.

“I am very much looking forward to seeing our graduates on Andrus Field on May 26, and celebrating the accomplishments of the formidable Class of 2021,” Roth said.

Wesleyan’s reunion events will move to a virtual format.

Wesleyan Announces Its 2021 Honorary Degree Recipients

Wesleyan has announced the speaker and honorary degree recipients for its 189th Commencement.

The date of Commencement was previously announced as May 30th; however, given current pandemic conditions, the University is reviewing other options for the last week of May. The University is currently planning to hold the ceremony in-person on Wesleyan’s Middletown campus, though off-campus guests will be restricted to virtual attendance given the ongoing threat posed by the COVID-19 pandemic. More details about the ceremony and a definitive date for Commencement will be announced by the end of March.

Reginald Dwayne Betts, an award-winning poet, memoirist, and teacher, is this year’s commencement speaker. MacArthur-winning researcher, writer, and activist Catherine Coleman Flowers and Scott Gottlieb ’94, a physician and former commissioner of the Food and Drug Administration, also will be honored. The recipients were chosen on the basis of their significant contributions to the social, environmental, and public health of the United States.

“Be it through teaching, art, advocacy, medicine, or policy-making, these three individuals offer us shining examples of how we can work to forge better futures,” said Wesleyan President Michael Roth ’78. “Despite difficult circumstances, like the current public health situation, Reginald, Catherine, and Scott represent our ability to make progress on seemingly intractable problems, and, through their efforts, inspire us to direct our talents toward meaningful action.”