Class Speaker Papa Freduah A. Anderson spoke to his classmates about the obligation that comes with privilege.
WILLIAMSTOWN, Mass. — For members of Williams College's class of 2021, Monday was a day to celebrate the grit and hard work that got them through the last four years.
But their class speaker reminded them it also was about something else: the privilege that got them to Williams in the first place.
"I, for example, have been privileged to have parents who could afford to take me to private junior high school in Ghana, which then enabled me to attend all the best high schools in the country, where I learned about the opportunity to attend college abroad," Papa Freduah A. Anderson told his classmates. "Just like that, one privilege reinforcing another.
"Some of my peers, however, never started kindergarten, let alone high school or college. This story is not unique to me or Ghana, but it happens in the U.S. and every country in the world."
With that sentiment in mind, Anderson reminded his fellow seniors that privilege brings with it obligation.
"How does such a privilege call us to a greater responsibility, to use our liberal arts education not for ourselves, but to create opportunities for others and solve problems in our society?" he asked.
Anderson reminded the seniors that as they prepared to enjoy a post-ceremony lunch and turn their attentions to graduate school or gainful employment, there are millions of people around the globe who have neither those privileges nor opportunities.
"About a tenth of the world's population is being threatened by malnutrition and hunger," he said. "About 2 billion individuals do not have access to clean water. The world is still plagued with racial injustice.
"These are a few of the issues I'm asking us to embrace and challenge ourselves to make a difference in. And I strongly believe we are more than capable of doing that."
Monday marked the first time in recent memory the college has sent its seniors into the world without diplomas in hand. The ceremony closing the academic year for Anderson and his classmates was moved up from its traditional June date as a concession to the COVID-19 pandemic and the much more restrictive rules in place when the ceremony's date was scheduled this winter.
Rather than a sheepskin, the soon-to-be-grads walked across the stage at Farley-Lamb Field to receive the case where they will put diplomas when they are issued in a couple of weeks.
That one concession to the pandemic did not diminish the enthusiasm of the approximately 500 seniors and thousands of friends and family who covered the field and the bleachers.
Among their number, nine Berkshire County residents who are on track to earn degrees from the school: North Adams' Alexandra Bernard, Pittsfield's Joe Bouvier, Williamstown's Niku Darafshi, Stockbridge's Georgia DelSignor, North Adams' Hayden Gilooly, Williamstown's Adam Jones, Williamstown's Thomas Kirby, Williamstown's Peter Le and Williamstown's Emily O'Brien.
The ceremony featured a performance by Class Musician Alex A. Quzon, a reading of an original work by Class Poet Virginia J. Marr and speeches by Alexander and Class Historian Sonia N.B. Nyarko.
Nyarko reminded the members of the class that they already have shown a propensity for using their positions of privilege to advance the common good.
"During quarantine, it was more apparent than ever how important it is to pierce the purple bubble and stay in tune with the world around us," Nyarko said. "I believe our class has done a remarkable job of that, urging the college to meet our demands and improve the student experience. Through our efforts, affinity housing will launch next year. And we'll hope we'll get more support for our overworked [Junior Advisors].
"Although there is still so much to be done, there is no denying our personal contributions to pushing this institution toward its betterment."
Nyarko noted that Williams is rich in tradition but also tethered, in some ways to past injustices.
"I'm very glad to be part of the class that has embraced the beauty of this college while continuing to challenge it to be better," she said.
Williams President Maud Mandel joined Nyarko in expressing optimism about the Class of 2021's ability to face some of the challenges Anderson laid out.
"Some of you and your peers have been looking inward and recommitting to local community," Mandel said. "Others are seeking environmentally and spiritually sustainable ways of life.
"Not everyone has the same goals or the same means with which to go after them. But one thing that has struck me as I speak to graduating seniors navigating this moment is how many of you are looking to the future with hope and with optimism. This is a striking reality given the challenges of this past year -- the global pandemic, racial reckoning and challenges to our democracy have been sobering for so many of you and so many of us.
"And yet rather than looking through the frame of lost time or cynicism, so many of you seem prepared to roll up your sleeves and face the challenges ahead with energy and resolve and good will and even excitement."
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