While Knox College’s 2021 Commencement exercises looked a bit different from past ceremonies, the most important parts were the same: Graduating seniors proudly wore their caps and gowns, attentively listened to speakers’ words of wisdom, and joyfully walked across a stage to pick up their diplomas.
As part of Knox’s adherence to COVID-19 safety protocols, the graduates and their guests wore masks and sat in chairs that were spaced six feet apart from one another during separate morning and afternoon ceremonies on Saturday, June 5.
Still, the usual celebratory mood prevailed at this year’s Commencement. “I am so glad we can celebrate it together, here in the shadows of Old Main,” Knox Board of Trustees Chairman Chuck Smith ’84 told the crowd. President Teresa Amott welcomed everyone, saying, “I haven’t seen this many people in 15 months! Make some noise!” People responded enthusiastically—with cheers and applause.
About 230 graduating seniors received their bachelor of arts and bachelor of science degrees during Knox’s 176th Commencement exercises on the South Lawn of Old Main.
Dr. Ngozi O. Ezike, director of the Illinois Department of Public Health, delivered the Commencement address. Ezike has been at the forefront of the state’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic, becoming a familiar and respected presence, in part because of her steady and compassionate demeanor at media briefings where she provided updates on the pandemic.
Giving the Commencement address at Knox presented a different kind of challenge, Ezike said in her pre-recorded speech. “It's quite daunting to be asked to speak to young people with so much talent, so much energy and determination, and to try to say something that will capture the excitement of the moment, virtually.”
She continued, “Congratulations for achieving despite a global pandemic. You are awesome. To everyone here, kudos for not losing sight of your goals, despite the chaos and the uncertainty and darkness we were all navigating during this ongoing mass-casualty traumatic event for the last 16 months.”
She referred to a well-known statement from Brianne James, “I am my ancestors’ wildest dreams” and added: ”I can't think of a better line to capture the spirit of this graduating class, where more than 35 percent of you are first-generation college graduates, 40 percent are people of color, and some of you are a testimony to the power of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals policy.” Commencement is always a big deal, she continued, but this one “is by every definition, ‘huge,’ ‘super,’ ‘bigly.’”
Ezike advised the graduating seniors to keep in mind the meaning of the word commencement. "It marks the beginning of a new chapter, not the ending, she said. “This is the point where you get to chart your direction, where you visualize your destiny and take the steps towards realization.”
She told them they all have a unique story, and only they can write it. “Every chapter in your incredible story has led you to where you are right now. You have fallen. But more importantly, you have gotten up after falling.”
In concluding, Ezike told the graduates: “Be curious, be lifelong learners, be compassionate, and be thirsty for justice and equity, and make every place you venture into find itself a little better off for your having been there. Congratulations, graduates. I wish you Godspeed on your journey.”
Ezike was among three people who were awarded honorary degrees during Knox’s Commencement. The other degree recipients were Jennifer Lippincott-Schwartz, senior group leader at Howard Hughes Medical Institute's Janelia Research Campus and a founding member of the Neuronal Cell Biology Program at Janelia, and Tom Rivett-Carnac, a founding partner of Global Optimism and an architect of the United Nations Paris Agreement on Climate Change. Knox awarded Doctor of Science degrees to Ezike and Lippincott-Schwartz and a Doctor of Humane Letters degree to Rivett-Carnac.
Graduating seniors and their guests also heard from two senior class speakers, Ikenna Ozor at the morning ceremony and Isaac Hughes at the afternoon ceremony. Ozor, a biology major, plans to attend graduate school at the University of Colorado in Colorado Springs, and Hughes, who majored in environmental studies and philosophy, will join a farm apprentice program at Siena Farms in Massachusetts.
In his speech, Ozor noted that the Class of 2021 has experienced “a crazy four-year run” that included, for instance, a polar vortex that canceled classes for a day and the emergence of a worldwide pandemic.
“Nothing I could say could truly encapsulate the amount of struggle some of us have faced,” he said. “However, one thing that I can confirm is the fact that we have arrived at this very moment with our family and friends right by our side. Whether it’s virtually or in-person, there are people here who are cheering for you.”
In the afternoon speech, Hughes led his classmates on a “sensory trip” through their four years at Knox. It included the “oaky musk” scent in Old Main’s Common Room, the sound of an alto saxophone through a window in the Center for Fine Arts, and the taste—“unsuspecting perfection”—of a breakfast pizza.
“We find ourselves at a crossroads where we will all be throwing ourselves into new places, with new things to smell, taste, and see,” Hughes added. “What will we take with us from Knox to these new places, besides our degrees and perhaps some hoarded notebooks? It will be the sensory memories that we have made in our prairie home, nestled amid the corn and soy.”
Saturday's Commencement exercises wrapped up a series of events honoring the Knox Class of 2021. Other activities included the Senior Toast, online ceremonies to announce academic and athletic awards, an interfaith baccalaureate service, and a ceremony recognizing first-generation graduates.
Throughout Commencement, speakers thanked and praised President Teresa Amott, who will retire June 30 after serving at Knox for 10 years. She presented closing remarks, noting that she is nearing the end of a 40-plus-year career in education. Being an educator is “a profoundly hopeful vocation” because educators trust that students will make a better future for themselves and others, she said.
“It has been the privilege of a lifetime to lead this institution during this difficult year,” she said. “I am so very proud of all we have done together during this time.”
“Class of 2021, the care of this historic College, and of this planet, now passes into your hands. You will write the next chapter of our storied College’s history. Congratulations to you all.”