During commencement, be mindful of privilege

Jessica Thompson

(Emily Zheng/The Williams Record)

For most of my time at Williams, I have felt like an impostor. And while it has been difficult to grapple with, that is not the focus of this piece. The fact of the matter is that regardless of how I feel, I will graduate this spring, and as a first-generation student, that is a pretty big accomplishment.

With this comes a dream of celebrating with family and friends. The pandemic obviously stole away this dream. When I realized that graduation was slated for a Monday, I became concerned that this would be inaccessible for some families to be able to watch in real time, as Memorial Day is still a working day for many. What’s the point in having a live-streamed event if it excludes people — particularly low-income and/or first-generation and international families — from watching as it is happening?

Although the day of graduation will still fall on May 31 (albeit at a different time than is traditional to try and work around job schedules), the Class of 2021’s “victory” lies in President Mandel’s announcement that the College, state guidelines permitting, will allow each senior two in-person guests for graduation. I understand and see the need for these measures to happen. I don’t wish to say that safety precautions should not be in place, or that exceptions should be made. However, I would like to reflect upon the privileges inherently bound in this move.

First, the allowance of two in-person guests has this normative assumption that the two guests will be parents. Not everyone is afforded this luxury. As someone whose father passed away unexpectedly in October — a father who really wanted to see Williams and watch his baby girl graduate — I know how much this expectation stings. As a class officer in conversation with senior staff planning commencement, I know how personally triggering and alienating the operative fallback term of “parents” was in meetings. Even if both of your parents are alive, there are other reasons for why they may not attend. Some of these reasons include distance (especially for international families), safety concerns, messy family dynamics, and cost. I would personally love it if my mom could attend my graduation, but it would be monetarily difficult and infeasible, for reasons I won’t explicitly get into here. In some ways, the College’s willingness to develop a plan for in-person guests has complicated things for me, and possibly for others as well. Perhaps this is selfish, but if my mom went, I would be confronted with the sinking feeling that someone (i.e. my dad) was missing. But on the flip side, if she misses this monumental occasion, that wouldn’t feel right, either. So what before felt like an equalizer with a closed ceremony is no more. This isn’t to say that I want the College to disallow guests; rather, I am reflecting on complex emotions that I have to reconcile. If you’re a senior planning on having your parents come to graduation, I’m happy for you. But please know that this is not the reality for everyone.

Second, the pandemic has had indisputable effects on people’s financial circumstances. Although airlines are offering more flexibility with travel plans due to COVID-19, the ability to arrange said travel last minute comes from a privileged position. Not only is traveling to Williamstown expensive — especially if you live outside the Northeast, what with the costs of flying, rental cars, and gas — but you also have to take into account the cost of accommodations. In a normal year, students on financial aid are able to request up to four beds for their families to stay in Mission for $20 per bed for the entire weekend. Understandably, this is not possible this year. I did some research, and do you know how expensive it is to stay at the Williams Inn for the weekend of commencement? The price I saw was $343 a night. And interestingly enough, the Inn ran out of rooms before President Mandel’s official announcement. Granted, there are some less expensive options in the area, such as the Northside Motel and the Villager Motel, whose rates for commencement weekend are around $90 a night. Still, for some, that’s a lot of money, and these options may impose financial burdens on families, who should, by all rights, still be able to celebrate.

Finally, I want to highlight how in my meetings with administration as a senior class officer, they said that even though the College will not be requiring vaccination records from in-person guests, there remains the goodwill expectation that students only invite vaccinated guests and guests only attend if they have been vaccinated, in the interest of public health. Even if everyone will be eligible for a vaccination by the end of May, it’s important to note that eligibility does not guarantee vaccination. Having everyone be vaccinated is a lofty goal, as not everyone will have the same access. At present, communities of color have less access to available vaccines, even though they have been disproportionately affected by the pandemic. This inherently makes the system inequitable. Moreover, vaccination is not the same as immunization, which takes weeks to develop. Safety is paramount, so I understand why the College would request this, even if they have not publicly announced it. But at the end of the day, the individuals hurt most by these tough decisions are those from lower-income and/or marginalized groups, and that should not be overlooked.

I’m not intending for this piece to be a cry for the College to change its plans. I’m appreciative of the efforts of President Mandel, Dean Sandstrom, and all the staff working hard to make commencement happen for us. I simply want to draw attention to the importance of mindfulness, both with the language we use and the actions we take, as not all of us are celebrating equally.

Jessica Thompson ’21 is a classics and psychology major from Panama City Beach, Fla.