Eight memorable hours: Commencement Day starts with the sunrise

Lanie Rogers and Bridget Welch sit on a red and white blanket outside of the Sigma Chi House at 5:58 a.m., surrounded by fellow seniors awaiting the first of two dawns that will bookend their final day as undergraduates.

The first will arrive in 18 minutes as the sun rises above the Mitchell Center and Piper Stadium. The second will come seven hours later as tassels on mortarboards are flipped from right to left, a ceremonial transfer empowering graduates to take what they have learned at Denison University and apply it to new chapters of life.

Before Commencement speeches are made and diplomas get distributed and parents ask for yet another family photo, a collection of roughly 200 students gather on the hill for a senior sunrise — a tradition that isn’t officially recognized by the university, but also isn’t discouraged.

Sentimental songs pour from a speaker supplied by Thomas Gelorme, who acts as de facto deejay for the Class of 2022’s final morning together. Some seniors have risen early. Others have forgone sleep to savor every last minute of May 14. Whether reclining on blankets or standing on the pavement, members of each cluster are tightly packed, as if tethered by the moment.

“Lanie and I met on our first day as freshmen — auditions for Singers’ Theatre Workshop — and we’ve been pretty close ever since,” says Welch, as Randy Newman’s “You’ve Got a Friend in Me” blares from the speaker.

Senior sunrise isn’t a particularly old tradition, but it’s gathered momentum and produced some indelible images, even hundreds of miles from campus. Two years ago, Welch’s sister Taryn was part of a graduating class that had its Denison Commencement postponed after the global pandemic ended in-person classes in March. Undeterred, Taryn Welch and fellow graduate Katherine Kunze agreed to meet on an elementary school playground in Pittsford, New York to watch the day break.

“This experience just seems like a good way to begin graduation day,” Rogers says. “We had a few of our friends stay over last night so we could come down here this morning together.”

Seniors watching the sunrise

Senior sunrise is only the start of a day filled with scenes of emotion, soaring achievement, hard work, words of wisdom and long goodbyes.

These are snapshots from those eight memorable hours.

6:13 a.m. waiting for the sunrise outside Sigma Chi

As the nostalgic tunes continue unabated, a request comes from the audience: “Play some Bob Marley, man.”

6:16 a.m.

The official time of sunrise comes and goes without a hint of recognition from students.

6:23 a.m.

Deejay Gelorme plays the Beatles’ “Here Comes the Sun,” and the seniors on the hill respond with rousing applause. Even a few members of campus safety, watching over the peaceful gathering, show their approval.

6:30 a.m.

As blankets are folded and seniors prepare to walk to their residence halls, the first signs of raw emotion appear. There are tears and hugs. While friends will see each other throughout the day, the focus shifts toward the ceremony and family obligations.

In several hours, President Adam Weinberg will address the crowd and mention the sacrifices made by this class. The tentacles of COVID touched three of its four school years. The flag in front of Slayter Hall hangs at half staff, a grim reminder marking one million Americans lost to the virus. The students were there for each other, lifting spirits and easing anxieties — all of this on top of dealing with the typical pressures of college life.

6:45 a.m.

With his speaker perched on his right shoulder, Gelorme walks slowly to his residence hall alongside buddy Carson Wood. They are among the seniors who stayed up all night. Sleep, however, is not what occupies the mind of Gelorme. “This is my senior quote,” he says: “I want pancakes. I need pancakes.”

7:05 a.m.

Liam Picozzi and Max Sternberg, two members of the Denison swim team, are the last to leave the hill. They’ve been friends since freshman year and have spent a good portion of that time in discussion. This morning’s extended chat was all about reflection. “I know it sounds super cliché,” Picozzi says, “but we were just talking about the past four years and about growth and maturity.”

7:36 a.m. at the site of the Commencement ceremony

The quad is quiet except for the whine of cordless leaf blowers wielded by members of the Denison grounds crew. Ann Cherry, a horticulturist, is meticulously ridding sidewalks of mulch like an umpire dusting off home plate. Campus is in full bloom, flowers sprouting everywhere. Cherry is among the many unsung staffers working to make Commencement Day visually arresting to visitors. She looks to the sky and hopes for cooperation from Mother Nature. “Rain is good for my garden,” she says. “But I hope it holds off for today.”

8:08 a.m. inside the Reese~Shackleford Commons tent

A giant canopy covers the long stretch of grass behind Slayter Hall, giving it a carnival-like appearance. Under this big top, Kathy Gray is the ringmaster. Gray is the head of catering, and she’s responsible for the morning coffee and snacks being served to the seniors and their families. She’s also tasked with keeping everyone hydrated on a humid day in which temperatures are expected to reach the mid-80s. She makes sure a bottle of water is placed under every chair in the academic quad, site of the Commencement ceremony. “I think we’re ready to go,” she says.

8:48 a.m. at the Denison Bookstore

Greg and Val Stacy peruse the gift shop in Slayter looking for mementos from their son’s graduation. It’s a big day not only for seniors like their son Charles, but for the parents as well. “It’s the ending of one wonderful chapter of life and the beginning of another,” Val says.

9:09 a.m.

The campus fills with the sound of motorized carts transporting parents and dignitaries to various locations. It’s getting warm, and a lot of visitors are starting to open the more than 1,350 bottles of water Gray has ordered for the day.

9:21 a.m.

Gelorme arrives under the canopy to meet his parents, looking refreshed and energized. His black robe is accented with a purple and white lei. “Oh yeah,” he says. “I got my pancakes.”

9:40 a.m.

Jessica Crabtree's mortarboard

Jessica Crabtree will have no trouble finding her mortarboard when she tosses it in a few hours. Each year, some seniors decide to decorate their caps, adding flashes of color to the ceremony. Crabtree spent a week detailing her lid with symbols of her sorority, Kappa Kappa Gamma, and of her double major, creative writing and religion. The highlight is a tiny book, which she plans to have her friends sign.

10:26 a.m.

Sadie Webb marches in formation with the other seniors on the way to their seats. Suddenly, she hears the voice of her aunt Carey. “Strike the pose, Sadie.” Dispensing with formality, she turns to her aunt and spreads her arms wide while momentarily standing on one leg for the camera. “That’s how we roll in New Mexico,” Carey Webb says. “We disrupt everything.”

10:28 a.m.

Senior Ray Walker breaks the silence of the march with a shout: “Class of 2022 — we’re here!” Applause rings through the quad.

10:44 a.m.

Beach balls sail through the first few rows where seniors wait for the ceremony to begin.

10:49 a.m. at the Academic Quad

Our ceremony begins.

10:55 a.m.

President Weinberg tells the audience: “I fell in love as an undergrad with the liberal arts because the liberal arts doesn’t do orthodoxy. We welcome a wide range of views. We challenge our existing views. We create space for new stories that challenge what others believe to be true.”

President Weinberg speaking at commencement

11:08 a.m.

In his closing remarks, Weinberg shares a story from a recent trip to Florida in which he was recognized by a woman in her 80s. “She said, ‘I’m a Denison alum and this is my roommate and we’ve gotten together once, if not multiple times a year, every year since we have graduated,’ Then she paused and she got teary and she said, ‘We have four other Denison classmates flying in tonight. We will spend the next four days joking about our time at Denison and the journey we have traveled together for the last 55 years.’ That’s going to be many of you.”

11:10 a.m.

Student Commencement speaker Aditi Singh

Student Commencement speaker Aditi Singh is introduced to thunderous applause. The data analytics major spends the next few minutes delivering the best speech of the day. A native of India, Singh shares her experience of being an immigrant for the past 17 years. “The exposure is breathtaking, but it often comes at the cost of ambiguity… Nothing really feels familiar or certain or permanent. You can’t know what’s next because nothing is really your own.”

In vivid detail, Singh recalls the welcoming atmosphere she encountered at Denison. “My pre-orientation mentor didn’t ask me, ‘Where are you from,’ but she asked me, ‘Where is home for you?’ She didn’t tell me who I am or who I’m not or who I should be, but for the first time someone asked me, ‘Who do you want to be?’ And that by far is the greatest gift of a liberal arts education.”

11:32 a.m.

Keynote speaker Connie Schultz, a Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist, notes that about 20% of the Class of 2022 are first-generation college graduates.

Rojika Sharma, a dual major in international studies/women’s and gender studies, is among them. Sharma not only made her family proud by earning a diploma, she also impacted the lives of fellow students at Denison. The Columbus, Ohio, resident is founder of the campus Refugee Advocacy Collective and a recipient of the Distinguished Leadership Award.

Schultz asks the first-gen students to stand for recognition.

“Wow would you look at that,” she says as the audience applauds. “My people. My people.”

11:55 a.m.

Weinberg looks out to the audience and says, “Now we get to do the fun stuff. Ready?” Everyone cheers.

11:59 a.m.

Provost Kim Coplin ’85 pulls down the pair of glasses from the top of her head and begins to read off the names of the 538 graduating students. Nobody among the assembled faculty has a more difficult assignment. She gets one chance to correctly pronounce the names of the graduates as their parents watch from the audience, camera phones held aloft.

This is Coplin’s ninth Commencement as provost. Several years ago, she began retreating to the back porch of her home to practice the roll call. Imagine the neighbors watching her spend an hour reciting names from a booklet. Coplin takes the task so seriously that she emails students with tongue-twisting names and asks them to leave the proper pronunciation on a voice mail. “One student, Fatoumata Sow, not only called in and left a message, but came into the office,” Coplin recalls. “She said, ‘I’m the first one in my family to graduate from college, and it will mean so much to my family.’”

12:40 p.m.

The most prime piece of campus real estate on this day is in front of Fellows Hall. It’s not only the closest area to the stage where spectators are allowed to stand, but it’s also in the shade. Martha Ineza ’21 and her friends maneuver their way to a choice spot to see Louise Ineza, of Rwanda, receive her diploma, while their parents who have flown from the African nation to witness the ceremony remain seated.

As Ineza exits the stage, her sister steps beyond the restricted area to get a picture before a security guard gently moves her back into the gallery. “Sometimes, you have to be part of the resistance,” Martha Ineza says, laughing. “I got my picture. I’m so proud to be here to see my sister graduate.”

1:06 p.m.

Associate Provost Catherine Dollard ’88 tells the seniors: “Members of the Class of 2022, please join together in turning your tassels from right to left. You may now celebrate by tossing your mortarboards.”

1:35 p.m.

Bridget Welch stands under the canopy surrounded by family and friends. She’s holding flowers, a gift from her sister. “It was special for me to be here and see Bridget go through this,” says Tayrn Welch, who works for a translation service in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.

In several weeks, the two sisters will be back on campus as Tayrn Welch participates in the rescheduled Commencement for the Class of 2020.

Lanie Rogers, who’s standing nearby, is headed to the University of Virginia to start graduate school. Welch is going home to Rochester, New York, to reconnect with the local theater scene as she firms up plans for the future.

“It’s crazy that after all the things that happened that we started it together and through all the craziness we were able to end it together,” Welch says of her roommate. “It says a lot about the friend Lanie is.”

Rogers and Welch are making plans to see each other this summer, and they hope to remain close.

Time and commitments have a way of sabotaging best intentions, but sometimes college bonds endure. Maybe Rogers and Welch become the octogenarians in President Weinberg’s story, meeting every year in Florida to recall their days at Denison, where the sun never sets on all the good times.

May 23, 2022