Commencement ’23: moments and memories from an unforgettable ceremony

May 16, 2023

The Class of 2023, whose college experience included the uncertainty spawned by a global pandemic, made it through to the other side on May 13, cheered on by an impassioned classmate speech that they were all the stronger for it.

The seniors were granted a brief reminder of that uncertainty early in the 182nd annual Commencement, when a sudden power outage briefly silenced the microphone of Denison Trustee Thomas E. Szykowny, interrupted the live feed, and halted the giant fans cooling a packed Mitchell Center Fieldhouse.

“So,” President Adam Weinberg said when the power kicked back on a few minutes later, “one of the truisms in life is, ‘Expect the unexpected.’”

And with that, their graduation on track once again, the Class of ’23 resumed their forward momentum. Here are some of our favorite moments.

Caps, gowns, raincoats: Let’s be honest, the weather could have been better. While it did not chase some 200 seniors indoors and away from a time-honored tradition of watching the sun rise on the morning of Commencement, there was no sun to be seen — just a gradual transition from dark gray to not-quite-as-dark gray.

The weather made clear the wisdom of a decision early in the week to move Commencement indoors to the Mitchell Center. Damp was an apt description. Nearly an inch of rain fell in the 12 hours between 8 p.m. Friday and 8 a.m. Saturday, when the dew point registered an undershirt-soaking, hairstyle-ruining 62 in nearby Newark, Ohio, which also happened to be the dew point recorded at that very same time in Savannah, Georgia.

Fittingly, with Commencement over and the graduates taking their literal first steps to whatever waited beyond Denison, the skies began to brighten.

Picture perfect: At the Faculty Coffee earlier that morning, graduates introduced parents to favorite professors. Some still talked shop. Associate professor Paul Djupe, director of the Data for Political Research program, took selfies with a steady stream of students coming to say goodbye. “This is the time I want to hear their stories,” Djupe said. “I tell them, ‘Tell me something I don’t know about you.’ I’ve had some great students, and great experiences.”

What’s on your mind?: Some students got colorful with their mortarboards. Here’s a sampling.

Making an entrance: As 10:30 a.m. drew near, a crowd of guests gathered in front of the Mitchell Center, looking for unaccounted-for family members and making increasingly frantic phone calls.

“They saved us a seat,” one man said to the person on the other end of the call. A pause, then, “I don’t know where!”

And inside, as the first of the graduates were filing into the fieldhouse and the last graduate in line inched closer to the main event, a loud banging came from down the hall at a locked side door. A frantic graduate called through the glass for help. Ginny Sharkey, Denison’s director of institutional communications, rushed to let her in.

The senior was wildly apologetic. Her phone clattered to the floor. Without breaking stride, she threw the plastic hanger from her gown in a nearby trash can and handed off her other possessions for Sharkey and a bystander to hold as she put on the gown and zipped up.

“I’m sorry, I’m so sorry, I’m sorry!” she kept saying.

“It’s fine, you’re here!” Sharkey said, assuring her before hunting for her place in line. “You made it.”

And two hours later there she was, cool as a cucumber onstage, her diploma in hand.

Overheard: Ayana Hinton, associate provost for diversity, equity and inclusion, stood atop an orange stepladder and addressed the graduates as they lined up. The main fieldhouse was filled with the people who had helped them reach this point, she said, and she told the seniors they would sense that pride once inside.

“Soak in that uplifting energy,” she said. “Soak that in.”

Wise words: Keynote speaker Lord Mark Malloch-Brown described the Class of 2023 as one already primed by the pandemic to weather unexpected challenges, calling them “a class all too familiar with those dreaded words, ‘You’re on mute!’

“Today you are not on mute,” he said. “Now, live your lives on unmute.”

Even if graduates were uncertain of their path forward, he advised that they had been well-prepared to find it.

“Hold on tight to that liberal arts spirit, that Denison spirit,” he said.

Watching from the sidelines: Members of the men’s lacrosse team viewed a portion of Commencement from a fieldhouse balcony before heading outside to play in a second-round NCAA tournament game at Deeds Field-Piper Stadium. Their game against Illinois Wesleyan, which the Big Red won, 15-10, started during the ceremony.

Seniors on the Big Red women’s lacrosse team also missed the ceremony, as they won a thrilling NCAA second-round game against host University of Chicago, 10-9, in triple overtime. Graduates from both lacrosse teams received their diplomas in a special ceremony the Monday after Commencement.

Embracing the moment: For Ellie Laird, it was a moment of spontaneity. For Kwaku Akuffo, it was an onstage greeting he had been plotting since August. Most graduates shake President Weinberg’s hand as they receive their diplomas on stage, but a few, including Laird and Akuffo, opted for big hugs. “I have such a close relationship with him and he’s done a lot for me,” Laird said.

Said Akuffo, “Being at Denison University allowed me to be an autonomous thinker and an agent of change, and those are two things Adam always mentions. I wanted Adam to feel the love.”

In the crowd: Actor, writer, and comedian Tim Meadows, best known as a longtime Saturday Night Live cast member, attended the ceremony to watch his son Isaiah graduate. “It feels insane,” he said. “Me and his mom worked hard to keep him focused on school, and he’s a real A+ personality — we’re really proud of him. We made a couple of college visits, and when we came to Denison, he said, ‘I feel like I’m at home here.’ That was the main thing.”

They said it: Denison trustee Thomas Szykowny ’79 with the best one-liner of the ceremony, on returning to college after having to take time off due to a family matter: “I would study, serve as a student advisor, and become co-MVP on the worst basketball team, 0-21, in Denison history. Coach Sullivan, don’t live up to that.”

From distant shores: Commencement ceremonies always attract family members from far flung corners of the globe. It was an extra special day for Shamshod Khuseynov. The grandparents he’d seen only twice since emigrating from Tajikistan in 2009 — Khakim Juraqulov and Zamira Juraqulova — made the trip to Granville from the country in Central Asia. “We’ve been trying to make this happen for years,” said Khuseynov, who’s the son of Denison associate professor of economics Zarrina Juraqulova. “This is a full circle moment for our family.”

Still in play: The end of a senior year usually marks the culmination of a Division III athletic career. But because the pandemic wiped out partial or — in some cases — entire seasons, the NCAA granted fifth-year Covid exceptions. For example, Tara Culibrk, a star of the NCAA champion women’s swim team, will compete for the University of Pittsburgh next season. She hopes to use that experience as a springboard to qualify for Serbia’s 2024 Olympic team.

Adam gives thanks: President Weinberg took a few moments to acknowledge the efforts of students, families, faculty, and staff in working through the pandemic.

“When we welcomed you to Denison four years ago, we didn’t quite understand what the four years had in store for you and everybody else,” he said. “While it wasn’t a normal four years, I have incredible gratitude and pride for what we accomplished, especially in the Covid year of 2021. First and foremost, I want to thank all the families who stuck with us that year. For all of you who allowed their kids to come back and made that possible. For all of you who demonstrated extreme patience as we tried to do online education. I want to thank the parents. I also want to thank the faculty and staff who worked tirelessly to provide a great education during that year. And I just want to say to our students, you will always have my full respect. We got through it. We got through it pretty much better than most any other college. We did it together.

“It wasn’t easy, but you made it happen.”

Crowd pleaser: The ceremony’s most riveting moment belonged to student Commencement speaker Yaz Simpson, who produced a thunderous standing ovation as she recited her poem entitled, “We Are Magic.” Here’s an excerpt:

Class of 2023,
May your year be filled with, “Congratulations! You’ve been accepted into …”
May your confidence be so evident, heads turn when you walk.
May you be presented with so many opportunities, you struggle with which ones to pick.

May your dreams be your reality.

By the numbers

$7.95: The cost of red-and-white replacement tassels at the bookstore. Students are given tassels their first year and told to hang onto them. In all, 67 replacements were purchased.

19: Number of countries represented in the graduating class.

67: The percentage of students who donated to the Class of 2023 gift. It marked the highest giving rate in the university’s history. The class raised $9,800 with a matching gift from a generous alumni couple.

506: graduates in the Class of 2023

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