Ahead of a week bustling with multiple commencement ceremonies, students, faculty, and staff took time on a Saturday afternoon to celebrate graduating LGBTQIAP+ ((lesbian, gay, bisexual, trans, queer, intersex, asexual, aromantic, agender and pansexual)) students with the 2021 Lavender Commencement Ceremony, hosted virtually by the Office of Multicultural Affairs.
Established in 1995 at the University of Michigan by Ronni Sanlo, Ed.D, a Jewish lesbian who was barred from attending the commencement ceremony of her children due to her sexual orientation, the Lavender Graduation Ceremony was implemented at over 45 colleges and universities around the country by 2001, with WPI joining in 2019.
The color lavender itself is important to LGBTQ history, a combination of the pink triangle gay men were forced to wear in concentration camps and the black triangle that designated lesbians as political prisoners in Nazi Germany. Today, these symbols and colors have been reclaimed and combined to create one of pride and community.
The intimate ceremony featured not only addresses by students, faculty, and staff, but a space for students to congratulate and celebrate the accomplishments of themselves and their peers during their time at WPI. The ceremony itself had a friendly, heartfelt flow, offering a welcoming atmosphere that didn’t go unnoticed.
“As I look over the room and see all the joy in your faces as we gather together as a community in this space, I’m reminded of just how important it is to have a place where you feel safe, loved, and that you belong,” director of the Office of Multicultural Affairs and teaching professor of biomedical engineering Tiffiny Butler PhD, ATC, said in her opening remarks.
As co-advisor of the WPI Alliance, assistant dean and director of residential services Casey Wall reflected on the time she’d spent with graduating students over the past four years and the pride she feels at the changes that have been implemented on campus, from gender-inclusive bathrooms in the Innovation Studio and pronoun use on a regular basis to the Lavender Ceremony itself. “You’ve been able to accomplish and inform so much at WPI, and I couldn’t be prouder,” she says. “I really, truly couldn’t mean this more: you should be so proud of yourselves for the lasting impact and change you’ve made here.”
Her advice going forward? “Keep doing that. The companies you go to, the master’s programs you go into, whatever you do, keep pushing the envelope, keep pushing people to think more critically, keep advocating. And when it becomes too hard, just think about all the impact you’ve already had and use that as fuel to keep going.”
WPI couldn’t have a commencement ceremony in 2021 without acknowledging that this year was one like no other, and that getting through it was a feat unto itself. “I’ve seen you all change the ways in which you reached out for help, checked in on others, and made sure things were being dealt with this year,” said assistant teaching professor of biomedical engineering and co-advisor of the WPI Alliance Zoe Reidinger. “I’ve seen you grow stronger as a community and I’m just so, so proud. You’re already doing a great job.”
After more messages of congratulations and celebration, graduating senior Rosana Pochat was named the recipient of the Lavender Award for their dedication to and passion for the inclusion and well-being of the queer community on campus. They also received short videos from peers and staff members congratulating them on their successes and progress made at WPI.
Assistant Director of Multicultural Affairs Rachael Heard wrapped up the afternoon with a call to stay focused. “You may not know exactly what you want to do and you may need to do some exploring. That’s okay. Just make sure you focus on something you find joy in and that makes you feel like you are contributing and helping others. As you seek your path to helping others, focus on what feels right to you, hold onto your own traditions, and share the many gifts you have to offer with folks around you.”
- By Allison Racicot