Hampshire College’s commencement ceremony is a social justice rally.

About 350 people pack the graduation tent on the campus commons. As president Jonathan Lash begins his speech, more guests arrive. They spill out into the lawn outside the tent.
Few of the students wear the traditional robe and mortarboard — khakis, business suits and many-colored spring dresses abound. Some wear purple sashes.

The student speakers really dig into the political issues other graduation ceremonies gloss over. Two non-white students — Jorrell Watkins and Andrew Figueroa — speak together, slam poetry style, against institutional discrimination.

“Hampshire College students ain’t the type to be complacent.” The duo accentuates the words with a quick chop to the air. They land their critiques on point to their rebel rhythm. Repeating “Beyond the div,” they drive home the message that what they’ve learned at Hampshire during each “division” (similar to the traditional freshman, sophomore, etc.) they’ll apply in the world.

Watkins takes the mic, likening his experience as a newly arrived black student at Hampshire to being a brown, unpopped kernel at the bottom of a popcorn bag. But, he says, at Hampshire he came away from the cluster in the corner and was made to feel at home in the bag full of fluffy, white popcorn.

On the lawn just outside the tent sits a pitbull in a tutu. A young woman wearing a repurposed sheet saunters by the proceedings without pause. A young, barefooted, hand-holding threesome makes their way over to the crowd.

A tiny terrier with purple highlights between its ears meets a blonde, bright-eyed chihuahua mix. The pitbull in the tutu leaps into the air from her crouched position to join their greeting. The two little dogs combined equal the size of her head.

This isn’t your typical graduation ceremony and the metaphor-rich speech given by keynote speaker Sonya Renee Taylor — a performance poet and activist — drives that home. She uses paying off borrowed money for school as a metaphor for life, beginning with her “most depressing” graduation prediction: “You’re all going to die.” From there, she went places.

“Your life is appreciating whether you appreciate it or not,” says Taylor. Her voice begins to crack. “My mother paid a high interest on her life loan because she never truly appreciated that she was magnificent.”

The graduating students take the stage one-by-one to receive their diplomas, the tutu-wearing pitbull among them.•

Contact Amanda Drane at adrane@valleyadvocate.com