Bowdoin College Celebrates 219th Commencement

By Tom Porter

Graduating seniors, most of whom started at Bowdoin during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, were joined by friends and family as the College conferred 475 bachelor of arts degrees on the Class of 2024. 

The 219th Commencement was held on the steps of the Walker Art Building on the morning of Saturday, May 25, 2024.

Forty-four states, as well as the District of Columbia and Northern Mariana Islands, were represented, including Massachusetts with seventy-nine students, New York with forty-five, California with thirty-five, and Connecticut with twenty-four. Forty graduating seniors hail from outside the US; thirty-three countries and territories have citizens graduating from Bowdoin. 

commencement front cover of program 2024

College Marshal Jean Yarbrough, who is Bowdoin's Gary M. Pendy Sr. Professor of Social Sciences, officially opened the Commencement Exercises ceremony. Oliver Goodrich, director of the Rachel Lord Center for Religious and Spiritual Life, then offered the invocation, in which he paid tribute to the way the Class of 2024 responded to the challenges of the pandemic when they arrived at Bowdoin in 2020.

“You may not have chosen these circumstances,” he said, “but you have chosen to respond to them with courage and compassion. Your presence here today at this commencement ceremony bears witness to the spirit of perseverance that has formed within you and that you will carry forward with you from this place.” Read the full text of Goodrich’s invocation.

After the singing of “The Star-Spangled Banner,” Chair of the Board of Trustees Scott Perper ’78 took to the podium to salute the graduating seniors. Perper also took a moment to recognize 2014 Bowdoin graduate and journalist Evan Gershkovich, who has been imprisoned in Russia since being arrested on unsubstantiated espionage charges more than a year ago. The assembled crowd offered a round of applause in support of the detained Wall Street Journal reporter.

Greetings for the State were delivered by Anna Cox ’24, an economics major who grew up in rural Maine. She talked about the natural beauty of Maine, with its thousands of miles of coastline, but what she really finds so special about the state, she explained, are the people. Mainers, said Cox, are “resilient… selfless… and determined.” Read the full text of Cox’s speech.

president zaki's speech
President Safa Zaki. Image: Michele Stapleton.

In her first Commencement welcome address as Bowdoin president, Safa Zaki told the students that, while every graduation is special, this one is particularly so.

“You are the Bowdoin Class of 2024,” she said, “but most of you are also from the high school Class of 2020. You graduated from high school in the early months of the pandemic and did not have an opportunity to gather in public with your high school classmates. Yours is a class that did not have a typical senior year of high school, nor did you have a typical first year of college. That is why it feels particularly sweet to be able to celebrate this moment with you.”

Zaki shared some reflections on the achievements of the graduating seniors, which she described as class of full of amazing individuals. “The Class of 2024 includes three Watson Fellows, more than twenty Fulbrights, and many other national award winners,” said Zaki. “Your academic endeavors have generated original research, some of which has even been published. Your creative performances have awed, challenged, and impressed your audiences. Your athletic accomplishments have been recognized by the NESCAC and the NCAA.” The activism of the students over a wide range of issues has made for some difficult conversations, she stressed, “as we imagine and strive for a better world.”

However, added Zaki, it is not these individual accomplishments she wishes to highlight, but “the quiet, persistent, collective work you have done to become a class that has supported and celebrated each other during some challenging times.” The way members of the Class of 2024 entered Bowdoin, she said, has helped them build particularly strong bonds, perhaps stronger than they realize. “You had to make your own traditions and practices, you had to form your own communities, you had to navigate your first year here without upperclass students to show you the way.”

Zaki also reflected on her own role, noting how the position of college president is often described by the media today as the toughest job in the world. “I don’t recognize my experience in those articles,” she added. “I have to say that I find this to be an incredibly meaningful and joyful job. Not every minute of every day, to be sure, but most minutes, and most days. And that is because of all of you.” Read the full text of Safa Zaki’s remarks.

flags flying at commencement
Image: Angie Devenney

Following her address, Zaki welcomed onto the stage the family of Charlotte Billingsley ’24, who died in a tragic accident in the Dominican Republic in December 2022. “Charlotte was an excellent student,” she said. “A physics major, she had plans to pursue a doctorate in biomedical engineering. She was also pursuing a minor in Arabic and spent the fall 2022 semester in Amman, Jordan, studying the Arabic language and Jordanian culture and teaching English to young Syrian refugees.” 

Commencement Speakers
As has been the tradition since Bowdoin’s first graduation ceremony in 1806, Commencement addresses were delivered by graduating seniors. This year’s speakers, chosen through competition, were Dylan Richmond ’24 and Colleen Doucette ’24.

Class of 1868 Prize Winner Dylan Richmond ‘24
Richmond’s address, called “White Pines,” was a poem in which he describes his four years at Bowdoin, the good times and the not so good. Here’s an excerpt:

The day I arrived here, it was raining.
The trees, dense with water, leaned an intense, crooked degree away from

the sky
and I couldn’t quite look them in the eyes.

The day after I arrived here, my best friend called me.
He said be yourself.

The second day after I arrived here, a man at a gas station called me a slur.

I walked swollen through Hannafords’ lamp lit parking lot and finally cried in front of a café donned with a rooster.

On that second day after, I feel like a net, twenty feet wide, catching every sharp edge in the air.

Read the full text of Richmond’s address

Goodwin Commencement Prize Winner Colleen Doucette ‘24
The title of Doucette’s speech— “The Skeleton Architecture of Our Bowdoin”—takes its inspiration from a quote by the writer and activist Audre Lorde. “Poetry is not only dream and vision; it is the skeleton architecture of our lives. It lays the foundations for a future of change, a bridge across our fears of what has never been before.”

When she read these words, said Doucette, something “clicked” as she looked back on her time at Bowdoin, which began amid the unsettling and unprecedented turmoil of the COVID-19 pandemic: “The Class of 2024,” she said, “had been placed into a fearful unknown. And in response, we were poets. We laid the foundation for a space we had never been in, for experiences we had yet to embark on. We created the skeleton architecture of our Bowdoin.”

Doucette views her first semester at Bowdoin, with hardly any upperclass students on campus, as a gift. “We were gifted a fresh start, a blank page,” she said. “We had no choice but to problem-solve with creativity and flexibility,” she added. This involved creating a “new, more caring community.” Furthermore, she added, and “true to the Offer of the College, we changed. I went from a young student whose only goal was financial stability to an English major obsessed with poetry, language, and words.” Read the full text of Doucette’s speech.

Honorary Degree Recipients
Bowdoin awarded three honorary degrees at the ceremony: 

  • Three-time Grammy award-winning bass baritone opera singer Ryan Speedo Green
  • Award-winning journalist and broadcaster Maria Hinojosa
  • Philanthropist and trustee emeritus David J. Roux

Senior Class President Melissa Su ’24 also spoke. In her remarks, Su reflected on the experience she and her classmates had gone through during the pandemic, as they sought to gain a college education in the strangest of circumstances. “It’s safe to say we have gone through an unconventional experience at Bowdoin,” she said. “But, despite what some would call “odd socialization,” what stands out to me are the many communities our class has managed to impact and craft.” Read the full text of Su’s address

Baccalaureate degrees were then awarded to members of the graduating class. This was followed by a performance of “Raise Songs to Bowdoin,” led by vocalists from the Class of 2024.

The Commencement Exercises were officially concluded  by Winkley Professor of Latin and Greek and College Marshal Barbara Weiden Boyd.

The ceremony was bookended with music from Chandler’s Band and their renditions of the “Commencement March” and the “Recessional March.”

Read about Bowdoin’s Baccalaureate ceremony held Friday, May 24, 2024, in the Watson Arena.