Muhlenberg Hosts First In-Person Commencement Since the COVID-19 Pandemic Began

The College’s 173rd Commencement celebrated the Class of 2021 in a pair of socially distanced ceremonies held in downtown Allentown.

By: Meghan Kita  Monday, May 24, 2021 09:35 PM

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Muhlenberg College celebrates its 173rd Commencement ceremonies at Allentown's PPL Center on Monday, May 24. Photos by Kristi Morris, Littlewing Photography.

For the first time since 2013, a Muhlenberg Commencement took place indoors, but not in its usual rain location of Memorial Hall, and not because of rain. The Class of 2021 graduated in Allentown’s PPL Center, a hockey arena chosen for its ability to accommodate six feet of social distancing between graduates. Their guests sat in spaced-out pods in the stands. Half the class received its diplomas at 10 a.m. and the other half at 2 p.m. to comply with Pennsylvania’s current indoor occupancy limits. The national anthem, performed by graduate Tess Rhian, was pre-recorded on campus to avoid releasing the aerosols associated with singing into the arena’s shared air.

The first in-person Commencement since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic was also the first Commencement at which graduates’ proud smiles had to be obscured by face masks. But the fact that the two ceremonies could take place at all was a welcome turning point after more than a year of having little to celebrate.

Honorary degree recipient Eboo Patel, who addressed the Class of 2021 virtually, reflected on the current moment in his speech: “You can do hard things. Did you ever think you’d have to navigate through a pandemic to get to this day?” 

Patel, the founder and president of the nonprofit organization Interfaith Youth Core, drew upon a Bob Dylan poem to encourage graduates as they enter a world that continues to be radically changed by the ongoing pandemic. In “Last Thoughts on Woody Guthrie,” Dylan describes the universal experience of sometimes feeling despondent and the individual and shared ways we might navigate out of life’s low points.

“Where are you going to find your hope? Constantly ask yourself that question,” Patel said. “And better yet, find answers to it.”

The two graduates who addressed their classmates were Michelle Rajan, a neuroscience major and creative writing minor, and Jesenia Peralta, a business administration major in the School of Continuing Studies.

2021 Commencement - Michelle Rajan
Michelle Rajan '21 addresses the Class of 2021 and guests at the 173rd Commencement Ceremony.

Rajan spoke of the “feeling” she and her classmates had that inspired them to choose Muhlenberg and of rediscovering that feeling after returning to a campus vastly changed by COVID-19 for this spring semester.

“Graduating in the Class of 2021 means arriving to commencement with the sense that we just completed our first year of a new era rather than the final year of our previous one,” Rajan said. “There are so many more chapters ahead of us, so many more people to meet.” 

Peralta drew upon her experience as an adult learner to share her understanding of how life’s ups and downs—specifically, the downs—can serve as fuel for success and forward progress.

“We grow in the hurt and pain, in the fall, in the shame,” Peralta said. “Use your valleys as motivation to reach the highest of peaks. Know that no matter how dark the shadow you're in, it’s never too late.”

Ten members of the Class of 2021 were co-valedictorians: Betty Ben Dor, a biology major and Dana Scholar; Jackson Davis, a physics major with minors in mathematics and computer science; Jessica Deemer, a psychology major with a business administration minor; Marissa Dibilio, a public health major with a dance minor; Alexandra Franchino, an English major with minors in creative writing and political science; Michael Gatazka, a chemistry major and Dana Scholar; Stephanie Haik, an economics and political science double major; Gianna Perri, a psychology major; Nguyen Bao Tram Pham, a finance and business administration double major; and Arika Troxell, a history and English double major. Sarah Vetesi, a neuroscience major, and Ariel Wursta, a psychology and media & communication double major, received Alumni Association Future Alumni Leader Awards.

Dawn Lonsinger, associate professor of English, earned the Paul C. Empie ’29 Memorial Award for Excellence in Teaching. The award is given in memory of the Rev. Paul C. Empie, graduate of the Class of 1929, a member of the College’s Board of Trustees for many years and its chairman from 1972 to 1979.

In addition to Patel, cancer expert and Provost of the Medical Campus and Dean of Boston University School of Medicine Dr. Karen Antman ’70 and director and choreographer Jeffrey Page received honorary degrees.

In her remarks, College President Kathleen E. Harring reflected on the value of a liberal arts education. She shared insights from research she and colleagues conducted to examine what such an education meant to the students who received it.

“My favorite was the student who told us that as a liberal arts graduate he could go to a party and talk to anyone about anything, a skill we could all use,” she said—a clear indication that her research was conducted back when parties and talking to strangers at them were commonplace and generally regarded as safe.

Later, Harring acknowledged the turmoil of the past year—not just the pandemic, but also the racial injustice and political division that has made headlines since the Class of 2021 began its junior year. She asked the graduates to reflect upon their experiences of that turmoil and to consider how it might shape their futures as Muhlenberg alumni.

“As the world emerges from the pandemic and our country continues to work for justice and freedom for all, resist the urge to search for what was,” Harring said. “Look for what can be. Find your community and make your voice heard, not at the expense of others, but in ways that invite questions and expand knowledge.”

About Muhlenberg College
Founded in 1848, Muhlenberg is a highly selective, private, four-year residential, liberal arts college offering baccalaureate and graduate programs. With an enrollment of approximately 2,200 students, Muhlenberg College is dedicated to shaping creative, compassionate, collaborative leaders through rigorous academic programs in the arts, humanities, natural sciences and social sciences; selected preprofessional programs, including accounting, business, education and public health; and progressive workforce-focused post-baccalaureate certificates and master’s degrees. Located in Allentown, Pennsylvania, approximately 90 miles west of New York City, Muhlenberg is a member of the Centennial Conference, competing in 22 varsity sports. Muhlenberg is affiliated with the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America.