“I am a first year as well,” President Sean Decatur said during Convocation two Sundays ago. The ceremony, which welcomed nearly 500 first-year Kenyon students, represented a striking departure from the traditions Decatur experienced over the last five years at Oberlin College, where he served as dean of the College of Arts and Sciences.
There is no comparable welcoming ceremony at Oberlin, no regal procession or majestic presidential chair; many graduating seniors even reject wearing caps and gowns at Commencement in favor of going hatless and wearing a jean jacket or fleece. “I think it’s a great thing to have to have [those] moments that say, ﾑYou’re starting something new,’ or ﾑWe’re marking something important,'” Renee Romano, Decatur’s wife and an associate professor of history at Oberlin, said about Convocation. “And this is a way as a community we recognize the importance of this moment and we formally give you welcome. So I’d love if Oberlin did something like this.”
Decatur said he began preparing his remarks earlier in the week: “[I] came up with a bunch of ideas and drafts that pretty much all got thrown away at some point.” Ultimately, he borrowed from his background in biochemistry to draw parallels between the laws of thermodynamics and college life.
“The application of work or effort,” he said in his speech, referring to the second law, is necessary “to hold off inevitable decline.” He also reiterated the need to “bridge the abstract and the concrete,” to “dwell in the realm of the abstract while also rigorously observing and analyzing the real.”
“I really liked the thermodynamics-related speech. It was kind of artfully done,” Vincent Femia ’17 said. Femia’s mother, Karen, chimed in, calling the ceremony “just very impressive and beautiful.”
Decatur closed by again reminding the audience that he, too, is a fresh arrival to Kenyon. “I like how he put us in the same boat, like how he said he was a freshman, too, and we’re starting in the same place,” said Adam Rubenstein ’17, who added that he appreciated that Decatur did not use “just the professorial tone.”
Busola Olukoya ’15 served as the event’s head flagbearer, a position that entailed hoisting a Kenyon banner while leading both the procession to Samuel Mather Lawn and the recessional away from it following Convocation. Olukoya assumed the chief spot after serving in other flagbearing roles at previous College ceremonies. “For me it’s like an event of pride, because I’m usually carrying one of the flags, and it’s like, ﾑI love Kenyon,’ and I get to really show that,” she said.
From the gowns to Decatur’s address to the benediction, the event was steeped in ritual. “It was so traditional. I just, like, felt the academia oozing,” Kayla Glazer ’17 said. “That’s so gross,” she added with a laugh.
The magnitude of the ceremony struck a chord with Glazer’s fellow first year Evie Kennedy. “I didn’t expect it to be such a big deal, because, like, we just got here and we haven’t really done anything yet except get in,” she said. “So, I was honored that it was such a big event.”
As she has every year since she arrived a decade ago, Dean of Admissions and Financial Aid Jennifer Delahunty spoke at Convocation about the profile and accomplishments of the incoming class. She said her staff in the Admissions Office helps her put together her annual Convocation address by “comb[ing] through all the application write-ups in which we note all the notable things about kids.”
At the post-Convocation reception, Tennessee Sundermeyer ’17, one of the many students Delahunty highlighted in her speech, approached her. “Did you hear me mention you today?” she asked. “I thought I was going to die,” he joked in reply. As he was leaving, Delahunty said, “Okay, don’t be a stranger. My office is right over there.”
As much as Delahunty seemed impressed by the first-year class, they seemed just as moved by the Convocation festivities.
“When [my friend] Bailey and I were walking down, we were like, this is like Hogwarts, all the professors. I got kind of emotional, ﾑcause I was like, ﾑWow, this is such a community,'” Glazer said.
Romano quipped that her son, Owen, was “theoretically” on hand to witness the ceremony. He and some children of faculty members were playing soccer nearby. While some students listened with rapt attention to Decatur, Romano said that Owen “had very little interest in seeing his dad wear a purple hat or give a speech, I’m afraid.”