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Celebrating RISD’s Class of 2021

Celebrating RISD’s Class of 2021

An in-person and online Commencement ceremony features student leaders from the classes of 2020 and 2021 and an eclectic array of honorary degree recipients.

large group of gowned students throw their caps in the air

Commencement 2021 began with the surprise appearance of musical genius and onetime RISD student David Byrne, one of five guest speakers to earn an Honorary Doctorate of Fine Arts this year. Byrne offered graduating students a handy list of tips for making the most of their creative lives: “Be true to your medium,” he advised. “Never be boring. The world isn’t always fair… but there are surprises and beauty in the everyday.”

president Somerson and provost Kleinman in full regalia
President Rosanne Somerson and Provost Kent Kleinman prepare for live degree conferrals.

Byrne was part of a June 5 event that allowed the international RISD community to celebrate the Class of 2021 together. A robust speaking program and virtual conferral of honorary degrees took place in the morning, and then 400-plus undergrads and more than 200 graduate students were awarded their degrees in an in-person afternoon ceremony that was also livestreamed.

four friends in gowns

grad with sign on her back reading highly educated black woman
Students celebrate in the June sunshine.

“I bet you never imagined your time at RISD concluding with all the challenges and upsets of the past year,” President Rosanne Somerson noted in her welcoming address. “But in spite of all this tumult, you have triumphed.”

“Know your truth and live it. Do not let anyone else tell you who you are. Ask the tough questions and refuse to settle.”

President Rosanne Somerson

Somerson went on to share well-earned wisdom with graduating students: “Know your truth and live it,” she said. “Do not let anyone else tell you who you are. Ask the tough questions and refuse to settle.” Her advice was reflected in the words of the four student speakers who took the virtual stage next: two leaders from the Class of 2020 (who did not have the opportunity to speak last spring due to the pandemic) and two from the Class of 2021.

musican David Byrne holds up a sign that say Don't Worry
Surprise honorary degree recipient David Byrne offered cheerful advice from his Soho studio.

Alla Alsahli 20 AP—2020 winner of the Steven Mendelson Award for Community Service as well as the Nancy Elizabeth Prophet Award for Advancing Diversity—and Class of 2021 speaker Catherine Park 21 GD/ID both called out racial bias in their speeches and reflected on the challenges they faced and overcame at RISD. Park remembered feeling invisible as a first-year student and takes pride in the self-confidence she has since developed. “Take up space, be unapologetic and ask for more,” she counseled her classmates.

extraordinary rendition band in full swing

three women in caps and gowns pose for the camera
Above: the Extraordinary Rendition Band in full swing; below: new graduates smile for the camera.

Sophie Weston Chien BArch 20 grappled with the very notion of a design practice. “How can architects operate ethically and enable communities to become agents of their own change?” she asked. “The best we can offer is careful work that takes the time to understand the world.”

The words of graduating architect Teisha Bradley MArch 21—who served as vice president and then president of the National Organization for Minority Architecture Students—were perhaps the most uplifting of the day. “Thank you for pushing me to believe in myself,” she said to RISD faculty and administrators. “You listened when students raised their voices. I dedicate my degree to all the little Black girls who dream of being designers, photographers, artists, architects and educators.”

“I dedicate my degree to all the little Black girls who dream of being designers, photographers, artists, architects and educators.”

Student speaker Teisha Bradley MArch 21

Two longtime RISD educators—Architecture faculty member Laura Briggs BArch 82 and Teaching + Learning in Art + Design Department Head Paul Sproll—were honored during the ceremony as this year’s winners of the John R. Frazier Award for Excellence in Teaching. Presented by Provost Kent Kleinman, the award recognizes faculty who have had an enduring influence on student learning.

honorary degree recipient Virgil Abloh
Honorary degree recipient Virgil Abloh (shown here visiting campus in 2017) tells the Class of 2021 that the world needs ambitious ideas.

Kleinman also spoke passionately about the Class of 2021’s perseverance and passion. “You have completed one of the most rigorous programs in art and design education in some of the most difficult conditions imaginable,” he said. “I have witnessed with wonder and with pride how you’ve pulled together during the past year to take care of one another.”

“I have witnessed with wonder and with pride how you’ve pulled together during the past year to take care of one another.”

Provost Kent Kleinman

His remarks were followed by those of the 2021 honorary degree recipients, who were consistently humble and frank. “The world is in need of ambitious ideas,” noted thriving fashion designer Virgil Abloh, chief creative director and founder of Off-White™️ and men’s artistic director at Louis Vuitton. Celebrated street artist, activist and RISD alumnus Shepard Fairey 92 IL encouraged graduating students to learn from failure and use their work to inspire others. “And remember that compromise is sometimes necessary in order to make progress,” he advised.

honorary degree recipient Lynn Nottage at her home in Brooklyn
Prize-winning playwright Lynn Nottage spoke to the Class of 2021 from her home in Brooklyn.

MacArthur Award-winning architect Elizabeth Diller, perhaps best known for creating the High Line in New York City, is hopeful about this generation’s spirit of activism. “It is your world to shape,” she said. “And it’s not enough to be problem solvers. Be problem makers of problems worth solving.”

Fellow MacArthur winner and two-time Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Lynn Nottage shared memories of her college graduation with the Class of 2021 and reminded them to, “Tell the truth, replace judgment with curiosity, experiment, revise the narrative, ignore critics, be present and be kind. The road ahead is bumpy,” she warned, “but a bumpy road is where discoveries are made.”

Simone Solondz / photos by Matthew Watson 09 FAV

Learn more about the Class of 2021 and watch the recorded Commencement ceremony at

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