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- Our City/Our Campus
Samantha Grammer didn’t exactly get the traditional first-year experience. Now a sophomore, the start of her college career in 2020 looked pretty different from what she had imagined pre-pandemic. Many of the beloved milestones of campus life at Pitt couldn’t be enjoyed as usual last year, including Lantern Night, the University’s oldest tradition.
But, with a new year comes new possibilities.
Grammer was one of more than 2,800 students to participate in the glowing return of the in-person Lantern Night ceremony, held outdoors last Sunday evening. The event marked the 101st year of the tradition — and a move toward greater inclusivity.
Historically, Lantern Night has been an occasion to welcome female first-year and transfer students, with alumnae flame bearers symbolically passing on the “light of learning” to the next generation of Pitt women on the evening before fall semester classes begin. This year, however, all first-year and transfer students were welcome to participate, along with members of the class of 2024 who missed out on the formal ceremony last year.
“For the past 100 years, Lantern Night has been a celebration of learning and an opportunity for female students to establish a place, a path and a purpose at the University,” said Nancy Merritt, vice chancellor for alumni relations, in an address that evening.
“Today, we understand that desire for inclusion is not unique to women. All students seek a sense of community and belonging at our University, and it is our goal to provide that by merging the traditions of our past with our goals for the future.”
Last year, Lantern Night organizers also embraced a broader pool of participants. All incoming residential students — men, women and gender nonconforming individuals — were invited to join in on 2020 festivities. Due to COVID-19 restrictions, however, a traditional ceremony wasn’t held. Instead, students were asked to place a special LED candle in their windows to symbolize the light of learning.
This year, students gathered on the lawn between the Cathedral of Learning and Heinz Memorial Chapel at dusk on Sunday. Alumni met them there, including legacy parents and grandparents excited to bring their new Panthers into the Pitt fold.
The event kicked off with remarks from Merritt, a short video presentation on Lantern Night history and well-wishes from alumni relayed by Val Njie, president of the Pitt Alumni Association. It was then time for the lighting ceremony.
All attendees received commemorative lanterns. Unlike previous years, however, each lantern contained an LED light instead of a candle — a change Merritt said helped allow for social distancing and the increased number of participants.
Flame bearers’ lanterns were synchronously lit before the crowd was led in reciting the Lantern Night Oath. Then, all at once, students lit their lanterns, casting a warm blue glow across the lawn.
There was a final change to the proceedings this year: The event was livestreamed over Zoom, so students and family unable to attend in person could still be a part of the magic.
Grammer, who attended with fellow sophomore Gabriel Hanley, was excited to be there.
“We really missed out last year,” she said. “I’m glad that Pitt is doing all they can to make it up to us now.”
“It’s really neat that I can be included,” he added. “I knew historically it has been a women’s event, but I didn’t know this was the first year that men were involved in the ceremony until today.”
“I'm glad that Pitt tries to be as inclusive as possible,” said sophomore Katie Forgette, noting that she hoped the men in attendance recognized the tradition’s significance.
“It made me feel at home in the Pitt community,” she said, “and it gave me hope for the future.”
When the ceremony concluded, attendees spread out into the night — alumni flame bearers, first-years, sophomores, women and men. With the blue light from their lanterns twinkling through campus like hundreds of stars, it was easy to see that the sense of unity Lantern Night has promoted for more than 100 years is just as strong as ever.
“Lantern Night has always been about passing the light of learning onto the next generation of Pitt students,” Merritt reflected following the event. “I love that this tradition very visibly shows there is a network of alumni that stands ready to support our students through their journey at Pitt, and beyond.”
— Kendal Johnson