Convocation Address, 2019

September 10, 2019

President Laurie L. Patton, Mead Chapel, September 8, 2019

You are here. The Middlebury Class of 2023. You’ve arrived. You’ve found some new friends. You’ve got plans for your program of study. You may even have plans for next weekend. Many of you have ideas about what sport you will play. Most of you will change your major, some of you many times. And all of you will find new friends. All of you will remember something a professor said, 50 years from now, that will help you in your journey. As the author of Proverbs hopes, so too we hope that you will be happy here because you have found new wisdom and understanding.

With plans for such an amazing future, what about the now? How do you deal with the Middlebury of the next few months? How do you figure out who you are, here and now, as a college student? I offer a brief answer. You become a college student by embodying Middlebury values and becoming wise. The little book that we’ve given you, with sayings—we give that to students every year, and we want you to keep it with you. You can return to it again and again when you are in need of wisdom, when you are in need of lenses to help you to see better. It embodies the Middlebury values that I describe in five qualities: integrity, rigor, connectedness, curiosity, openness. If you embody these values, you will become wise.

Let’s start with integrity. Integrity is about being authentically who you are. And this is the hard part. Everyone at Middlebury is as talented as you are, but in a different way. And that can be exhilarating, but it can also be disorienting and discouraging. People already know huge amounts about subjects you’ve never heard of, lived in places that you barely recognize on a map, competed in athletic contests you didn’t even know existed. Maybe you’ve already met one of your new classmates who’s a published novelist and three-season varsity athlete who started her own NGO and hiked the Appalachian Trail solo. And the most annoying thing was, as you’ve probably already discovered, she was really nice about it, too. That’s the Middlebury way.

But having a lot of information is not wisdom. As Euripides tells us in The Bacchae, intellect is not wisdom. Wisdom is not knowing a lot, but knowing your own truth. Knowing your own truth is integrity. So this is the first part about becoming wise: your job is not to be like others. Your job is to be like yourself. So I ask you now, and I will never tire of asking you throughout your time here: how long are you going to worry, like some of you are right now, sitting in those pews and listening to us? How long are you going to worry about who you are not, when you should be getting on with the glorious business of being who you are? Your job at Middlebury is to become more like yourself—whoever that person is and wherever that person takes us and our community. That’s integrity.

Once you’ve stopped comparing yourself to everyone else, then you can go on to the second: understanding that you can push yourself in new ways. That’s the Middlebury value of rigor. Holding yourself to the highest standard. You are probably wondering whether you have the strength sufficient to the task. So here’s what we want to tell you. You do have that strength, because you belong here. We chose you. We chose you because we sensed, and you did too, that there was something about you and this place that made a really wonderful match. You can do your work here, whatever that work turns out to be. You can play here, whatever that play turns out to be. Your creativity is the creativity of the whole community. Your creativity is what makes Middlebury Middlebury. And you can be rigorous in that work, rigorous in that play, rigorous in that creativity. Whenever you hear people talk about Middlebury as if it were outside of them, apart from them, they’re not being wise. It’s our job to remind each other: we are, all of us, Middlebury. Which means that all of us belong and have something profoundly important to contribute to this community. 

I tell a lot of stories about Middlebury. I like to play a game where, every time I tell a story, it’s based on the last five days of encounters with Middlebury faculty, students, and staff. Walking around campus, and having students over during the last two weeks, I learned from students what they were doing. One was looking at best practices in social impact investing. Another was studying trade in the art world and the reproduction of inequality in artist communities in Chicago. A third was looking at algae blooms on Lake Champlain under the guidance of her biology professor. They had summers where they held themselves to the highest standards. That’s the Middlebury value of rigor.

The third part of being wise is having expectations of each other. We have them of you. That is the Middlebury value of connectness. The Middlebury way is to be constructive. As the New Testament author James puts it, wisdom is not divided, insincere, or mean-spirited, but “peaceable . . . open to persuasion . . . filled with mercy and good fruits.” We expect you to be the same. When you think the institution could be better, we will always respond. Connect with us. That’s our job and we love doing it. We will work with you to make it better. That is also the Middlebury way. But that willingness to work together also comes with expectations: in the spirit of good fruits, we ask that you never stop at the criticism, but that you always move toward the constructive solution. That’s what it means to stay connected.

We had students a decade ago who wanted Middlebury to be carbon neutral by 2016. And guess what? In December 2016, we did it. The students just didn’t demand that their professors and administrators do something. They themselves came up with a plan about how to get there. And everyone in our community responded and worked together to try to meet these environmental goals, step by step. And because students were constructive, and came up with a plan, professors and administration responded. And we did it together. We became one of the largest institutions of its kind to be carbon neutral.

And last year, we took the next bold step. Students, faculty, staff, and trustees worked together to adopt Energy2028, a bold new plan that is generating excitement all over campus. In 10 years, and hopefully before then, we will power our entire campus with renewable energy. Just two weeks ago, in partnership with the Goodrich Farm, we broke ground on the first biodigester in Vermont, also the first in the country to directly fuel a college campus. And we helped make a farm sustainable for generations in the process. Students, faculty, staff, and trustees are also hard at work on reducing our energy consumption by 25 percent. We also divested our endowment from fossil fuels in a way that protected our investments. Through Energy2028, we continued our leadership role in environmental education. Your fellow students drove most of that—through collaboration, conversation, engagement, demonstration, and staying at the table for years. You are now part of that extraordinary community, and you will be part of Energy2028’s accomplishments.

That kind of community building is what the Qur’an is referring to when it says, “Give charitably from the good things you have acquired.” At Middlebury, you will be given a great deal, and we expect you to help us build the community constructively as a way of giving back. If you stay connected, you’ll be happier and you’ll get more done.

The fourth part of becoming wise is bouncing back and remaining curious. It doesn’t mean just powering on without thinking or taking care. It means finding a new shape after you’ve been bent out of shape, or, as the Bhagavad Gita teaches, finding wisdom in the self. It means being wrong about that new shape. It means, when things aren’t going your way, you keep going and staying inquisitive. You find a way forward, keep asking questions about a way forward even if you think you can never get there. And you are never afraid to ask for help. Courage to keep going and stay curious isn’t a trait that you develop in a vacuum; you need friends and family and advisors and professors and classmates and teammates to help you keep going, and to keep asking questions. That’s the Middlebury value of curiosity.

You’ll be in good company. Because the everyday forms of bouncing back and persistence among Middlebury students are part of the fabric of life here. There’s the graduate from last year who is studying women’s environmental activism in mountain communities all over the world. There’s the student who, ever since she arrived at Middlebury, wanted to learn Arabic in the summer school but didn’t think she could afford it. And then, with the help of deans and fellow students, she found a way to get scholarship money and completed her first summer in Arabic.

There’s the student leader last year who guided the Student Government Association to our Common Agenda, that list we work on together so that students and administrators—institutional leaders—can accomplish what we need to get done—together. Or the recent graduate who, after persevering through the death of both parents, decided that his best way of honoring his parents’ memory was to create a weekly dog therapy session on campus. “I was curious about my next steps in life, and I know my parents would have wanted me to be, too.” The Middlebury value here is curiosity. People bounce back because they can find some way of being curious about their next steps. The language learner was curious about Arabic. Our student leader was curious about what she and other students could do with the members of the administration. Our traveler in the mountains wanted to learn from those women’s mountain communities—she had infinite curiosity about them, she told me.

Our final Middlebury value is openness. My favorite example is the student who decided to write an opinion piece even after he felt silenced by some other students who disagreed with him. In this day and age, public debate is true grit and true wisdom. That student remained open to discussion and open to others even after feeling silenced. At Middlebury, we expect you to be citizens of a robust and inclusive public sphere, where you will likely be uncomfortable. In our increasingly polarized society, you could easily live online as much as you live face-to-face and argue with people without ever seeing them. But Middlebury is a face-to-face community, grounded in freedom of expression and committed to inclusivity. To openness. And as members of that community, you have a particular obligation to that public space: make it more robust, and make it more inclusive. Don’t let others be silenced, and don’t let yourself be silenced, even if you are offended. Always look around to see who is included, and how you can remain open, and use your talent and wisdom to include others’ voices in the debate. And respect others’ wishes to learn and grow, even if you dislike their opinions. That is true wisdom.

And finally, becoming wise is developing a relationship with the landscape around you. You have come to a community with a deep sense of place. When someone says that Middlebury is “in the middle of nowhere,” I always correct them, and you should, too. Middlebury is very much deeply somewhere. You are in a town, and a state, with an extraordinary sense of the natural world, the relationship between human beings and nature, and a longstanding democratic tradition. Be respectful of the town and its citizens, whose resources keep the College going. Just 219 years ago, the citizens of Middlebury built the College themselves as “the town’s college.” Never forget that.

Take refuge and delight in the mountains and the trails and the rivers and forests and lakes all around you. They are the best stress-busters around. They will help you bounce back, help you think of creative solutions. At Middlebury, people tell each other all the time to go take a hike, and they literally will! Be a caretaker of the landscape, and let the landscape heal you.

Most importantly, at Middlebury, you will be free to do as Toni Morrison encourages us to do: to dream the world as it ought to be. And in that dreaming, you will become the person you are meant to become. So I will ask you once more: How long are you going to worry about who you are not, when you should be getting on with the glorious business of being who you are?

Class of 2023: You are here. You belong. We will help you grow in your wisdom. You can embody the Middlebury values. We can help you have integrity by encouraging you to be your authentic selves. We will help you be rigorous by asking tough questions. We will help you stay connected by making those connections with you ourselves. We will help you stay curious by asking you what your questions are. And we will help you be open by creating a welcoming environment in as many ways as we can. We will help you dream the world as it ought to be. And we will be here for you for the rest of your life. As one student put it to me, Middlebury is really supportive wilderness training for the mind, heart, body, and soul.

We have only guarantee for you: that you will change.

So let me say it again, and hear that rowdy response: Middlebury is really supportive wilderness training for the mind, heart, body, and soul.

Are you in?

Welcome to Midd.

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