Remarks by President Ronald Liebowitz
Good morning. It’s a pleasure to welcome, once again, all who have come to celebrate the achievements of the class of 2010.5 to Mead Chapel. I am delighted to have the opportunity to address you, the graduates, as you make your way from college to the next phase of your life.
Whatever that next phase may be, each and every one of you should feel a sense of great accomplishment for all you have achieved while here at Middlebury. You should also carry with you great confidence because your time here has prepared you well to meet virtually any challenge these dynamic and challenging times place before you. I will elaborate a bit on this message in a few minutes, but I want first to give you and your guests here today a profile of your class—the class of 2010.5—and a sampling of what it has done while here.
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To the surprise of nobody here today, especially the parents and grandparents among us, this Feb class has contributed an enormous amount to the College and beyond during the past four years. Here is a sampling of the things the group has done along with a quick profile of who you are, aside, of course, from being the brightest, most talented, and best looking, class in the 210.5-year history of Middlebury College.
There are 110 seniors in today’s celebrating class:
- 52 men and 58 women
- 77 of you began your Middlebury careers as Febs, but of course are fully assimilated into true Febness.
- The most popular majors for your class were Economics (14), Geography (11), and Psychology (11).
- 27 of you majored in more than one subject.
- 58 of you spent at least one semester studying abroad, and your adventures took you to 23 different countries on six continents—only missing Antarctica…we’ll work on that.
- You come from 27 different states. The states with the greatest representation in your class are New York and Massachusetts with 15 each, Connecticut with 12, Vermont with 10, and California with 7.
- Five of you come from other countries: China, India, Korea, Vietnam, and Singapore.
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Each of you came to Middlebury with the highest academic qualifications and the determination to make the most of your time here, and your academic achievements reflect your hard work. Two members of your class have been selected as finalists for prestigious Fulbright and Thomas J. Watson Fellowships, both of which provide grants for a year’s study abroad.
A number of you distinguished yourselves in scientific studies. For example:
- One member of your class received a research fellowship with the Vermont Geological Survey and was an intern for the Hawaiian Volcanoes Observatory in January 2010. He received honors for his thesis research on Hawaiian volcanism.
- Two of your classmates were leaders in a fall senior seminar that greatly advanced our understanding of the distribution of arsenic in Vermont’s groundwater. The Natural Resources and Energy Committee of the Vermont State Senate will use their work in drafting legislation to ensure the safety of water supplies.
- The Class of 2010.5 also includes a member of Middlebury’s Solar Decathlon team. As many of you know, the Solar Decathlon is a competition sponsored by the U.S. Department of Energy, which challenges 20 collegiate teams to design, build, and operate solar-powered houses that are cost-effective, energy-efficient, and attractive. Middlebury is the only liberal arts college ever chosen to participate in the competition. All of the other teams come from universities in the U.S. and several other countries.
Your achievements in music, theater, dance, literature, and the visual arts have enlivened the college experience for so many here.
- A number of you had roles in faculty-directed theater productions, such as The Good Woman of Setzuan, He-Kyu-ba, Road, and Major Barbara. And you created some impressive theater productions of your own, including Airswimming, Carnal Embrace, and After Miss Julie.
- Three members of your class were nominated for the Kennedy Center/American College Theatre Festival’s Irene Ryan acting competition, and three of you have been selected to perform with the Potomac Theatre Project in New York City this coming summer.
- One of your classmates, an accomplished violinist, has performed with the Middlebury Orchestra, various chamber music ensembles, and the Michael Chorney Sextet, with whom she recently made a recording. She developed a passion for dance at Middlebury and was awarded a Committee on the Arts grant for summer study at the prestigious American Dance Festival at Duke University in 2009. Her dance “Rubato” was selected for performance at the American College Dance Festival’s regional competition at Boston University last year. She was also selected to attend the College’s Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference as a developing poet.
- Another member of your class, also a musician, is part of a trio that won the Alan Carter Chamber music competition in 2009.
- And, one of your classmates was instrumental in starting Middlebury Geographic Magazine, a campus publication reflecting the College’s tradition of international awareness, diversity, and critical inquiry. Her work at Middlebury earned her a prestigious internship with National Geographic.
In athletics, too, you have excelled. Fourteen members of your class played on varsity or intercollegiate club-sports teams, and some of them contributed to two national championships and seven NESCAC championships.
You have also demonstrated a strong commitment to volunteerism and community service. It is impossible to gauge the full extent of your service, but here are just a few examples:
- Some of you have worked with “Sister to Sister,” a mentoring program that pairs Middlebury students with girls from middle schools in Middlebury and the surrounding area.
- Others volunteered with Juntos, a student volunteer organization that strives to meet the needs of the Spanish-speaking farm-worker population of Addison County by fostering relationships at both individual and community levels through social and educational programs.
- Some of you have helped to build affordable homes for Habitat for Humanity.
- One of your classmates founded Xiao Pengyou, a mentoring program pairing Asian students at Middlebury with Asian schoolchildren in Addison County.
- One of your classmates was part of a six-person GlobeMed team that traveled to Uganda last summer. GlobeMed is partnering with an organization in Tororo, Uganda, to increase access to Village Information centers, which provide vital education on health and nutrition.
- Members of your class were instrumental in the creation and development of the food-sharing program through which food left over from catered events on campus is delivered to local food shelves and shelters.
- And just this week, a member of your class was accepted to Teach for America.
Again, these are only a representative sampling of the accomplishments of the Class of 2010.5. We are enormously proud of you. All of us here today salute you for all you have achieved. Congratulations.
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If you took a poll of Vermonters and asked which month they liked the least, the vast majority would choose February. As Joseph Wood Krutch, one of the great literary naturalists of the early 20th century, said, “The most serious charge which can be brought against New England is not Puritanism but February.”
February is the year’s dark predawn—it’s cold and quiet. But most of you came to Middlebury in February, which says something about your character. It suggests that you are optimists—maybe a little nonconformist, willing to take risks…eager, as poet Robert Frost wrote, “to take the road less traveled by.”
Those are important characteristics that I think you share with your College. One thing that has characterized Middlebury since its founding is a willingness to do things differently . . . to innovate . . . to take a calculated risk in order to accomplish something extraordinary. A College that began as an experiment in an out-of-the-way farming settlement has developed into one of the leading liberal arts institutions in the country . . . indeed in the world . . . largely because like you, it has done things a bit out of the ordinary.
You have many reasons to be proud to be a Middlebury graduate, and, over time, I know we will make you even prouder. I am equally confident that all of you will continue to make your College . . . and parents . . . proud.
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As you leave Middlebury, it is fitting to ask yourself what it is you will remember most about your time here, and what part of your college experience will make the greatest difference in your life after Middlebury.
As a geographer, I would like to think it will be the place itself—the physical environment—that will exert the greatest and most durable influence on you. I agree with Wallace Stevens, who wrote: “His soil is man’s intelligence.” And it is hard to argue with Stevens: we learn from our environment, and the places that teach us things that truly matter are carried in our hearts as well as our brains forever.
The natural beauty that surrounds us here is likely to be one of the things you will remember most about Middlebury. I am sure that many of you have experienced some unexpected moments of joy as you walked to class on one of those spectacular autumn days when the vibrant foliage on the mountains stands out sharply against the blue sky; or walking on that pristine white carpet across campus each morning during J-Term, left by the light snowfall that seems to fall each night; or seeing the multiple shades of green that burst across the landscape in the spring—even if spring doesn’t show itself until you are about to leave for summer break. And of course, there are the breath-taking views of both the Adirondacks and Green Mountains from the College’s Snow Bowl…soon to be experienced in a slightly different way this afternoon.
These simple things have inspired a sense of adventure and creativity in generations of students who have studied at Middlebury, along with enduring strong feelings of attachment. I hope you will take with you an appreciation for this corner of the natural world, now firmly rooted in your hearts, wherever you go, along with the sense of wonder that it inspires.
But when one speaks of “place,” one must include the human as well as the physical characteristics of that particular place when considering its overall impact on one’s personal development and life.
And when you think back on your Middlebury years, I am sure you’ll find that your memories of this place are, more than anything else, linked to its people—your friends, your professors, your teammates, your coaches, staff members, and your acquaintances in town.
Seated around you today are almost 100 fellow Febs—the real and the converted—many of whom are very likely to be your friends for life. Through the years, they will celebrate your achievements, reach out to you when you stumble, share your joys and disappointments, and always remain close to you.
Friendships like these, which began in the cold and bluster of a Middlebury February, are often intense, especially when they develop in a community that is small and relatively isolated, and where there are few distractions to compete for one’s social and intellectual energies. Your four years here have helped you develop the kind of relationships that is hard to replicate in another environment. They have also given you an appreciation for the strength of community, which will influence how you interrelate with others throughout your lives: in a more personal, caring, and actively engaged manner.
One of the great advantages of attending a small, residential College is the opportunity to work with faculty and staff outside the traditional classroom to make a difference in the life and direction of the institution. And many of you have, on multiple projects. To cite just one example: the College has undertaken many initiatives to minimize its impact on the environment—buying local foods, following sustainable building practices, purchasing local materials, lowering the thermostats in buildings during the heating season, installing a new biomass gasification facility that has already reduced our dependency on high-carbon-yielding oil by half, and committing, now nearly four years ago, to be carbon neutral by the year 2016. These ideas and the energy and commitment to see them through came largely from Middlebury students, and have been supported enthusiastically by faculty, staff, administrators, and trustees.
Beyond the benefits that accrue to the College for this kind of engagement, these initiatives, and many others that involve student volunteer work at and around the College, are perfect examples of how a liberal arts education should work, and why a liberal arts education is the best preparation for life: we ask you to learn about a broad range of subjects in a formal classroom setting and then we challenge you to use what you learned to make a difference outside that classroom.
Crucial to our and your success is an engaged and dedicated faculty. Collectively, your professors represent one of the true gifts of your four years at this College. Great teachers inspire you by their intense and passionate interest in their fields, which, in turn, motivates you to engage material in a more personal way and to go beyond the standard learning of facts, so that you can make important connections and understand the larger world around you. I think we all saw a great example of our engaged, dedicated, and inspiring faculty last evening in Kit Wilson.
The value of your liberal arts education is that it prepares you to live in a rapidly changing world that is likely to get more complex and less predictable in the coming years. The great American patriot and president, John Adams, who played many roles in his long life, said, “There are two types of education, both crucial: one teaches us how to make a living, and the other how to live.”
But learning how to live—how to be active and productive citizens and draw satisfaction from life itself, will be different for you than it was for your parents’ generation, and even different from those who sat where you are now sitting just a few years ago. The processes of globalization, and now the backlash or reaction to globalization, will require you to marshal all the skills you have learned at Middlebury to navigate an exciting, but uncertain future.
Over the past 20 years, globalization made the world feel smaller . . . brought closer together through the lowering of political, social, financial, and cultural barriers. Transactions now occur as if New York and Hong Kong were neighboring municipalities, and competition for jobs and other opportunities is no longer determined by where people grew up, where they live, or what citizenship they hold. The local has become the global, and global the local. What is happening in China, Europe, and Latin America, or just about anywhere in the world—Egypt right now—affects us in this country, even in rural Vermont, as much as what is going on in many parts of the United States.
Though the processes that led to the so-called flattening of the world over the past two decades have not come to a halt, the recent world-wide recession, has added multiple levels of complexity to the already significant changes brought on by globalization. No two economists can seem to agree on, let alone explain why, nobody, including their fellow economists, could see this train wreck coming or how to fix what went wrong.
The failure of our financial institutions and its impact on the global economy reflect the high level of interdependence and interconnectedness among the world’s national economies. Yet, despite this interconnectedness, we have seen separate, sometimes divergent and non-coordinated policies being implemented to deal with the financial crisis in many of the world’s largest economies. We see, and now must adjust to, the power of the individual nation-state to exercise its sovereignty in its attempt to protect its own population, economy, and failed businesses by implementing independent stimulus packages and rescue plans as if it were 1911 instead of 2011.
We must also confront the inefficiencies in our democratic system of governance and address the overly politicized nature of our legislative processes when it comes to addressing national problems. One need only look at the debate on health care, or the difference in effectiveness between China’s and India’s economic stimulus programs on the one hand, and ours on the other. To be fair, China’s and India’s economies are centrally planned, and therefore the leadership of those states can direct and dictate the allocation of resources and make investment decisions with little concern about domestic politics, political parties, lobbyists, or voter sentiment.
Still, the dominance of self-interest and the lack of unity among our political leaders in the face of the country’s greatest financial challenge in 80 years raises serious questions for your generation about our country’s changing role in the wider world: questions we couldn’t even imagine just 10 years ago, when the U.S. was the unparalleled and sole economic, military, and political superpower on earth.
You will soon be part of this world—a hyper-connected world that is experiencing the after-effects of being perhaps too connected too soon, and seeing the balance of political and economic power shift before our eyes. Each of you will have an opportunity to play an important role in this wider, evolving world.
And though it is perhaps daunting to think about your next chapter, and how you will participate in all that is going on beyond the hills of Vermont, you should, as I noted earlier, take comfort in the fact that you are well prepared to jump right in. Because of your strong liberal arts background, and your deep appreciation for the power of relationships and community that was honed right here, you are in a great position to make a contribution that matters.
The best advice I might offer you as you begin your post-Middlebury lives, destined to be consequential players in solving the large challenges before our country and humanity at-large, is rooted in the lessons our faculty conveyed to you by example during the past four years: learning is a life-long endeavor...it never ends. Just as the professors with whom you studied learn more and more each year through their research and teaching, you, too, will learn more and more as you research your way through life’s journey.
As you put your intelligence, creativity, optimism, and good will to work for the common good, remember to exercise humility. You may think you have all the right answers and know how to engage people of all walks of life because of all you have accomplished so early in life, but make sure to leave space for the reality that you have lots more to learn, and indeed will learn a great amount from the magnificent experiences that lie in front of you, from your future successes and failures, and, most importantly, from others.
Your days as Middlebury students may have come to an end, but may all that you have learned and experienced here serve you well throughout your lives.
We hope the fond memories of your college days stay with you, and that your bond to Middlebury will remain forever strong.
And most of all, we hope that over the course of your four years in this special place, you have learned, in John Adams’ words, how to make a living, and how to live.
We wish you well, and look forward to welcoming you back to campus often.