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February Celebration Address 2008.5

President Ronald D. Liebowitz delivered this address on January 31, 2009.

Good morning. It’s a pleasure to welcome, once again, all who have come to celebrate the achievements of the class of 2008.5 to Mead Chapel. I am delighted to have the opportunity to address you today—to help see many of you off—as you make your way from college to the next phase of your life.

Whatever the next phase may be for those of you who are indeed leaving, you should feel a sense of great accomplishment for all you have achieved in the past four years. You should also carry with you a great font of confidence because your time here has prepared you well to meet virtually any challenge these dynamic, and near-unprecedented 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 brief profile of the class of 2008.5.

There are 123 in today’s celebrating class. Ninety-two (92) of you actually began your Middlebury careers as Febs, meaning there are 31 “regs” among you who have either accelerated or slowed down your studies to become “Febs”—a label that, many of us have learned, is as proudly worn by the Feb converts as it is by those who actually began their studies in February.

English was the most popular major in your class—10 of you majored in English, with geography, history, economics, and psychology rounding out the five most popular fields of study. Nineteen of you majored in a foreign language; 31 of you studied abroad, and several more went overseas before you began your studies at Middlebury.

More of you call Massachusetts home than any other state, followed by New York, Maine, Vermont, and Connecticut. Five of you have identified yourselves as international students, one each from Burma, Jamaica, Palestine, Kenya, and Turkey, and five more claim an attachment of one sort or another with Brazil, the United Kingdom, Japan, Russia, and Singapore.

As I mentioned last evening, the creative spirit of the Class of 2008.5 was evident to us from the very beginning. One of your classmates won the annual Beucher Concerto Competition the first week he set foot on campus.

Some of your classmates have played leading roles in theatre productions, including “Twelfth Night,” “Talking with Cinders,” and “The Heidi Chronicles,” and one had a significant role with the Potomac Theatre Project in New York this past summer. Another conducted the Middlebury College Orchestra performance of “Finlandia” this fall.

Nine of you participated in the annual student research symposium, and one Feb won the 2008 Doll Award from the Vermont Geological Society for the best student paper presentation. Another won an “Excellence in the Visual Arts” Award from the Friends of the Art Museum last spring, recognizing her significant contributions to the visual arts community. And one of your Feb classmates will take her training in art history abroad, after winning a competitive internship at the Peggy Guggenheim Collection in Venice. Not bad!

In athletics, too, you have excelled. Members of your class played on 20 varsity and club sports teams during their time at Middlebury. One of your classmates won the New England Intercollegiate Golf Association’s Guy Tedesco Award, awarded to the New England College Player of the Year.

Many in your class demonstrated a strong commitment to volunteerism and community service. Two of the 10 Public Service Leadership Awards presented this past spring by the Alliance for Civic Engagement went to members of the Class of 2008.5, and one of your classmates received the seventh annual Vermont Student Citizen Award for his efforts at the John W. Graham Emergency Shelter in Vergennes.

It would be hard to gauge the full extent of your service to the local community and beyond. Some of you have served on the local fire department and rescue squad, collaborated with environmental community partner Ecologia on corporate social responsibility, or led the Middlebury Alternative Break Trip for leader service to Zion National Park. Still others were active with the Roosevelt Institution, the national network of campus-based student think tanks, or served as an inspirational speaker for College for Every Student, a nonprofit that promotes early college awareness for at-risk students. And two students from the class of 2008.5 were Shepherd Poverty Alliance interns, which engaged them in work with children in Baltimore’s inner city and in social services in Virginia.

We are enormously proud of you. All of us here today salute you for your accomplishments. Congratulations.

* * * * *

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’s always marked 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.

* * * * *

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 post-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 snow 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 packing to leave for summer break. And of course, there are the breathtaking 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 remarkably strong feelings of attachment. I hope you will take with you an appreciation for this corner of the natural world wherever you go, along with the sense of wonder that it inspires, and retain your ties to this College.

But when one speaks of “place,” one needs to include the human as well as the physical characteristics of that particular place when considering its overall impact on one’s 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 122 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 engage and 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 facility that will reduce our dependency on high-carbon-yielding oil by 50 percent, and committing, now 20 months 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.

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 one year 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, to some degree, cultural barriers. Transactions occurred as if New York and Hong Kong were neighboring municipalities, and competition for jobs and other opportunities was no longer determined by where people grew up, where they lived, or what citizenship they held. The local had become the global, and global the local. What was happening in China, Europe, and Latin America, or just about anywhere in the world, affected us in this country, even in rural Vermont, as much as what was 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 worldwide financial meltdown of the past eight months has added multiple levels of complexity to the already significant changes brought on by globalization. They have resulted in problems whose solutions no two economists can seem to agree on, let alone explain why nobody, including all the economists, could see this train wreck coming.

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 see separate and even divergent strategies and policies being implemented to deal with the financial crisis in many of the world’s largest economies: the U.S., U.K, France, Germany, Japan, and China. We see, and now must adjust to, or re-adjust to, the power of the individual nation-state to exercise its sovereignty and protect its own population, economy, and failed businesses by implementing stimulus packages and rescue plans as if it were 1909 instead of 2009.

You will soon be part of this wider world—a hyper-connected world now experiencing the aftereffects of being perhaps too connected too soon and facing the most challenging economic circumstances in almost a century. At the same time, each of you will have an opportunity to play an important role in that wider 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.

And you of course are not alone. President Obama, in his inspiring inaugural address, asked all of us to be part of the solution to the mega-challenges we face as a nation. One can’t help but feel optimistic that those challenges will be met, not only because such a wide swath of the political spectrum is willing to give support to our new leadership in Washington … or because of that new leadership’s commitment to bring together the disparate elements of our country and the world community. One must be optimistic, too, because you are part of a generation that, collectively, is pragmatic, believes in volunteerism, and has shown its desire to get involved. And I am confident that you, in particular, will make a difference.

The best advice I could offer as you answer our new president’s call to be consequential players in solving the large challenges before our country is rooted in the lessons our faculty conveyed to you by example during the past four years: learning is a lifelong 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, 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, but make sure to leave space for the reality that you have lots to learn, and can—indeed will—learn a great amount from others.

Your Middlebury days as students may have come to an end, but may all you have learned and experienced here serve you well throughout your lives.

We hope your fond memories of the days here stay with you, and that your bond to the College remains forever strong.

And most of all, we hope that over the course of your four years in this special place, you have learned, in 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.

Thank you.

Office of the President

Old Chapel
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Middlebury College
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