February Celebration 2014.5

Remarks by President Ronald Liebowitz
January 31, 2015
Mead Chapel 

Good morning. It’s a pleasure to welcome you to this celebration of the class of 2014.5.  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 the many challenges these dynamic times have already presented to your generation.
 
When this class of Febs arrived in the winter of 2011, Tunisia and Egypt were embroiled in the uprisings that began what we now refer to as the Arab Spring; the U.S. economy was just starting to recover from the Great Recession; and a gunman in Arizona had killed and wounded innocent people including Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords.
 
Now, four years later, you are about to enter a world that is no less daunting and unpredictable.  In addition to the now all-too-familiar international conflicts and unrest in the Middle East, in Ukraine, in Northern Nigeria and elsewhere, racial and social tensions here in the U.S. adds to the challenging environment you will soon join.  Yet, armed with your intelligence and all that your Middlebury liberal arts education has inculcated in you, I am confident that you will be among those who help address and resolve such major societal and global conflicts. 

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To the surprise of nobody here today, and especially the parents and grandparents, this Feb class has accomplished an enormous amount and contributed so much to the College community during its time here.  

There are 129 seniors in today’s celebrating class: 63 women and 66 men. Eighty-six of you began your college careers here as Febs in 2011, while 43 of you matriculated at other times and have thus, using the verb we all learned yesterday afternoon during Nat Drucker’s comments at the Center for the Arts, “Febbed” themselves.

The most popular major among this class was Environmental Studies, followed by Economics and then English and American Literatures.

Eighteen graduates completed joint majors, while 8 fulfilled double majors.

One hundred of you, or 78 percent of the class, studied a language other than English, and almost half the class spent at least a semester studying abroad.

New York and Massachusetts are the most-represented states in the class—each with 16 graduates—followed by Vermont, Connecticut, and California.  Twelve of you are international students, representing 8 different countries.

Each and every one of you in this class came to Middlebury with the potential, determination, and encouragement to make the most of your time here, and your achievements reflect the results of your hard work.  One member of the class has been inducted into Middlebury's Phi Beta Kappa chapter and, most likely, more of you will be so honored in May.

One classmate has already been named a Goldwater Scholar while two of your classmates have been nominated for Watson Fellowships, one has been nominated for a Rhodes Scholarship, one for a Marshall Scholarship, one for a Udall Scholarship, and one for a Beinecke Scholarship. Simply to be nominated for these national awards by our faculty is an honor.  To all of you who are still awaiting decisions on these nominations, we wish you the best of luck.

Nineteen of you pursued summer research experiences with faculty mentors and 28 Febs participated in a Spring or Summer Student Research Symposium – some more than once. Nineteen volunteered as peer tutors through the Center for Teaching, Learning and Research, and 10 students served as First-Year Seminar mentors.

This class was deeply involved in the Solar Decathlon. Ten of you were instrumental in the development of Middlebury’s 2013 entry, known as the InSite House, serving as construction managers, designers, and engineers; and one member of this class worked on Self-Reliance, the College’s 2011 entry, and then became the construction lead for 2013 effort. I, along with so many faculty, staff, and alumni, am enormously proud of Middlebury’s achievement as the only liberal-arts college to be accepted to compete in this intense and challenging competition. It is also, we learned, a remarkable learning opportunity and experience for our students.  It speaks volumes about our Architectural Studies program, about the determination of our students to design and build an original, affordable solar home, and most importantly it speaks to the power of a liberal arts education.

Eleven of you were recipients of MiddChallenge grants in the arts, business, education, outreach, or policy. That’s an astounding number of students in one Feb class to put their creativity on the line: four of you used this grant, along with a $10,000 Davis Project for Peace award, to support the development of a women’s tea cooperative in Nepal to help alleviate poverty in the region. Another MiddChallenge project funded a classmate’s effort to raise awareness about concussions and brain health, while another was used by a Feb to develop a business plan for a sustainable cheese-making operation.

Two Febs fund-raised more than $5,000 through the crowd-sourcing site MiddStart to launch a narrative journalism project dedicated to improving community-based restorative-justice programs for youth.

Community engagement was high on this class’ list of priorities. Two of you served as Shepherd Poverty interns, one in Boston and the other in rural West Virginia, and one Feb was an Addison County poverty intern at two different times. Seven of you participated in Middlebury Alternative Break service trips and one of you was president of the Page 1 Literacy Program. Other members of this Feb class played key roles with Community Friends, Relay for Life, and other volunteer organizations that helped Vermonters of all ages cope with significant personal struggles. 

In the arts, seven students performed in our remarkable African Music and Dance Ensemble and three were committed members of the College Orchestra playing violin, oboe, and clarinet. In theatre, two members of the class were nominated for national Irene Ryan Acting Scholarships as part of the American College Theatre Festival, and one of our graduating Febs spent two seasons acting alongside professional actors with our PTP-New York City Theatre Company.

And finally, your class has left a lasting mark in athletics, too. Seventeen of you were members of varsity teams, and four of you played club sports. Twelve Febs were NESCAC All-Academic selections, two were men’s tennis All Americans, and four were members of NESCAC championship teams.

All that I just recited, though quite a list, is simply a sampling of what your class accomplished while here.  Your achievements have so enriched the lives of our community, and we are enormously grateful and proud of you.  Congratulations, and thank you.

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Now, 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 215 years ago 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 isolated farming settlement has developed into one of the leading liberal arts colleges in the country largely, because like you, it has done things a bit out of the ordinary.

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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; 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 in just a few hours.

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 of this corner of the natural world, now firmly rooted in your minds, wherever you go, along with the sense of wonder that it inspires.

Yet 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 fellow Febs, 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 are hard to replicate in other environments.  They have also given you an appreciation for the strength of community, which has shaped how you will relate to others throughout your lives: in a more caring and personal manner.

One of the great advantages of attending a small, residential College is the opportunity to work with faculty, staff, and even trustees outside the traditional classroom to make a difference in the life and direction of the institution.  And many of you have done just that—on multiple projects, be it how to expand the purchasing of local foods; the adopting of sustainable building practices; installing a new biomass gasification facility; committing to be carbon neutral by the end of 2016; investing in a Solar Farm; and now posing the very large question of how best to address the “knowns” and “unknowns” of climate change through how we conduct our business, including our investment practices.  These ideas, all of them, have come largely from Middlebury students, and have required a deep dive into research rooted in the classroom, but then extended out to various offices on campus and oftentimes to the board room with the College’s trustees.

Beyond the benefits that accrue to the College for this kind of student involvement, (enormous “free” human capital), these initiatives, and many others that involve student engagement are the best examples of how a liberal arts education should work, and why a liberal arts education is the best preparation for life: students engage a broad range of subjects in a formal classroom setting, taught and mentored by an accomplished and committed faculty, and then they use what they learned to make a difference outside that classroom—not only here on campus, but in the town, the county, the state, and at times around the globe.

The greatest value of your liberal arts education is that it prepares you to live in a rapidly changing world that is likely to become more complex and less predictable in the coming years.  It is an education that inspires one to continue to learn throughout one’s life, and teaches one how to appreciate the physical and artistic world we inhabit and create.  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 decade ago.   The world has not only become flatter, as Tom Friedman has noted, but it has also gotten smaller…brought closer together through the lowering of political, social, financial, and cultural barriers; the competition for jobs or “work,” is no longer determined by where people grow up, where they live, or what citizenship they hold.  What is happening in China, Europe, and Latin America, or just about anywhere in the world, affects us in this country, even here in rural Vermont, as much as what is going on in other parts of the United States.

You will soon be part of this world—a remarkably connected world in which the balance of economic and political power is shifting before our eyes.  Each of you will have an opportunity to play an important role in our ever increasingly complex and evolving global society.

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 in and succeed.   Because of your strong liberal arts background and how that background has shaped the way you think and act, combined with your deep appreciation for the power of relationships and community that was honed right here, you are in a great position to make a real difference in whatever career you choose.

The best advice I might offer you as you begin your post-Middlebury lives, destined to become consequential players in solving the large challenges before humankind, 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 long and challenging syllabus.

As you put your intelligence, creativity, optimism, and liberal arts values to work for the common good, remember…always remember…to exercise humility.  You may think you have the right answers as you engage people from all walks of life because of all you have accomplished at such a young age.  But make sure to leave significant mental space for the reality that you have lots more to learn, and indeed will learn so very much from the experiences that lie in front of you, from your future successes and disappointments, and, most importantly, from other people.

Your days as Middlebury students have come to an end, but may all that you have learned and experienced here serve you well throughout your lives.  I hope the fond memories of your college days stay with you, and that your bond to this place will remain forever strong.

And most of all, we hope that over the course of your four years here, you have learned, in John Adams’ words, “how to make a living, and how to live.”

We wish you well, a great ski-down today, and we look forward to seeing you back on campus often.

Thank you.

Office of the President

Old Chapel
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Middlebury College
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802.443.5400
president@middlebury.edu