Ann M. Veneman, Honorary Doctor of Humane Letters


Executive Director of UNICEF



May 28, 2006

President Liebowitz, Senator Jeffords, and honorable trustees, distinguished faculty, staff and alumni, family, friends, students, and the outstanding Class of 2006, congratulations to you all.

Good morning, and thank you for the privilege of being here. I deeply appreciate the honorary degree you bestow upon me today. Warmest congratulations to the other honorees as well.  It is humbling to be recognized among such illustrious company. It is especially meaningful to be honored by a school with such a sterling reputation, particularly in international affairs, a rich history and a bright future.

I hope you will join me in paying a special tribute to a very special group, and that is your parents. They are sometimes overlooked, except when tuition is due, but they have helped instill the values and attitudes that have gotten you to this point today. You are a lot more than just graduates to them. Maybe you are also that second mortgage or maybe you are the Porsche they did not buy.

It is true that higher learning can be expensive, but it is also true that ignorance is far more costly. But while you might think that your education is ending today, in reality it is just beginning. Ralph Waldo Emerson said that things taught in schools and colleges are not an education but the means to education.

Today you embark on a new beginning. After you leave Midd, you will discover your future. You will discover things about the world around you, and I am told that it might be hard for Middlebury students to imagine, but you might also discover a social life.

A few weeks ago I was speaking with a young woman who was about to graduate from the University of Minnesota. She said to me, "The future is wide open to me, at the same time the options can be overwhelming." It is hard to blame her or any of you for feeling that way.

Today your choices suddenly become more difficult than which flavor of Ben and Jerry's to choose or which song to download on your iPod, and your competition is no longer defined by credit units or your grade point average.

You are now on a playing field that is populated from all around the globe. Technology is helping drive a remarkable and rapid transformation. Globalization is not a prediction. It's a reality.

To give you an example of how dramatically the world has changed, consider this: in 1492 it took Christopher Columbus 70 days to reach the New World, a voyage of about 4,000 miles. Today a message can travel that same distance at the speed of light or about 282,000,000 times faster than the Santa Maria. In effect, this means that the Earth of Columbus's time has shrunk to a relative size that is just slightly larger than a golf ball.

The writer Thomas Friedman has defined three distinct phases of globalization. Globalization 1.0 began with that first voyage of Columbus and marked a time when collaboration and competition occurred among countries.

Globalization 2.0 began around the year Middlebury College was found in 1800. Transportation advances such as railroads and, later, airplanes, along with the Industrial Revolution, shifted that collaboration and competition to the level of companies.

And in the past few years, we have entered Globalization 3.0. The growth of the Internet and other technologies has shifted the focus of the power to the individuals. Your competition is no longer just the person across town. It is the woman in China or the man in India. Our news and entertainment, our social networks, finances and travel, even our cars and running shoes can now all be made to suit individual preferences. If you have an idea that is good enough, all it takes to become successful is a computer and a connection to the outside world.

A commencement ceremony may be the only place in the world where someone would speak to hundreds of people in identical caps and gowns about the power of the individual.

But it is true. Like Columbus, you find yourselves in a new world, and it is one with tremendous opportunities.

Since the typical member of the Class of 2006 was born, the World Wide Web, Microsoft Windows, digital cell phones, high definition televisions, the gas-powered fuel cell and the iPod were all invented. Technology could make currency obsolete, could generate fusion power in your home, and provide transportation that is free of harmful emissions. Nanotechnology will make computers even faster and smaller or maybe give us medical nano bots that can perform surgery or carbon-based construction material that is 100 times stronger and four times lighter than steel.

Your ability to adapt and capitalize on these changes will help determine your ultimate success. But as the world is drawn closer together, we become more aware of inequalities and our vested interest in helping address them.

Franklin Roosevelt understood this more than 60 years ago when he said, "The future and safety of our country, of our democracy, are overwhelmingly involved in events far beyond our borders."

If you do not see the linkages between the suffering child in Africa, in Eastern Europe and South Asia or in Latin America, and your own security and prosperity, then you simply are not looking hard enough. Issues that were once isolated by country or region are now crossing national boundaries such as conflict, disease, pollution and economic conditions.

We live in the most prosperous nation in the world, but we also inhabit a world in which one billion people live on one dollar a day or less. A world in which 10.5 million children continue to die each year of causes that are largely preventable. A world in which natural disasters, exploitation, famine and hunger continue to undermine peace and stability. Every minute that you have been listening to me, 20 children under the age of 5 have died around the world. Almost all of them from preventable causes such as disease or malnutrition. Every minute nine more people have contracted HIV, and at least one of those people is a child under the age of 15.

Throughout my travels, I have witnessed many of the human faces behind these numbers. I have met survivors of the genocide in Rwanda and learned of women who were targeted for rape by soldiers with HIV. I have helped comfort victims just days after the earthquake in Pakistan. I have seen mothers and babies in countries in Malawi who are dying of AIDS. I have spoken with children who were orphaned by the tsunami in India and Sri Lanka. I have met with a young Rumanian woman who was forced into prostitution in Ireland by a sexual trafficker, and I have spoken with a 12-year-old orphan girl in the Democratic Republic of Congo who was brutally raped by four men in an area where rape is used as a weapon of war. When I asked her what she wanted to be when she grows up, her answer was very telling. She said to me, "I want to be a nun."

Class of 2006, you do not have to look into the face of a hungry child, a sick infant or a dying mother to care. But I can promise you that if you do, it will profoundly alter how you view humanity.

The problems of the world can sometimes seem insurmountable, but we are all presented with two choices: despair or determination. We can choose to make ourselves and others more aware of what is happening in the world around us. We can choose to help worthy organizations that are doing good work around the globe. Or, we can choose to volunteer or devote a portion of our lives to public service.

One young person who works in a clinic in Swaziland or teaches students in Guatemala or helps install fresh sources of water in India, one person who works to make a difference is worth a thousand of those who are on the sidelines complaining about the state of the world. The needless suffering of one child is the debasement of all humankind. But even one person has the power to bring comfort to the afflicted or hope to the hopeless. One person can help change the world.

Commencement speakers often give advice to graduates, but instead of telling you how to live, I'd like to say a bit about how you are living. I see in your generation tremendous compassion and integrity. A generation that is growing up in the belief that financial status does not determine true worth. A generation to whom hard work, honesty and strong personal values are as important as ever.

As you begin the next chapter, I would suggest that you consider the following: instead of visualizing your life as a straight line stretching out before you, take the ends of that line and bring them back together to form a circle, and think of your life as that circle. None of us knows at this moment how large our life's circle will be. Some people have circles that are small but very full, and others have circles that are very large but exceedingly empty.

You might not have very much control over the size of your circle, but this is certain: it is you who determines how full your circle will be. You can try to fill it with money, expensive cars, electronic gadgets and self-indulgence and find that when the ends of the circle meet, it is still quite empty. Or, you can fill it with close friends, a loving family and a commitment to fair play and honor and find that when the circle closes it is full of wonderful memories, meaningful contributions to others, and people who really matter.

If you treat others with respect and dignity and establish relationships based on trust, you can fill your own circle without having to empty the circles of your neighbors or co-workers. If you seek to continuously improve and learn, you can fill your circle with knowledge rather than have it drained by ignorance. And if you give something of yourself or help your fellow human beings, you will fill your circle with love and respect.

Class of 2006, fill your circle with all that is good for you and for humankind. God bless you. May your future be worthy of your dreams. Thank you.

"Gamaliel Painter's Cane" sung by Francois Clemmons.
The Middlebury College Alma Mater, "Walls of Ivy," sung by Francois Clemmons.


Student Speech by Lauren Allison Curatolo '06



Commencement, May 28, 2006

Hello. Good morning and welcome, Class of 2006.

I'll be honest, I am quite nervous - but perhaps not as nervous as President Liebowitz and the rest of the administration. I wish I could have been in Old Chapel when they announced that the raging feminist on campus would be delivering the commencement speech.

I love microphones - what can I say?

But not to worry, I won't be talking about blue lights, diversity, misogamy, patriarchy. Chellis House renovations - perhaps.

Class of 2006, we are here today to receive a symbol of our achievement and success. All of us have chosen to define success consistent with our own personal wants, needs and desires. We are here today for that one thing that will tell us we did, however we chose to do it.

We are here today, Class of 2006, for the cane. It's true. Who here doesn't remember the speech delivered to us during convocation freshman year? We all sat in Mead Chapel as a replica of Gamaliel Painter's Cane was passed around, and those of us fortunate enough held it for one brief, ethereal moment. At that moment, we knew that we were holding a symbol of the patriarch - oh! I'm sorry! That was not supposed to be there. Excuse me. That was a typo. That was a typo, really! - we were holding our honor and our dream.

Yes, I'm quite funny.

And in many ways, we were also holding a foreshadowing of events, because not only is this cane a symbol of the aforementioned, but it is also one day going to be of use to most of us... Thank you, Middlebury College, for reminding us that our youth is fleeting.

I'm just on a roll!

Henry David Thoreau aptly stated, "Things do not change. We change." Our canes will not change, only we will. And, as we grow older and wiser, our cherished memories of our special days spent at Middlebury College will follow us forever.

Enjoy the ride. Watch out for the bumps. But remember to stop along the way and enjoy the scenery. Never let anyone tell you that youth is wasted on the young. Instead, embrace your youthful abandon.

Until this day, and possibly forever, Middlebury College will be our journey's foremost stop. We will each be handed the cane, which we have transformed into our own unique individual symbol. We shaped and molded this seemingly inflexible ordinary and wooden object into one that now has the identity of its holder. The canes may all look the same, yet within each one lies your unique vitality, your aspirations and your future. Don't ever forget the importance of the cane, and let it forever be a remainder to you of your ability to affect positive change in this world and, most importantly, in yourself.

I am sure that few moments in life could ever feel as fulfilling, and, at the same time, as totally surreal as this one. This one special moment in time has created an atmosphere wherein all of our Middlebury memories flash before us.

I remember driving up to campus freshman year - passing by groups of runners, of course - getting out of the car, looking about and thinking, wow, this is really quiet. My first McCullough party brought about different thoughts entirely. This was going to be a very long four years.

My first class was an intro class in biology, and as the syllabi circulated around the room, I began to think to myself, are the next four years really going to be for my benefit, or am I unknowingly participating in a college-wide experiment sponsored by the science department on Darwin's theory of survival of the fittest?

You have survived the quiet, the McCullough parties, the syllabi and, perhaps, for some of you, public safety. We've endured intense moments together. We've mourned the loss of the blessed PIN bill. Some of us will forever call our haven down the hill "Baba's," despite the many name changes over the past four years. We managed to deal with the system administrator and the constant reminders of all of our e-mails, and, if you're here today, I'd like to speak to you after graduation.

We've endured intense moments together, the commons system debates, the diversity debates. We've seen blue lights go up - oh, blue lights! - Starr Library and the Shag Room close down. What a shame. We've felt the effects of the new alcohol policy and wondered if it actually worked, felt the pain of not making the party list - I'm not bitter. Really. We've spent countless hours on the phone with ITS, and we watched the on-line face book redefine social interaction, dating, and perhaps you've even been poked - probably by me.

Recently, there have been many articles in The Campus debating whether or not we're an apathetic group of individuals. Regardless of what people have written, myself included, I am certain that all of us have left an indelible mark on this campus and on the lives of those who have chosen to teach, mentor and guide us over the last four years. With one another, we have shared the past, and I know that we share a bright future.

T.S. Eliot wrote, "In my end is my beginning." And so here we are on the brink of yet another beginning. Which path will we choose? Will we dwell on the fact that "Graduates are required to move out of their dormitory rooms no later than 11:00 p.m. on commencement day," or will we celebrate the fact that when we depart here tonight our hearts and minds will forever become part of this campus' history?

Realize your power and know how intrinsic you are to the whole of this world. My last J Term class reinforced these concepts for me. I decided to take a dance class entitled "Mapping Twom," which featured contact improvisation. I knew only a few others in the class, and for those of you who know me, my dance skills are, at best, limited. Modern dance seemed to be a fun option. I assumed that looks were irrelevant, and, subjectively, I could construe this as art. Of course, I was proved completely wrong.

This was perhaps one of the most challenging classes I had at Middlebury. I recognized the challenge and knew that I, and others in the class, would have to recreate parts of our minds and bodies in order to achieve levels never reached before. Needless to say, we succeeded together.

One class focused on listening to the sounds of our bodies. We were instructed to walk around the room for a few moments, and when we found ourselves in front of someone else, we had to stop and begin touching this person.

When I became the recipient of this otherwise intimate interaction, my whole demeanor changed. I had to overcome my own insecurities, and so I did. It was truly a special moment. Men and women touching. Men and men touching. Women and women touching. It was the creation of the post-structuralist world I had only read about in my women's and genders' class - and that is a major, really, even though I'm the only one graduating from that department. It was physical interaction sans the fear of "What does this mean?"

Why am I sharing this with all of you? We must realize the ways in which we are all connected. One of my wonderful friends always comments that we are part of the whole. She's a philosophy major, so I expect these things once in a while. I've always felt that we are connected, that our actions will always affect the lives of others. Once I took this class, listened to my friend and listened to the bodies of others, these feelings became further amplified.

We must not be pedestrian with our thoughts. We have a responsibility to think both locally and globally consciously. We are a privileged few, and we have an obligation to share our knowledge and our spirit with our global community. Our education has been empowering, to say the very least, and I stand here, confident with the words I believe, that you will each let the world change you. And you, in turn, will change the world. Whether it has taken four years or more, for those of you have chosen "professional student" as your major, you have had the opportunity to create and to mold to your specifications the unique individual that sits in this audience today.

Try not to be disappointed if you leave here and have not yet fully discovered yourself. It is a task you will hopefully never complete, and one that will forever challenge you. Revelations will always abound. Make sure that you're conscious to recognize them.

Rilke once wrote in "Letters to a Young Poet," "You are so young. So much before all beginning." And I would like to beg of you as well as I can to have patience with everything unresolved in your heart, and to try and love the questions themselves as if they were locked rooms or books written in a very foreign language. Don't search for the answers which could not be given to you now, because you would not be able to live them. And the point is to live everything. Live the questions now and perhaps then, some day far in the future, you will gradually, without even noticing it, live your way into the answer.

The journey towards self-discovery is in living life itself, embracing that which you do not completely understand. I urge you, Class of 2006, maintain your strength as you continue to change, and be prepared. You may wake up one day and find yourself as the giant bug described in Kafka's "Metamorphosis."

Embrace the journey. Stay true to your resolve. Search your inner being and cling to your corporal being. Persevere and do so irrespective of this world and your own ever-changing realities. Escape definitions. Escape labels. Escape societal pressures that encourage conformity. Do not relinquish your steadfastness, your power, your indomitable, impenetrable self. And, when in doubt, take your cane and lean on it for a moment, and remember that at one time in your life, your friends, here at Middlebury College, were and always will be your support system - your cane.

Congratulations, Class of 2006.

"Gamaliel Painter's Cane" sung by Francois Clemmons.
The Middlebury College Alma Mater, "Walls of Ivy," sung by Francois Clemmons