Commencement Student Speech by Peter Baumann '10

May 24, 2010

Thank you, President Liebowitz.  Let's get a big round of applause for everyone who has traveled to join us here today.  I promised myself that I wouldn't use that timeworn  "We wouldn't be here without you" line.  But as I look out at all of you, I have two thoughts:  1.   I'm a lot more nervous than I had anticipated.  and 2.  It must be  true what they say about it taking a [small New England-sized] village.  Furthermore, as I look at all of you proud and eager parents, let me just start by acknowledging how relieved the Class of 2010 is - in a very bipartisan way -- with Congress's recent decision to let us poach on your health insurance for another five years.  And you thought you were rid of us... I also want to thank the group of seniors who I somehow hoodwinked into letting me speak to all of you today.  Your checks are in the mail, although, we're in a recession, so forgive me, you might want to wait until next Friday to deposit those.

Recession.  For over half of our college career it has been a national and local buzzword, monopolizing  the pages of international, national, and local newspapers.  I can't tell you how many hours we spent searching out synonyms for "recession" in the basement of the Middlebury Campus newspaper office. "'Economic Downturn', used that one already.  'Trying times', too cliché.  Honestly, can we just declare this a depression already?!?"  And while the popular press is starting to sing about improving leading indicators, for many "the upswing" of this economic downturn has yet to materialize.  Credit is still tight.  Customers remain nervous.  And thus many of the job prospects that graduating Middlebury students have enjoyed in the past remain just that: in the past.

But Middlebury students have been here before - by my unofficial count - conducted without the aid of Wikipedia, of course - almost 25 Middlebury classes, just under a quarter of the total, have been forced to graduate during a recession since 1900 alone.  One of those was the class of 1982, which crossed this stage into the teeth of the last great recession.  Among them was David Buchanan, who had dreamed his entire life of a career in journalism only to be stymied by an unrelenting job market.  Disheartened, he bounced around a couple of jobs before signing onto a voyage as a crew member and teacher aboard a sail training vessel operated by Landmark School - a Boston-based educational institutional for dyslexic children.  Six months later, Buchanan returned to port with new-found sea legs and an enduring passion for education.  Today he works as an educational specialist for the Massachusetts Dept. of Education, putting to use every day the lessons he learned when he stumbled across that boat almost three decades ago.

Let's face it:  the last year has been a miserable time to look for a job.  But just as trying times forced David Buchanan to literally sail away from his dream of becoming a journalist - where the wind in those sails pushed him toward unimagined but rich experiences, so do today's uncertain times provide us the opportunity to take "that road less traveled."

I contend we're more than ready.  This year I've been delivering group information sessions down at the Admissions office. With nervous smiles plastered across their faces, each prospective student shuffles into the presentation room at the Emma Willard House, sits down, and for the better part of an hour listens to me ramble.  [Something tells me you can probably feel their pain right about now.]   But at the end of each session, those that are still awake inevitably ask two tough  questions. of them isn't "Are there really more cows than people in Vermont?" (But for the record, the answer is yes.)   And no, one of them isn't "How does the Commons system differ from Hogwarts again?" (Of course there IS no difference:  Brainerd is Gryffindor and Ross is definitely Slytherin)   No, the  two questions that inevitably make me squirm are   "What are you doing next year?" and, "How would you describe the average Middlebury student?"  Needless to say I've become pretty adept at evading the former.   But actually, it's the second question that's far more difficult to answer.

All of us up front, of course, know why.  There simply isn't a typical Middlebury college student.  We're not partiers  or library nerds, jocks or hipsters.  But we are bound by a common trait:  we're a community with very disparate interests, comfortable in - and eager to learn from -- one another's company.  And there is something else that ties us together: Middlebury students get that college is a transformational experience - an opportunity to grow.  It is not, as many other institutions insist, a means to an end: at Middlebury we understand that it can, and should be, a rare end unto itself.

Another common question down at the Emma Willard House goes something like "How well has Middlebury has prepared you  for life after college?"  [Now I admit, I haven't heard that one from a single high school kid, but the parents are ALL over it.] After the requisite joke about how Middlebury has taught me I have to keep my parents basement more clean after I move back in I explain that Middlebury has not only prepared me for whatever the next step may be, but perhaps, a la David Buchanan,  it has prepared me for however that next step might change just as I'm  in the midst of taking it.  The institutional philosophy that exists from President Liebowitz through our favorite professors, coaches, and counselors is one that emphasizes process over result, and yet, in a seeming contradiction of terms, the result of this philosophy is that we graduate today more flexible, more versatile, and more prepared to confront today's difficult, ever changing realities than perhaps even we realize.

Four years ago, as we sat on the grass in front of Mead Chapel waiting for the time lapse-photo of the class of 2010 to load, Bob Sincerbeaux and Taylor Robinson ran from one corner of the photo, around the photographer, and back into the other corner.  Forgive me for being a bit cliché here, but maybe they had it right all along.  We have spent four years of college running:  from class to class, from the library to the dining hall, from the athletic facility to office hours...but at Middlebury we ran not  to get out, but  to build on our experience within.  And today, we continue to run not toward what follows this  ceremony, but toward what is meaningful right here among us: our families, our friends, our mentors, and the foundation that Middlebury has provided.  We're not running to get out of that photo, we're running to make it back in.

Don't worry Mom and Dad, the moral is not that we are planning to  re-enroll for a fifth year...instead, the moral is that our collective approach to college as an end unto itself isn't just what has made these four years special, it is exactly what has prepared us for life on the other side of this stage.

More than once this year, as I left behind stacks of work to meet friends down at our local, neighborhood Two Brothers Tavern, (open 'til midnight on Sundays, tell Beal I sent you), I reminded myself that in ten years I'm not going to remember the grades, or the tests, or the painful sports losses, but I am going to remember the experience.  For four years we have worked, laughed, debated, played, stressed, and smiled, and the beauty of Middlebury is that each and every one of those moments was an integral part of our education.  Former UCLA Basketball Coach John Wooden once said that success is peace of mind - which is a direct result of self-satisfaction in knowing you did your best to become the best you are capable of becoming.  Today, surrounded by 600 of our closest friends, embraced by very special family and an extraordinary learning community,  and armed with an education that transcends the classroom, we cannot help but feel successful - recession or not.  Classmates, we leave here today blessed with peace of mind because whatever the future holds, I promise you, we're ready.  Thank you.

Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn

At the request of Mr. Kristof and Ms. WuDunn, the text of their commencement address will not be posted to the college's Web site.