MIDDLEBURY, Vt.—One hundred thirty-seven students received master's degrees and five students received doctoral degrees at the 96th commencement of the Middlebury Language Schools on August 13 in Mead Chapel.
President Ronald D. Liebowitz and the directors of the Language Schools conferred master of arts degrees in Chinese, French, German, Italian, Mediterranean Studies, Russian, and Spanish, and doctor of modern languages degrees to those candidates who completed advanced study in two foreign languages.
Typifying one of the warmest summers in Vermont's history, the temperature inside the chapel was in the low 80s as the graduates, their family members, teachers, and friends gathered to witness the occasion and hear a commencement address from Vivian Schiller, the president and chief executive officer of National Public Radio.
Schiller, who holds an M.A. in Russian from Middlebury, took the podium and promptly welcomed the graduates in all 10 languages offered at the Language Schools. Then she admitted to feeling a bit "sheepish" at returning to Middlebury, home of the Language Pledge and the total immersion method, while speaking in English instead of Russian, the language she studied here.
"Language reveals the mystery of other nations, of other peoples," said Schiller. "The difference between being fully present in a place and having your nose pressed up against the glass. It's the antidote to ignorance. A foundation for humility. The key to understanding."
"Sadly, we live in a country that does not always value its relationship to the rest of the world," she said. "Despite being a nation of immigrants, we do not embrace the study of language or other cultures. Only 4 percent of Americans have passports."
"So this is the world into which you carry your newly minted diplomatic credentials. And it brings me back your last assignment. You have spent your time at Middlebury acquiring a special gift—the gift of language. And with that gift comes great responsibility. I'm not suggesting you all should become journalists (though the evangelist in me would recommend it). I'm suggesting you have a duty to be both ambassadors to the world for other Americans, and interpreters for us folks back home. You must share what you know—through your writing, your teaching, the stories you tell, the insights you share—and in doing so inspire others to look outside of themselves, outside of their country."
After her address, the College conferred academic degrees upon its newest graduates and an honorary doctor of letters upon Schiller in recognition of her 25-year career as a media executive and journalist, not only with NPR but also with the New York Times, the Discovery Channel, CNN Productions, and Turner Broadcasting.
The College also bestowed an honorary doctorate of humane letters upon Susan Véguez, who recently retired as Middlebury's director of corporate and foundation relations, and who has long been dedicated to assisting Mexican farm workers and their families in Addison County with her own proficiency in Spanish.
President Liebowitz opened the ceremony with brief remarks about the history of the College and of the Language Schools.
On the occasion of this Language Schools Commencement, Liebowitz said, "We remind ourselves that the sustained pursuit of foreign language study and culture, and the awareness of the fact that through such study we break down multiple barriers and increase intercultural understanding, has become a great distinguishing characteristic of this institution. The Language Schools have been a large part of this special claim that we treasure and honor."
In particular, the president acknowledged the contributions of five people: Gamaliel Painter, one of the founding fathers of both the town and the College; Lilian Stroebe, who started the first language school, the German School, in 1915; Professor Stephen A. Freeman, who served the College and the Language Schools from 1925 to 1963; Betty Ashbury Jones, graduate of the French School and trustee emerita; and Kathryn Wasserman Davis, the 103-year old philanthropist and renowned champion of international peace.
Michael E. Geisler, vice president for Language Schools, Schools Abroad, and Graduate Programs, welcomed all to the ceremony. "This year over 1,500 students attended the Middlebury Language Schools here in Vermont and at our second site in California," he said, "with almost 900 of them coming not to earn a degree, but just to study language. To learn to talk like people from another culture, joke like people from another culture, and even argue like people from another culture.
"In doing so each and every one of you, just as our graduates have done tonight, risks not just failure or embarrassment but far more. [Language Schools students] risk their identity; they risk their sense of self. In no other academic discipline that I can think of do you put the very core of your being on the line, and for having the courage to do that, I salute you."
After two musical interludes and the presentation of awards for distinguished study in the four languages for which the College does not award graduate degrees (Arabic, Hebrew, Japanese, and Portuguese), the ceremony concluded with the singing of "Gamaliel Painter's Cane," led by François Clemmons, the Twilight Artist-in-Residence.
Then the graduates and guests marched into the warm Vermont night led by marshals Doris Kirchner and Jason Merrill, directors of the German and Russian Schools, respectively, as Emory Fanning, professor emeritus of music, played the recessional on the Mead Chapel organ.