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President Laurie Patton's Remarks to the Class of 2020.5

December 2, 2020


Remarks to the Class of 2020.5
President Laurie L. Patton, November 14, 2020

Hello, Class of Twenty-Point-Five and a warm welcome to all of you. None of us expected to be here right now. In fact, we didn’t even expect to be here this morning. But with typical Midd spirit, we found a way to gather one more time before the pandemic closes in. Within hours, and with just hours to go, we found a way.

Your four years have been filled with that spirit. Let me describe some of the ways.  When you arrived at Midd on February 8, 2017, there were 99 of you. You now number 129, representing 25 states, the District of Columbia, and 12 countries.

You’ve pursued 31 different majors, with 32 of you completing a double or joint degree. Twenty-three of you studied at the Middlebury summer Language Schools. Seventy-five of you studied abroad. 

And even though none of us could have imagined we would come together in quite this way—to mark the conclusion of your Middlebury career—we are, together again, celebrating your accomplishments of the past four years. 

Middlebury prepares you to address the world’s most challenging problems. You’ve heard us say this ever since you were applying to Middlebury. And sometimes it’s not  apparent what those challenges will be. 

The last spring and fall of your Middlebury undergraduate career have presented challenges we could not have predicted and have compelled us to question—and reinvent—everything we do. You rose to this challenge, and for that I am incredibly proud of you. We are all incredibly proud of you. 

Today, I want to issue a new challenge to you as you prepare to depart. And that is this: take the lessons of this most unusual and difficult experience and bring them to bear on the work that lies ahead for you, addressing the issues of our day. And the issues of tomorrow. You have shown that you have the intellect, the fortitude, the resilience to do this work—wherever it happens to take you—and we so look forward to following your progress.

Class of ’20.5, you are, remarkably, the first group of Febs to complete your Middlebury careers in the midst of a global pandemic. At a time when all of us—students, faculty, and staff—have been pushing ourselves mentally, physically, and emotionally, you, our students, have epitomized the fearless pioneering leadership we have come to expect from our Febs.

You placed your passion for learning and your love for our Middlebury community above your own comfort, following new and strange protocols for college life, here and at home. Who knew the role that face coverings and take-out containers would play in the waning days of your college experience?

You have kept our community safe and together this fall. For that, we are all deeply grateful. I’ll say more about that in a minute. And even though the historic disruption caused by COVID-19 may loom over your final year at Middlebury and beyond, we must pause—just for a moment—and savor some of your extraordinary activities of the past four years.

You’ve shared your talent, knowledge, and passion for global fluency with the wider community:

  • Through our Language in Motion program, you’ve visited Vermont classrooms in Addison County and beyond—seeking to deepen and extend the global perspective, interests, and knowledge of Vermont students.
  • Through Oratory Now, you’ve put your expert public-speaking skills to work, teaching courses to business professionals in Montpelier.
  • You’ve helped make the United Nations Sustainability Goals more accessible to the rest of the world by creating a series of fun challenges for teens and college students.

Your deep intellectual curiosity has helped you grow as scholars:

  • More than 90 of you have conducted independent undergraduate research with a Middlebury faculty member.
  • Many of you have presented your research and creative works at our annual undergraduate symposium.
  • You, yourselves, have organized symposia on topics such as environmental justice and Beyond #MeToo: Global Responses to Sexual Violence in an Age of Reckoning.
  • Three of you have been inducted into Phi Beta Kappa.

Your achievements as student-athletes have been remarkable:

  • One of you founded the Student-Athletes of Color organization and has been instrumental in creating a more equitable culture on campus.
  • Eight of you competed on NESCAC Championship-winning teams across five different sports.
  • Three of you were on the Panther football team that earned the NESCAC’s first perfect 9–0 record while another of you was on the most successful women’s soccer team in school history, and yet another was on the men’s basketball team that twice advanced to the NCAA tournament.

You’ve created a stronger sense of community on campus through your many leadership roles on, to name just a few,

  • Environmental Council
  • Student Government Association
  • Environmental Studies Student Advisory Committee
  • Feminist Action Middlebury

Your social activism has brought positive change to our campus and elsewhere as you’ve created platforms for critical issues, such as sexual violence and systemic racism, to become part of our mainstream discourse. In fact, you’ve led workshops for your fellow students on how to become more effective activists.

You’ve been powerful advocates for the environment and sustainability:

  • You were actively involved in developing Middlebury’s transformative sustainability initiative, Energy 2028.
  • You were part of the design team that created a beautiful, sustainable Habitat for Humanity home for a local family.
  • One of you worked on climate policy issues during your internship with The Nature Conservancy in D.C.
  • You were inaugural members of our Sustainability Solutions Lab.

You’ve brought a solutions mindset to some of the most immediate social and political issues of our day:

  • One of you with a deep interest in security studies took classes in special operations at the Middlebury Institute and went on to complete an internship with the State Department, which plans to use your project to help combat global terrorism.
  • One of you did research with Vermont’s Green Mountain Care Board in search of solutions to the challenges of healthcare costs and delivery.
  • You’ve navigated the difficult terrain of what it means to be a student journalist in these times through your leadership with the Middlebury Campus.
  • You’ve faced the tragic outcomes of war, working on mental health and trauma issues with Syrian refugee children in Jordan.

As highly engaged citizens, you helped register voters and turn out the vote in Vermont and throughout the United States. You got us through this election, and you are building back this country.

You’ve challenged, provoked, and entertained us with your performing arts. You’ve suggested new ways of thinking about our world through your writing, filmmaking, podcasting, visual art, and multimedia.

What you’ve done, every one of you, during your brief time here has helped us better understand who we are as an academic community and as people of the world.

And that is a precious gift.

Your lives here, and the impact you have made here, will forever be a part of Middlebury.

It is only fitting that I leave you with some thoughts about this semester—probably, for all of us, the most unusual time of our lives.

When you came this semester, your last semester at Middlebury, I was reminding the first-year class and the faculty of Gwendolyn Brooks’s

words: 

we are each other’s

harvest:

we are each other’s

business:

we are each other’s magnitude and bond.

I’ve already shared with you how you’ve done that over the past four years. But these words have particular poignancy this semester. 

They are powerful at this time, right now, because you were the ones who helped the others find a way to live together this semester, and you did it by following Gwendolyn Brooks’s ideas. 

We are each other’s harvest.  I heard it from so many people—that you understood at Middlebury we are enriched simply by being together. That in a time stripped of all luxuries, the simple, plain necessity of being together was a goal in its own right. We are each other’s harvest. By being together, we make each other grow. 

We are each other’s business—I also know you embodied that wisdom this fall. You, the seniors, were letting everyone know how important it is to follow the health protocols. You wanted to spend the semester together and cared enough about the community to make it happen for everyone. You talked to friends. You made videos. 

And in this hard semester, where there was isolation, and longing, and restriction, and fear, and times when you didn’t want to go back to eat in your room, and it was too cold to have class outside in the tent: you also knew that we were each other’s magnitude. That even in this physically distanced time we were the measure of each other’s strength— in fact, we borrowed strength from each other.  We are still borrowing strength from each other—through our creativity in meeting, and our smaller gatherings, and our texting someone who might be lonely. 

And most importantly, you are each other’s bond. You will be bound together by this pandemic in ways that will last the rest of your life. You are bound together now by the fact that you lived and learned and loved in this most extreme of times. 

And now we’ll spend six more days together, following the COVID patterns that have become so familiar. You’ve created a home for all of us through those patterns of living and patterns of loving.

And I know, when you leave at the end of this coming week, you will bring that largeness of spirit with you that is uniquely Middlebury. You will bring some memory of the light and mountains and branches and stones and streams with you.  Kim Stafford, in his pandemic poem, “Shelter in Place,” puts it beautifully.

Shelter in Place 

Long before the pandemic, the trees

knew how to guard one place with 

roots and shade. Moss found

how to hug a stone for life.

Every stream works out how

to move in place, staying home

even as it flows generously

outward, sending bounty far.

Now is our time to practice—

singing from balconies, sending

words of comfort by any courier,

kindling our lonesome generosity

to shine in all directions like stars.

You will take this Vermont home that you created with you and light up others’ lives as you have lit up each other’s and ours.  These times ask of us that we become not just bringers of love and care, but senders of love and care. And this moment is asking it of you—to be senders—to disperse, to throw, to launch, to cast out into the world all that you have learned and all that you have become, as you bring Middlebury into your future life. 

Class of ’20.5: In your ingenuity, your fortitude, your care in these extreme times, you have taught each other, and us, much wisdom. You will leave us soon. We know you will come back to celebrate again. But now is your time to practice, sending words of comfort by any courier, kindling your lonesome generosity to shine in all directions like stars. 

We are so proud, and we send you out with love.