Middlebury

Language Schools Confer Graduate Degrees at Commencement [video]

August 19, 2013

MIDDLEBURY, Vt. — The Middlebury Language Schools conferred 118 Master of Arts degrees and seven Doctor of Modern Languages degrees at the Language Schools’ 99th commencement on Aug. 16 in Mead Memorial Chapel.

The president of Middlebury College, Ronald D. Liebowitz, and the directors of the Language Schools presented master’s degrees for study in Chinese, French, German, Italian, Mediterranean Studies, Russian and Spanish, and doctoral degrees to candidates who completed advanced study in two foreign languages.

Watch a video of the Language Schools' Commencement

Clarissa Ward, the CBS News foreign correspondent who was the first American journalist to broadcast live from inside rebel-held territory in Syria, delivered the commencement address to the gathering of graduates, family members, faculty and guests.  

Ward, who won an Emmy Award for her reporting on the global food crisis in 2008 and has been nominated for three Emmys this year, gave an impassioned 10-minute address recounting how her foreign language skills helped her comfort an orphaned child in Syria, escape from an violent mob in China and converse with Russian soldiers along the front lines in Georgia.

Speaking different languages has afforded me freedom, independence, confidence and a measure of protection,” Ward said, and yet her proficiency in languages has, more importantly, opened her eyes to the lives of other people.

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Clarissa Ward with President Liebowitz and trustee Linda Whitton

“Because above all, language is about receiving — receiving the key that unlocks the doors to different cultures. Whether it’s through literature or poetry or song or conversation, languages teach us to listen. And I mean really listen. Languages tell us so much more than the literal meanings of words. They tell us about the history of places, about the dreams and frustrations of their peoples. They teach us how societies work, what people aspire to, [and] how they understand beauty, truth, God.”

The commencement speaker denounced America’s lackluster performance in learning foreign languages. Quoting the U.S. secretary of education, Ward said only 18 percent of Americans speak a language other than English, compared with 53 percent of Europeans who speak a second language.

“In many dangerous parts of the world, there is a perception that as Americans we don’t think we need to bother to learn languages, that we assume anybody who is important speaks English. And that feeds into a reputation that America has for arrogance. We need to challenge those assumptions and show the world we are listening.” She concluded by urging the newly minted degree holders to use the “precious passports” they have just attained and go out and be diplomats for their country.

Following the address, the college conferred academic degrees upon its newest graduates and an Honorary Doctor of Letters to Clarissa Ward.

President Liebowitz opened the ceremony by congratulating the degree candidates for their “persistence and endurance,” and said the ability to speak other languages “will enable you to engage other cultures, express yourself artistically and creatively in ways different from your native language and persona, and perhaps help solve and explain to others some of the most intractable conflicts around the world, many of them due to an inability on the part of those involved to communicate or understand the cultural context of the disagreement.”

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The degree candidates process into Mead Chapel.

Middlebury’s 16th president reflected on the history of the college and acknowledged the contributions of five people in particular: Gamaliel Painter, one of the founding fathers of both the town and the college; Lilian Stroebe, who started the first language school at Middlebury, 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, supporter of the Language Schools and trustee emerita of the college; and Kathryn Wasserman Davis, the renowned philanthropist and champion of international peace who passed away in 2013.

He said, “The sustained pursuit of foreign language study and culture, and an 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 which we treasure and honor.”

Michael E. Geisler, vice president for Language Schools, Schools Abroad and Graduate Programs, welcomed all to the ceremony. "This year 1,530 students attended the Middlebury Language Schools here in Vermont and at our second site in California," he said, "with almost 1,000 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 as people argue in another culture.

"In doing so each and every one of them, just as our graduates have done tonight, risks not just failure and 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, for yourself and for the world as you know it. For having the courage to do that, we salute you."

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Christine Jonté Bouchard accepts congratulations for earning a master's in French from President Emeritus John McCardell (center) and George Poe (left).

President emeritus of Middlebury College, John M. McCardell Jr., made a special appearance at the Language Schools' commencement to help present a master's degree in French to Christine Jonté Bouchard, a student from Sewanee: The University of the South, where McCardell is now the vice-chancellor.

McCardell was joined on the platform by George Poe, Bouchard's adviser and French teacher at Sewanee. Poe earned his master's in French from Middlebury in 1975.

After two musical interludes by students and the presentation of awards for distinguished study in Hebrew, Japanese and Portuguese, the ceremony concluded with the singing of "Gamaliel Painter's Cane," led by Grace Weber, Class of 1977 and a student in the Italian School.

The graduates and guests then rose and marched into the Vermont night led by marshals Cynthia-Yaoute Eid and Antonio Vitti, directors of the French School at Middlebury’s site at Mills College in California and of the Italian School, respectively, as Emory Fanning, professor emeritus of music, played the recessional on the organ.

With reporting by Robert Keren and photography by May Mantell