September 11, 2016: Middlebury College, Fall Convocation Address

September 11, 2016


You are here. You’ve arrived. You’ve found friends. You’ve got plans for your program of study. You may even have plans for next weekend. You have ideas about what sport you will play. Most of you will change your major, some of you many times. Most of you will discover a new sport to play. And all of you will find new friends. All of you will remember something a professor said, 50 years from now, that will help you in your journey. As the author of Proverbs hopes, so too we hope that you will be happy here because you have found new wisdom and understanding. As a member of the Class of 2020, we hope you will find your 20/20 vision.

With such an amazing future, what about the now? How do you deal with the Middlebury of the next few months? How do you become a college student of the Class of 2020—a college student with 20/20 vision to see clearly on your path? I offer a brief answer. You become a college student by becoming wise. The little book that we’ve given you, with sayings—we give that to students every year, and we want you to keep it with you. You can return to it again and again when you are in need of wisdom, when you are in need of lenses to help you see better.

Here’s the hard part. Everyone at Middlebury is as talented as you are, but in a different way. And that can be exhilarating, but it can also be disorienting and discouraging. People already know huge amounts about subjects you’ve never heard of, lived in places that you barely recognize on a map, competed in athletic contests you didn’t even know existed. And maybe you’ve met those people that Greg just talked about—the novelist three-varsity athlete who started her own NGO and hiked the Appalachian Trail, solo. And the most annoying thing was, as you’ve probably already discovered, she was really nice, too. That’s the Middlebury way.

But having a lot of information is not wisdom. As Euripides tells us in The Bacchae, intellect is not wisdom. Wisdom is not knowing a lot, but knowing your own truth. So this is the first part about becoming wise: your job is not to be like others. Your job is to be like yourself. I ask you now, and I will never tire of asking you throughout your time here, how long are you going to worry, like some of you are right now, sitting in those pews and listening to us? How long are you going to worry about who you are not, when you should be getting on with the glorious business of being who you are? Your job at Middlebury is to become more like yourself—whoever that person is and wherever that person takes us and our community.

Once you’ve stopped comparing yourself to everyone else, then you can go on to the second part of wisdom: understanding that you are Middlebury. You are probably wondering, as the Buddhist poet Shantideva does in The Way of the Bodhisattva, whether you have the strength sufficient to the task. Here’s what we want to tell you. You do have that strength, because you belong here. We chose you. We chose you because we sensed, and you did too, that there was something about you and this place that made a really wonderful match. You can do your work here, whatever that work turns out to be. You can play here, whatever that play turns out to be. Your creativity is the creativity of the whole community. Your creativity is what makes Middlebury Middlebury. Whenever you hear people talk about Middlebury as if it were outside of them, apart from them, they’re not being wise. It’s our job to remind each other: we are, all of us, Middlebury. Which means that all of us belong and have something profoundly important to contribute to this community. And we need to make changes in ourselves first and foremost if we want the community to change.

The third part of being wise is having expectations of each other. We have them of you. The Middlebury way is to be constructive. As the New Testament author James puts it, wisdom is not divided, insincere, or mean-spirited, but “peaceable…open to persuasion…filled with mercy and good fruits.” We expect you to be the same. When you think the institution could be better, we will always respond. That’s our job and we love doing it. We will work with you to make it better. That is also the Middlebury way. But that willingness to work together also comes with expectations: in the spirit of good fruits, we ask that you never stop at the criticism, but that you always move toward the constructive solution.

We had students 10 years ago who wanted Middlebury to be carbon neutral by 2016. And guess what? We did it. The students didn’t just demand that their professors and administrators do something. They themselves came up with a plan about how to get there. And everyone in our community responded and worked together to try to meet these environmental goals, step by step. And because students were constructive, and came up with a plan, professors and administration responded. And we did it together. This semester, we will be one of the largest institutions of its kind to be carbon neutral. And so your class could be the ones to help come up with the next plan: how to be permanently carbon negative. That kind of community building is what the Qur’an is referring to when it says, “Give charitably from the good things you have acquired.” At Middlebury, you will be given a great deal, and we expect you to help us build the community constructively as a way of giving back.

The fourth part of becoming wise is being resilient. It doesn’t mean just powering on without thinking or taking care. Resilience means finding a new shape after you’ve been bent out of shape, or, as the Bhagavad Gita teaches, finding wisdom in the self. It means taking care of yourself as you go through something hard. And it means, when things aren’t going your way, you keep going. You find a way forward, even if you think you can never get there. And you are never afraid to ask for help. Resilience isn’t a trait that you develop in a vacuum; you need friends and family and advisors and professors and classmates and teammates to help you keep going. At Middlebury, we expect you to be brave enough to ask for help.

Here’s a report from the summer about students just like you, who could not have accomplished what they did without that capacity for resilience and persistence. We had more than 140 undergraduates participating in summer research with faculty mentors, including seven students who created an infrared rover that can visually evaluate inaccessible places like pipes and tunnels. They could have just rested on their laurels, but instead they’re building community by giving that rover to our facilities department this fall to help our staff detect significant temperature differences in the campus steam system. That in turn will allow us to optimize our steam usage. It was not easy, and there were bumps along the way. But they gave the community a new tool to help with energy conservation.

There are the three alumnae athletes who participated in the Rio Olympics: Lea Davison ’05 in women’s mountain biking, Megan Guarnier ’07 in women’s cycling, and Sarah Groff True ’04 in women’s triathlon. These folks represent the heart and soul of persistence. And while none of them won a medal, they were simply honored to be part of the team, and their love of their sport remains just as high.

And yes, I get it. These examples are kind of spectacular. But Middlebury students tell me all the time about other, everyday forms of resilience and persistence. There’s the first-year student who, ever since she arrived at Middlebury, wanted to learn Chinese in the summer school but didn’t think she could afford it. And then, with the help of deans and fellow students, she found a way to get scholarship money and just completed her first summer in Chinese this August. There’s the student leader who guided the Student Government Association through a series of difficult conversations last year and wrote me, at the end of the year, that if someone had told her she’d be doing that this past year, she would never have believed she could do it. Or the recent graduate who, after persevering through the death of both parents, decided that his best way of honoring his parents’ memories was to create a weekly dog therapy session on campus. And my favorite example: the student who decided to write an opinion piece even after he felt silenced by some other students who disagreed with him. In this day and age, public debate is true grit. Each of you will have your own story of constructive engagement and personal resilience. And we can’t wait to hear those stories: tell them to us often.

And finally, becoming wise is developing a relationship with the landscape around you. You have come to a community with a deep sense of place. When someone says that Middlebury is “in the middle of nowhere,” I always correct them, and you should, too. Middlebury is very much deeply somewhere. You are in a town, and a state, with an extraordinary sense of the natural world, the relationship between human beings and nature, and a long-standing democratic tradition. Be respectful of the town and its citizens, whose resources keep the College going. Just 216 years ago, the citizens of Middlebury built the College themselves as “the town’s college.” Never forget that.

And most importantly of all, take refuge and delight in the mountains and the trails and the rivers and forests and lakes all around you. They are the best stress-busters around. They will help you become resilient, to help you think of creative solutions. At Middlebury, people tell each other all the time to go take a hike, and they literally will!

At Middlebury, 20/20 vision, your vision, is what Toni Morrison tells us it is: dreaming the world as it ought to be. That’s what it means to become wise. So I will ask you once more: How long are you going to worry about who you are not, when you should be getting on with the glorious business of being who you are? Becoming who you are meant to be at Middlebury is dreaming the world as it ought to be. And the community is here, and will be for the rest of your life, to dream with you.

Class of 2020: You are here. You belong. We will help you grow that 20/20 vision and become wise. We will help you build resilience. As one student put it to me, Middlebury is really supportive wilderness training for the mind, heart, body, and soul. And we can only guarantee that you will change. Are you in?

Office of the President

Old Chapel
9 Old Chapel Road
Middlebury College
Middlebury, VT 05753