May 28, 2021: Baccalaureate Address

June 1, 2021

President Laurie L. Patton delivered the following Baccalaureate address on Friday, May 28, 2021.

Baccalaureate Address May 28, 2021

Good afternoon, and welcome to your penultimate ritual at Middlebury before you go out to change the world. Changing the world—yes, that’s a lot of responsibility. But as I look at all that you have done since you began here, there is no doubt in my mind that you are fully prepared to take it on. You are the exceptional, remarkable Class of 2021, who together and as individuals have already managed more over the last four years—and under exceptional, remarkable circumstances—than what many people can dream of taking on in a lifetime.

Let me offer you some numbers as evidence.

Among you are two Watson Fellows, three Fulbrights, two Critical Language Scholar grant recipients, two Udall Scholars, and one Humanity in Action Summer Fellow.

Twenty-two of you are CTLR STEM tutors. Thirty of you are peer writing tutors; eleven are peer language tutors, working in Spanish, Arabic, Russian, Chinese, French, and Japanese—and some of you in several of those languages.

More than 100 of you were summer research assistants with Middlebury faculty. One hundred and thirty-one of you presented at a Spring Symposium—and one of you presented each of the three years that it was held.

One hundred and twenty of you competed in athletics. You have been part of five NCAA champion teams, including the field hockey team, which won the national title in each of three seasons they were able to compete during your time as students. You experienced great success against our NESCAC peers, earning 12 conference championships. The 2019 championship football team was the first in the conference’s 50 years to compile a perfect 9-0 record. And we can now say, because we had no athletics this past fall, that we’ve been undefeated for two years in a row! Four of you senior athletes garnered four All-American honors.

Fifty-seven of you participated in MiddCORE. Seven of you, through Language In Motion, developed and delivered programming to support the global awareness and curiosity and intercultural competence of literally hundreds of Vermont school children. Four of you received Academic Outreach Endowment Awards and 10 of you received Public Service Leadership Awards for projects that included compiling COVID-19 scientific data and strengthening local food systems.

Three of you completed the full requirements of the Privilege & Poverty Academic Cluster and are graduating as P&P Scholars. Four of you undertook a P&P Addison County internship, and one of you had a P&P’s national internship.

Six of you were Oratory Now head coaches. Fifty-seven of you participated in MiddCORE. Twenty of you worked at the Middlebury College Museum of Art, and almost half of the senior class are members of the museum. You led museum tours of exhibitions about Islamic art and women’s suffrage; you organized a film screening to mark World AIDS day, you helped curate exhibitions about activist art and the 50th anniversary of the moon landing.

Then there’s what you’ve accomplished as individuals and in small groups. You organized Nocturne, an all-night campus art festival; you developed and directed a translation project to gather, preserve, and share the story of Japanese-Americans during World War II; you co-led Midd Women on Wall Street; you developed and ran a girls empowerment program in Ethiopia; you designed furniture for a Habitat for Humanity house; you worked on a project to unlock the genome of the African diaspora.

And you challenged yourselves, and each other, to keep Middlebury learning in person this year, keeping our COVID cases low and our community safe. You challenged us to more directly confront systemic racism in our country and on our campus; to increase campus diversity and equal access to the full Middlebury experience; broaden our understanding of accessibility and gender identification and inclusivity; and acknowledge the original inhabitants of the land where campus now sits.

The statistics I just cited must be inspiring. You did all this. And yet they must sound like they are from another world—a dream.

A New York pandemic collaborative poem, cowritten by Tamilla and Rachel Leigh, ends with the following lines: 

It was all a dream, I used to leave the house without a mask
But now I sneeze into napkin and push the window closed.

You must feel that way about your college experience. Because you had two college experiences. Before, in that dream-like time, there was a world without masks, inside or out.

When your circle of friends was not defined as your “pod,” or “close contacts” and people could come and go as they pleased. When you could walk into town and not worry about the person who walked by on the street. When you didn’t have to fight a sense of isolation every day, because you knew you would run into people to hang out with and do so without worry. When your faces, and the faces of your professors, your coaches, your friends, weren’t flattened by an image on a screen—but were whole, and alive.

Before, you lived in a world where performances could occur in front of packed audiences, including brothers and aunts from out of town, and bodies could touch on the stage. Where bodies were supposed to touch on the stage. Where a hug could happen at a hockey game. Where someone could lean over your shoulder to help you on a lab assignment, take a beaker from you and check the measurements and put it back in your hand.

You lived in another world, then. Where you never knew what the rules were going to be from one day to the next. Where you knew your friends and teachers only by their eyes and noses. Where you learned in childhood bedrooms that you thought you had left behind forever. Where you spent hours in two-dimensional sessions of endless squares. Where laughter was muffled by masks. Where your enthusiasm for a problem solved had to be contained by a simulation on a screen. Where the news from home included statistics from your county about the number of hospital beds available, and about people whom you knew from childhood who were sick. Where you didn’t just share stories of intellectual adventure, but stories of loss. Everyone has lost someone to COVID.

That second world has created habits in you that will stay forever. Your very DNA has changed. Your bodies have changed. You will have the muscle memory in your fingers that makes you put on a mask in a split second. You will never read a community health dashboard carelessly again. You will probably find it strange—and may even have a visceral reaction—to being in a crowd at a concert where thousands of people are singing along.

Those experiences will shape you. But as you leave Middlebury, I want to remind you of something far deeper, and more important. You are leaving us at a time of hope. In November, I spoke to a freezing group of Feb graduates at the stadium, physically distant, at an event hastily planned before the second Vermont shutdown occurred due to the alarming surge of cases across the country and the state. Today, in May, we are seated together with our families and friends nearby, with skyrocketing vaccination rates and plummeting positive COVID rates. We are in fact sitting in a county with one of the highest vaccination rates in the state that has the highest vaccination rate in the nation. Today, we are moving into a world of green, not yellow or red, warnings.

Yet today we feel a hope born of sorrow. A hope born of what you have witnessed. As Naomi Shihab Nye has written in her poem, “Before you know what kindness really is you must lose things, feel the future dissolve in a moment like salt in a weakened broth.” Naomi Nye goes on,

Before you know kindness as the deepest thing inside,
you must know sorrow as the other deepest thing.
You must wake up with sorrow.
You must speak to it till your voice
catches the thread of all sorrows
and you see the size of the cloth.

This poem has been a favorite of healthcare workers, who, as one put it, didn’t know what to do with all the sorrow, didn’t have a place to put it. They were traveling in the desolate landscapes between kindnesses, and found solace in the words that described a future crumbling before them—part of their everyday experience. This poem has also given solace to those, like you, who are working against the deep global challenges of climate damage, systemic racism, and socio-economic inequality that, even as the pandemic recedes, continue to undermine our hope for a better world.

You too have felt the future dissolve in a moment, like salt in a weakened broth. And yet, here’s the most remarkable thing. The awe-inspiring thing. The thing that we all do not cease to marvel at. In the midst of, and because of, the sad challenges of COVID, you have built a livable world.

You. All of you together. Have built a livable world.

Let me begin with the basic, extraordinary fact. Middlebury was open for in-person, residential learning all year. And Middlebury—you—had one of the lowest, if not the lowest, rate of positive cases of any college in the country this year. That’s reason to be inspired. And it’s reason to ask how. I know the answers.

You made Middlebury a livable world.

You did this first through a respect for health and for science. Through faithfulness in the simplest things—by wearing a mask, washing your hands, respecting physical distancing. In the simple sentiment in the note I received on my porch one evening from the student residents in an off-campus house: “We want to work together to make this a successful year.” Through faithful attendance at the testing center, Mondays, Thursdays, Mondays, Thursdays, Mondays, Thursdays. By sitting bravely in the stark loneliness of quarantine. By joining a peer counseling group online.

We struggled with surveillance culture. We struggled together with whether the “phases” of the fall term really helped. We struggled with mental health. With disappointed parents. With trying to apply the health and safety rules fairly. With parties that seemed OK, and then suddenly weren’t. With rules about close contacts that were, in the end, difficult to define. With anxiety about when and how we could be vaccinated. With missing our families and not being able to see them when we needed them most. But through it all, you respected each other and you respected the science.

You made Middlebury a livable world.

You did this also through strength and creativity of spirit. You found a way to continue learning online—as if it had always been this way. You called your professors more often. (COVID studies show that professors now embrace calling students, too.) You focused on collaborative classes with your fellow Middlebury students in China, in Turkey, in California. You learned with your professors how to do sustainable and affordable chemistry experiments. You created new ways to be artistic. Nocturne thrived in COVID. You built a new stage upon which you could perform. You danced at night on Battell Beach. The music broadcast throughout the whole campus. The long arguments of philosophy or literature continued. The team practices were a different kind of dance across Middlebury’s fields. The climate change activism created new partnerships with the residents of the town. You planned and flawlessly carried out powerful protests in a year of racial reckoning.

You made Middlebury a livable world.

Most importantly, you did this through kindness. You did this through Mutual Aid initiatives that helped other students. Through signing on for peer-counseling groups—more than ever before. You planned birthday meals for your friends in quarantine with dining services. You tutored primary and secondary school students online–more than ever before. In the spring, you made sure your peers could get the vaccine. Through fundraising drives for essential workers at Middlebury and in Addison County. When asked, you said that you cared about your peers’ health as a first priority. Your own health was a second.

This kindness made Middlebury a livable world. As Naomi Nye put it,

Then it is only kindness that makes sense anymore,
only kindness that ties your shoes
and sends you out into the day to gaze at bread,
only kindness that raises its head
from the crowd of the world to say
It is I you have been looking for,
and then goes with you everywhere
like a shadow or a friend.

You are going out in a time of hope—one that is born, woven, of challenges and moments of sadness that no college student should have to face. And yet you embraced them. You felt your future dissolve before you, like salt in a broth. And then you built a different one.

As you, and the world, move into a new, healthier time: never forget how you practiced that kindness. Never forget that the wise, seasoned, kindness—the kindness that knows loss—is the basis of the most profound hope. And that hope should go with you everywhere, like a shadow or a friend.

We are prouder of you than we could ever say in words. Go now, and build a livable world. Congratulations!

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