MIDDLEBURY, Vt. — Late-afternoon sunlight glistened on the sugar maples flanking the path to Mead Chapel as 629 first-year students participated in the traditional opening Convocation of Middlebury College on Sept. 8.

The new students applauded the procession of faculty members and then followed them into the chapel, many for the first time, to sit in the pews with their Commons and touch the centuries-old wooden cane once carried by the college founder, Gamaliel Painter. They listened to the College Choir, sung time-honored songs and heard the convocation address delivered by President Ronald D. Liebowitz, in which he humorously opted to forgo “10 bullet points of presidential wisdom” and project into the future:

“Think…about how much smarter and more accomplished you will be in four years, thanks, especially, to the exceptional faculty with whom you will study. Nowhere will you find a more dedicated faculty that is willing to help you get the most out of your four years here than the one you will meet in class beginning tomorrow. 

“When you do graduate, you will take with you the subject matter you will master by studying deeply within your chosen major; the critical skills you will hone by studying a wide range of subjects through different modes of inquiry; and a passion for life-long learning that a liberal arts education ignites in so many.

Watch a video of the Convocation Ceremony

“I encourage you, and really urge you, to be conscious of the less evident yet hugely consequential gift this college offers you that will serve you well throughout your lives: the spirit, confidence, and know-how to bring the best out of the people around you…the ability to collaborate and work well with others…to create a special kind of intellectual and learning community that will nurture you for four years as it has nurtured before you 25,000 Middlebury alumni over the past 213 years.  Don’t take this special attribute of Middlebury for granted; in fact, make sure to take advantage of it.”

Liebowitz observed that the college has survived and thrived for centuries “because it forged a powerful identity and understanding of itself that has been passed on from generation to generation of students, extending now to all of you.”

First-year students waited for the procession to begin.

Following a week of Orientation climaxed by weekend trips in outdoor adventure, community service or Vermont exploration, the members of the Class of 2017 gathered outside Mead Chapel for Convocation, just as generations of other new Middlebury students have done throughout the years.

The academic procession was led by associate professors Kim Cronise (psychology) and Claudio Medeiros (theatre) followed by members of the administration and faculty. Once inside, the Rev. Laurel Macauley Jordan, a member of the Class of 1979, delivered the benediction.

Timothy Spears, vice president for academic affairs, welcomed the first-year students and spoke about their use of time. “The Internet offers access to resources that were unimaginable a generation ago, transforming how we learn. But with these possibilities come challenges, not only in how we evaluate online sources and sift through information, but also in the amount of time we spend engaging the world through virtual means.

“I raise this last issue,” Spears said, “not to suggest that we should unplug our computers or turn off our iPhones, never mind Facebook or Instagram, but to underscore the importance of mindfulness, of paying attention to how we spend our time. Indeed, of all the resources we have at Middlebury, your time here is the most precious.

“Starting tomorrow we the faculty will be your partners in your effort to seek an education that prepares you to engage the world. We will encourage, support and cheer your efforts to find and develop your intellectual passions. We may even offer advice on how you can balance the various interests in your life. So seize the day and welcome to Middlebury.”

The College Choir performed at Convocation.

One-by-one the faculty heads of the five Commons asked their students to rise and spoke briefly about the major figure in the college’s history for whom their Commons is named: Jeremiah Atwater, Ezra Brainerd, Reginald Cook, Eleanor Ross and Erica Wonnacott.

One of the most stirring moments of Convocation was the choir’s performance of “Lord, If I Got My Ticket,” an African American spiritual conducted by Jeffrey Buettner, associate professor of music, with soloist Michael McCann of the Class of 2015.

Following the benediction given by Rabbi Ira Schiffer, the associate chaplain, the gathering then sang the Middlebury Alma Mater and recessed out of Mead Chapel, their formal introduction to the Middlebury College community now complete, save for the official class photograph which was taken on the lawn adjacent to the chapel.

With reporting and photography by Robert Keren