MIDDLEBURY, Vt. – Under azure skies with just a hint of breeze in the air, friends and family members of the Class of 2014 gathered on the quadrangle west of Old Stone Row to celebrate Middlebury College’s 213th Commencement. 

Video: Scenes from Commencement 2014

President Ronald D. Liebowitz welcomed the assemblage, hailed the splendid weather, and thanked the parents for making the trek to Middlebury, as some had travelled halfway around the globe to see their sons and daughters graduate from the College. He also thanked the faculty for the vital role they play in the education of Middlebury students and the staff for the planning and execution that go into largest event on the College calendar. It was a perfectly glorious morning for the graduates in their caps and gowns (and sunglasses and sandals), as temperatures climbed into the mid-60s and sunlight painted the maples and pines of the verdant Champlain Valley.

Members of the board of trustees introduced this year’s six honorary degree recipients, and when the final recipient, distance swimmer Diana Nyad, approached the microphone to deliver the Commencement address, she decided “to dispense with the de rigueur formalities” of the occasion and take a selfie of herself on stage with the Class of 2014 on its feet behind her.

Commencement Slide Show

That bold and joyful act set the tone for her spirited remarks in which she said, “When you achieve your dreams, it’s not so much what you get. It’s who you become.” And so for Nyad, who in September of 2013 became the first person to swim the 110 miles from Havana to Key West without a shark cage, her maxim has always been: “Never, ever give up.” For her support team and for herself, that incredible distance-swimming accomplishment – coming on the heels of four failed attempts – is now the defining experience of her life.

Nyad, 64, told the class that her philosophy of determination stemmed from an incident in 1968 when she was at the Olympic trials in swimming. She had devoted much of her young life to swimming laps at 4:30 in the morning and doing 1,000 sit-ups every day, 365 days a year, only to find herself dazed and “in a fog” moments before her heat in 100-meter backstroke.

That’s when a young woman asked her, What’s wrong, Diana? Why aren’t you focused? The acquaintance advised: “Look at the little half moon sliver of your pinkie finger nail.  If you can say it and mean it that you couldn’t have [finished your race] a finger nail faster, then it will all be all right no matter what you do.”

Those words of encouragement gave Nyad “the laser focus” she needed to swim the fastest race she was humanly capable of doing – “100 meters of perfection,” she called it – and yet she still finished sixth and missed the Olympics.

After the race Nyad shed no tears. “And do you know why?” she asked. “It’s because it wasn’t just that 100 meters. It was the whole 10 years of sacrifice leading up to the trials. It was every day of sit-ups. It was every day with the alarm clock. And I said to myself, ‘I am just a kid. I am just a teenager who’s going to go on and live well all the rest of my life, no matter what I do, just like that.’” 

The steadfastness Nyad discovered that day at the trials propelled her to world-record swims, to a meeting with President Obama, to a career in broadcasting, to Dancing With the Stars, and to penning her memoirs for book publisher Knopf. Yet the big question for Nyad has always been the Mary Oliver quote:

“Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?”

And so she posed that same question of the Class of 2014. “I am asking you, what are you going to do? In the end you’ll do many things. You’ll achieve much. You’ll give much. And on your last day what a goal it will be to say you did all of it – this college experience and all the rest of your lives – that you just can’t do it even a finger nail better.”

“I am proud to be with you,” she concluded. “I congratulate you. Now celebrate and move on and keep asking yourself that question because it’s your life, and it’s wild and it’s precious.” It took the New York City-born Nyad just under 13 minutes to share her poignant message, and she received a standing ovation for her efforts.

In keeping with the Middlebury tradition, a student speaker chosen by the members of the graduating class also spoke.

Jennifer Johnston, an economics major from Westport, Conn., transported her classmates back to September 2010 when the members of the graduating class first arrived on campus. At Convocation for the incoming students, “we were told about the details of our class,” she said. “We learned the demographics. The geography. The details… We were told the descriptive statistics of our class, but honestly the numbers did not mean much.”

It wasn’t until soon after, when staff presented “Voices of the Class,” that the numbers came to life for Johnston. “No longer were we just data; we were real, with real stories and laughs and tears and voices. We were that energy, that vibe, and spunk that each of one of us chose to share… Sharing our voices was how and why we showed up on that hot September week four years ago.

“We knew how to talk the talk, but could we walk the walk? And as we walked out of Mead Chapel that evening, we began our personal journey toward understanding our place, and our role, and our voice in this community.”

Walking was Johnston’s metaphor for the college experience, as she recalled the meandering and strolling and stumbling and determination of her classmates to get where they were going, whether it be on “the 16 miles of campus sidewalk” or anywhere else in “our own personal 100-ace wood.”

“Begin now and spread that Middlebury vibe that brought us all here,” she advised in closing. “Class of 2014: it is just beginning. Class of 2014: share and do good and talk your talk and walk your walk. And thank you all so much because I could not think of any better traveling companions.” 

The College conferred honorary degrees to deep-sea explorer Carl Douglas ’88 (doctor of letters); vocal artist and social justice advocate Angélique Kidjo (doctor of arts); banker and trustee William Kieffer III ’64 (doctor of humane letters); former Yale University president Richard Levin (doctor of letters); retired Colgate-Palmolive executive Reuben Mark ’60 (doctor of laws); and to commencement speaker Diana Nyad (doctor of humane letters).  

Each of the 517 graduates crossed the stage to receive their diploma and their replica of Gamaliel Painter’s cane.

Following the granting of degrees, the always exuberant Angélique Kidjo took the microphone to perform one of her iconic songs, Senie, with the help of the gathered graduates and guests, who sang the background vocals.

The class gift was announced as a contribution of over $32,000 toward financial aid for future students at the College, and the ceremony concluded with the singing of the alma mater.

By Robert Keren, Photos by Todd Balfour and Brett Simison