Commencement Slide Show
MIDDLEBURY, Vt. – The 2015 Middlebury College Commencement celebrated the conclusion of the undergraduate careers of 552 graduating seniors from 46 states and 32 foreign countries. It was the final Commencement presided over by Ronald D. Liebowitz, who is stepping down from the presidency in five weeks’ time.
May 24, 2015, was also memorable for its sunny skies and warm breeze, for a student speech that captured perfectly the day’s rite of passage from the perspective of the graduates, and perhaps most of all for Julia Alvarez’s powerful Commencement Address that extended gratitude to others and probed what it means to be a soulful person.
The celebrated poet and novelist, daughter of the Dominican Republic and Middlebury College (Class of 1971), and beloved member of the faculty, Alvarez paraphrased John Keats when she said, “Life, not college, is the vale of soul-making, and the way to make a soul is by giving yourself to what you love.”
Video: Scenes from Commencement 2015
The “single most important star” she steers her life by is “to become the larger version of myself, which is my definition of a soul, by giving myself wholeheartedly to what I love.”
She continued, “As you leave here you are going to feel pressure to get a good job, get your career going, be a change maker, but I am telling you first things first. Whatever you do let it be something that at the end of the day you can say: ‘I do this because I have a soul.’ Every choice ask yourself: is this going to be a soul-making or a soul-selling choice? Don’t settle for less. That is what a life is for.”
Alvarez, the author of “How the Garcia Girls Lost their Accents” and other novels, memoirs, and volumes of poetry, said she wanted to avoid sounding like she was doling out “Wisdom 101,” so her 15-minute speech opted instead for providing the graduates with a “care package, or some essential supplies to stick in your life’s backpack.” They included Spike Lee’s observation that you can learn valuable lessons from people who are dumber than you are; the wisdom of Mayan weavers who start every project with the maxim “grant me the intelligence and the patience to find the true pattern”; and Toni Morrison’s reflection that “the purpose of freedom is to free someone else.”
She underscored the theme of gratitude and generosity in her closing. “The best community,” Alvarez declared, is one in which “you are nourished by others to bring forth what is inside you, and where you nourish others with what you bring forth.” It is a phenomenon she discovered in rural Haiti, and it’s one she has come to define as the “basic investment plan of the poor.”
“You save what you have by sharing it. Whatever you have, instead of hoarding it, you cast your bread upon the waters, and the next time, [if] you’re the one in need, you’ll find your waters breaded by those you once helped.”
In addition to delivering the address, Julia Alvarez also received an Honorary Doctor of Letters from her alma mater. On a glorious spring day with thousands of parents, family members, and friends in attendance on the quadrangle in front of Voter Hall, Alvarez was joined by four other honorary degree recipients:
Martin Chalfie, Honorary Doctor of Science, for his work with green fluorescent protein (GFP) as a biological marker that earned him the 2008 Nobel Prize in Chemistry;
Hilary Hahn, Honorary Doctor of Arts, for her achievements as a classical violinist and recipient of three Grammy Awards, and as a student for four summers in three different languages in the Middlebury Language Schools;
Christina Johnston, Honorary Doctor of Education, as a proponent of curricular innovation in elementary education from her perch as principal of Weybridge (Vt.) Elementary School; and
Eric Nelson, Honorary Doctor of Laws, for his research on the history of political thought in early modern Europe and America, and his 2013 landmark lecture at Middlebury on “Hebraism and the Republican Turn of 1776.”
The valedictorian of the class, Qian Zhe (“Danny”) Zhang of Toronto, and the co-salutatorians Catherine Anne Costley of Williamstown, Mass., and Michael Louis Martini of Stockton, Calif., were the first to receive their diplomas and replicas of Gamaliel Painter’s cane, followed by the members of the Class of 2015 sorted by major, starting with American Studies and concluding with Theatre and Dance.
Also in keeping with the Middlebury tradition, the class selected a member of its own ranks, Adam Milano, to deliver the Student Commencement Speech.
A theatre major from Allendale, N.J., Milano said graduating from college is unlike any other next step in life. “This one is a huge deal. This step we are all taking today is more like that step that comes at the end of a diving board, or getting onto a plane, or walking down the stairs in the dark. This step means leaving college.”
For Milano, Commencement is “closing the chapter on being a kid” and “removing the massive safety net” that the Middlebury community provides. Commencement, he said, is about becoming once and for all an adult, an adult equipped with a liberal arts education ready to solve problems that haven’t even appeared yet.
“The liberal arts is about challenge,” he said. “It’s not just about acquiring one skill over four years and applying it. It is about thinking outside the box and challenging conventional ways of thinking. It is about making sure that you do everything with integrity and intentionality. The education we received is one integral to solving next decade’s problems.”
Most Middlebury Commencements contain at least one surprise and the 2015 event was no exception. After the bachelor’s degrees had been conferred, honorary degree recipient Hilary Hahn returned to the stage with her violin and dazzled the crowd with a performance of the prelude from Bach’s Partita No. 3 in E Major.
The senior class gift was announced as a contribution of $62,131 to support students engaged in international internships, and the Commencement ceremony concluded with the singing of the alma mater, “Walls of Ivy, Paths of Beauty.”
With reporting by Robert Keren; Photos by Todd Balfour and Brett Simison