MIDDLEBURY, Vt. – “Welcome to the place of dreaming awake.”

With those words, paraphrased from a Toni Morrison address, Middlebury’s 17th president, Laurie L. Patton, welcomed the 595 members of the first-year class to Convocation on the evening of September 17, 2015.

“Yes, you might be anxious,” she told the new students who filled the pews in Mead Chapel. “You might be feeling inadequate, you might be impatient. In each case, however, you are no longer dreaming awake. You are no longer alert and directed, but you are distracted by your wish, your longing to be somewhere or something else than here, being what you are.”

“As your new president, I am going to ask you: How long will you dwell there in distraction, focused on what you are not, instead of getting on with the glorious business of being who you are?”

The theme of “dreaming awake” carried through the president’s remarkable Convocation Address. Looking out at the faces of the Class of 2019, she said, “We admitted you. The person who dreamed Middlebury and who has come here to dream other dreams. To dream themselves awake.

“But dreaming awake means keeping yourself awake. Keeping yourself aware of all the opportunity that is around you and keeping yourself healthy at the same time. You will have a wealth of people to support you in that effort…and they will help you develop the wisdom of staying awake. At Middlebury, we are going to ask you to become wise.”

Eight selections of “Words on Wisdom,” including the passage on dreaming from Morrison’s speech, were printed in the Convocation program. At various times during the Convocation, students read (or sang) each passage in its original language followed by its translation into English. Then when Patton delivered her address, she highlighted the wisdom contained in each passage and how it relates to Middlebury.

In addition to Morrison, there were selections from Euripedes, Shantideva, the Hebrew Bible, Hildegard of Bingen, the New Testament, the Qur’an, and the Bhagavad Gita – all selected for the occasion by the president.

That wisdom is grounded in trust is one of the lessons of the Bhagavad Gita, Patton said, and at Middlebury “we will challenge you to trust… You will need to trust that there are people around you to help you [find your place]. Just ask the students who were part of the Solar Decathlon in 2013 who literally built their own place to dwell, and trusted that they could do it together.”

To illuminate other passages on wisdom, Patton cited the archivists in Davis Library, the students who took a summer writing course in Alaska, the PTP/NYC theatre company, the Middlebury Organic Farm, the Debate Society, and the Kelly Brush Century Ride.

Inside Mead Chapel at the 2015 Convocation. (Click on images to enlarge.)

The 2015 Convocation hewed closely to tradition. The carillon played as the sun went down. The faculty and administration in academic regalia processed up Storrs Walk and into Mead Chapel through a column of applauding first-year students. The freshmen were arranged in sections by Commons. The president passed Gamaliel Painter’s cane among the assemblage. Faculty heads of Commons presented their students to the president. And everyone sang the alma mater, “Walls of Ivy,” at the end.

Susan Campbell Baldridge, provost, issued the evening’s first of several welcomes to the Class of 2019. The professor of psychology explained that “the Middlebury ecosystem” consists of more than the four-year college; it is also the Language Schools, the School of the Environment, and the Bread Loaf School of English and Writers’ Conference.

“Drawing back further – just imagine zooming out in Google Earth – you can see the Middlebury Institute of International Studies in Monterey, Calif., where graduate students develop professional skills to pursue careers and effect change in a global arena.” Pull back even farther, the provost said, and you can see our Schools Abroad with 36 sites in 16 countries.

“We are sitting at the nexus of a broader Middlebury map, one that represents literally a world of intellectual possibilities,” she declared.

Greg Buckles, dean of admissions, welcomed the Class of 2019 and acknowledged that Convocation is “a high holiday” in the world of college admissions. “It’s one of our happiest days of the year” to have the work we have been doing over the past year and a half manifest itself in the appearance of the class, he said.

Buckles provided statistics about the class and cited some of the individual stories, even talking about one person who applied Early Decision, picked Middlebury as her next destination, and has written some great essays. “And while we normally don’t permit transfers, let alone ones with advanced degrees, to begin as first years, we felt it would be okay in this instance.” (He was referring, of course, to Middlebury’s new president Laurie Patton.)

Andrea Lloyd, vice president of academic affairs and dean of the faculty, presented the faculty to the new students. Middlebury’s professors “occupy two distinct roles: we are teachers and we are scholars. In reality, ‘distinct’ is something of an overstatement since ideas, insights, and moments of discovery tend to flow seamlessly between teaching and scholarship.”

The Stewart professor of biology continued: “Although you will know us first in the classroom, our role as teachers extends beyond the walls of the classroom. You are joining us as members of an intellectual community, one that has as its foundation a quest for new knowledge and new understanding.”

President Patton waved to students as they processed into the chapel.

The president of the Student Government Association, Ilana Gratch ’16.5, also welcomed the members of the Class of 2019. “A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step,” advised Gratch, who admitted that her first semester on campus was a difficult period of adjustment for her.

But as she “slowly took more and more steps” outside her dorm room, she wrote an article for The Campus newspaper, joined a social house, attended Hillel services, and signed up to be the Ross Fireplace Café chef. She even went to a professor’s office hours “simply because I wanted to get to know him better,” and it was these “seemingly insignificant” events that have shaped her Middlebury journey.

“On behalf of the student body, welcome to Middlebury. We can’t wait to see where your journey takes you.”

Convocation concluded with the words of Toni Morrison, which echoed President Patton’s message and served as the evening’s Benediction: “By dreaming, the self permits intimacy with the other without the risk of being the other. And this intimacy that comes from pointed imagining should precede all of our decision making, all of our cause mongering, and our action.”

Then, with Associate Professor Jeffrey Buettner at the keyboard of Middlebury’s magnificent Gress-Miles organ, the faculty and students recessed out of Mead Chapel to prepare for classes and the quest for wisdom.

– With reporting by Robert Keren and photography by Brett Simison