MIDDLEBURY, Vt.—The Middlebury Language Schools conferred 99 Master of Arts degrees and three Doctor of Modern Languages degrees at the Language Schools Commencement on August 19 in the Mahaney Center for the Arts on the Middlebury campus.

The Language Schools broke with tradition for the concluding event of its 102nd summer by moving its Commencement ceremony from Mead Chapel—where it has been held for more than 80 years— to Robison Hall in the arts center. At 4:02 p.m. faculty marshals Philippe France and Jason Merrill, directors of the French School and Russian School, respectively, led the procession of degree candidates, honored guests, faculty, and administration into the concert hall.

President Laurie L. Patton opened the ceremony by passing the original cane carried by Gamaliel Painter, one of the college’s founders, among the graduates. “It is a well-traveled, well-handled cane. Incoming undergraduates pass the cane from student to student during first-year Convocation, and it has now made the trip with me to Monterey for the Middlebury Institute of International Studies’ Commencement.

“Today,” the 17th president continued, “each of you will receive your own cane, handcrafted here in Vermont of New England beech and ash, to carry forward into your life as a graduate of the Middlebury Language Schools. These canes are a symbol of the historical ties that bind us all to this institution, the generosity that supports us, the hard work and learning that brought you to this place today, and the lifelong relationship between you and your new alma mater.”

The dean of the Language Schools, Professor Stephen B. Snyder, formally welcomed everyone to the ceremony, thanked all of the individuals and departments involved in orchestrating Language Schools Commencement, and pointed out that 14 master’s degrees and five doctoral degrees had been conferred previously on August 5 at the Language Schools’ second site at Mills College in Oakland, Calif.

President Patton (top) opened the 2016 Language Schools Commencement held in the Mahaney Center for the Arts. Novelist Dany Laferrière (below) delivered a Commencement Address in praise of reading. (Click on photos to enlarge.)

Dean Snyder introduced the Commencement speaker, novelist and journalist Dany Laferrière, whom he called “a guardian of the French language.” Laferrière, a recent inductee into the Acadèmie française—the 381-year-old French authority on the usage, vocabulary, and grammar of the French language—delivered his address in French “in honor of the centennial of the French School and in accordance with the rules of the Acadèmie,” Snyder said.

Titled “In Praise of Reading,” Laferrière said, “Reading allows you to hit the road with people you have just met without asking them where they are heading or what they intend to do when they get there.” As a boy growing up in Haiti, whenever Laferrière was busy reading “people thought I was in the room with them when in fact I was in another country or another century. Silence and concentration are the price you pay to go through the looking glass.”

(Laferrière paused at pre-planned junctures during his speech to allow the director of the French School, Professor France, to translate his words into English.)

Later in life, the Commencement speaker said, he realized that the most striking passages in books are not necessarily the most significant ones. “Books are not newspapers where readers must be captured by a scoop,” he cautioned. “Gogol said that a writer must know how his main character ties his tie [because] the writer discovers the human condition by treating with daily life.”

After the address, Provost Susan Baldridge read the name of each recipient as the degree candidates stepped onto the Robison Hall stage. One by one they accepted congratulations from the director of their school, received their diploma from Dean Snyder, were handed a cane by Vice President Jeffrey Cason, shook hands with President Patton, and posed for celebratory photographs.

An honorary Doctor of Letters degree was conferred upon Dany Laferrière—the first Haitian and the first Canadian to be inducted into the Acadèmie française—by President Patton, Vice President Cason, and Dean Snyder. He accepted the honor to thunderous applause.

The 2016 Commencement was punctuated by three musical selections and concluded with the singing of (and tapping along with) the song “Gamaliel Painter’s Cane,” led by tenor François Clemmons, Middlebury’s Alexander Twilight Artist in Residence Emeritus.

The Language Schools conferred graduate degrees this summer in Arabic, Chinese, French, German, Hebrew, Italian, Russian, and Spanish. Its three other languages, which are taught at the undergraduate level only, are Japanese, Korean, and Portuguese.

– With photography by Todd Balfour and reporting by Robert Keren