Commencement Slide Show
MIDDLEBURY, Vt. – Thousands of friends and family members gathered on a glorious Sunday morning, May 29, to celebrate the awarding of bachelor’s degrees to 517 members of the Middlebury College Class of 2016.
On a sunny day in the Champlain Valley that felt more like midsummer than springtime, the graduates endured temperatures in the high-80s and heard an inspiring 16-minute address from Van Jones, the noted environmentalist and activist for social justice who served in the Obama Administration as a special advisor and currently is a CNN commentator.
“I am not going to do what most folks do [when they give a Commencement address],” Jones said. “I am not going to try and convey some wisdom from my generation to yours in hopes that something we have been able to do might inspire or instruct you.
“I am not in a position to do that because what my generation is doing is not working. I am in politics, and I have seen the right wing and the left wing in my generation fail you over and over again. So I come to you looking for your help. I come to you not trying to convey wisdom, but to encourage your wisdom. I am part of a system that is letting you down.”
Jones, the president and cofounder of Dream Corps, said something is terribly wrong when people on the left “feel it is more important to shut down other people’s speech, than to lift up our own truth. We need your help to fix it, and you are qualified to help because you have a liberal arts education.”
The missing element on both sides of the political divide, Jones told the graduates, is precisely “what has been encouraged in you, what has been planted in you, what has been nurtured in you. What is missing is the ability to talk where other people can listen and listen deeply so other people can talk. At your best at Middlebury – not every day, but at your best – that’s who you are.” This ability to talk “with a deep respect for difference” combined with the ability “to listen so others will feel free and safe to talk” is desperately needed, he said.
“A bird needs two wings to fly: a left wing and a right wing. Why is America falling? Because we forget that we have to respect both wings.”
Jones offered examples from his own experiences where he collaborated with conservatives, namely George W. Bush and Newt Gingrich, to advocate for initiatives to combat poverty, unemployment, and the overpopulation of America’s prisons.
He urged the graduates to help solve the pressing social issues of the day by listening to, and respecting, other peoples’ points of view. “Civility is the cornerstone of civilization,” he said, and it takes both liberty, as espoused by the right, and justice, as championed by the left, to bring people together in peace and harmony.
“You have been given the ability at a high personal level to stand up for liberty and justice for all, and not just here, but all around the world,” Jones said in conclusion. “You are the few who can appreciate both wings, and we need you now to fly.”
Presiding at her first Middlebury College Commencement, President Laurie L. Patton welcomed everyone to the day’s ceremony once all the trustees, faculty, administrators, honored guests, and graduates had processed onto the quadrangle and found their seats in front of Voter Hall.
Before the Commencement address, a member of the senior class, James Lynch, an English and American Literatures major from Pittsford, N.Y., delivered the student speech in keeping with a Middlebury tradition that dates back to the early 1800s. Lynch reminded his classmates: “Our best memories, our closest friends, our greatest stories didn’t come from things we knew or situations we could predict. They came in moments of uncertainty.”
“Graduation is simply one in a long string of events where we leave what we know and explore a much greater unknown… We should not remember this day as our seminal moment. Instead, our seminal moments came when we thought we were at our lowest and we worked our way out.”
The frightening thing about the future “is everything we don’t know,” Lynch said. “This uncertainty, this ability to go anywhere, to work towards anything, to succeed when failure seems to be the only inevitability, this is our greatest opportunity.”
Middlebury conferred five honorary degrees at the 2016 Commencement. The recipients were: Susan M. Collins, the senior U.S. senator from Maine, Doctor of Laws; John Grotzinger, NASA’s chief scientist on the Mars rover mission, Doctor of Science; Van Jones, former special advisor to President Obama on “green jobs,” Doctor of Humane Letters; Simi Linton, writer, filmmaker, and advocate for disabled people in society, Doctor of Arts; and U.S. District Court Judge William K. Sessions ’69, Doctor of Laws.
A sixth honorary degree, a Doctor of Humane Letters, was conferred weeks prior to Commencement to Srinivas Aravamudan, educator and champion for the humanities in contemporary society,
During the ceremony, President Patton noted that the seniors on the women’s lacrosse team could not be in attendance at Commencement because the squad is playing for the Division 3 national championship today vs. league rival Trinity College in Philadelphia. The president also asked for a moment of silence so members of the gathering could extend their thoughts and compassion toward the family and friends of Clare Ulrich ’14.5 who died on May 22.
The president also announced that members of the graduating class have raised $84,421 for a Fund for Health and Wellness to increase the resources of the Student Support Network, a Middlebury training program that prepares students to help their fellow students in times of crisis. “Addressing student stress has been an important goal for me and my senior team this year,” the president said, “so I am particularly grateful to the seniors for choosing the Fund for Health and Wellness as their class gift.”
The first bachelor’s degrees of the morning were conferred to the Class of 2016’s valedictorian, Michael B. Russo of Wakefield, Mass., a classics major, and salutatorian, Hyeon-Seok Tom Yu of Seoul, South Korea, an economics major, after which the diplomas were awarded in alphabetical order by major.
Graduates crossed the stage one by one, each receiving a diploma from President Patton and a replica of Gamaliel Painter’s cane from the alumni association’s Robert “Bobo” Sideli ’77. The names of the graduates were read by Dean of Faculty Andrea Lloyd and Dean of the College Katy Smith Abbott.
Commencement concluded more than two hours after it started with the singing of (and tapping along to) “Gamaliel Painter’s Cane,” followed by a solemn rendition of the alma mater “Walls of Ivy, Paths of Beauty.” Then a flock of mortar boards filled the sky as the graduates whooped and cheered, soon to be reunited with family and friends on hand for the occasion.
With reporting by Robert Keren; photos by Todd Balfour and Brett Simison.