MIDDLEBURY, Vt. – On Sunday evening, with the first hints of autumn in the air, the class of 2020 gathered in Mead Chapel together with faculty, staff, and administrators to celebrate the start of the new academic year. Processing by commons up the sidewalk to the chapel, the students formed two lines, through which the faculty in academic regalia passed. The procession was one of several Middlebury traditions the new students would learn about as the evening progressed.

Inside the chapel, which earlier this year turned 100 years old, students were seated together into their five commons–Atwater, Brainerd, Cook, Ross, and Wonnacott–as organist Kevin Parizo performed a prelude of Healey Willan’s Five Pieces for Organ.

Welcoming the new class to Middlebury, President Laurie Patton initiated the traditional passing of Gamaliel Painter’s cane among the students. The historic cane, she said, has become an important symbol of the strength and endurance of the College over the past two centuries and is the College’s mace.

Vice President for Student Affairs and Dean of the College Katy Smith Abbott noted that the convocation ceremony coincided with the 15th anniversary of the September 11 terrorist attacks–events, she said, which “have continued to reverberate in this country and in the world, and whose impact is felt continually by many in our Middlebury community worldwide.” The assembled crowd then observed a moment of silence to honor those affected by the attacks.

Dean of Admissions Greg Buckles was first to formally congratulate the class on their arrival at Middlebury from 42 states and 31 countries. Buckles described some of the remarkable individual stories of the class–among them a sumo wrestler, a chicken farmer, a blacksmith–but also emphasized that every member of the class deserved to be there. “Rest assured, each of you has done something interesting, something unique, that caught our attention.”

Members of the class of 2020 listen to a speaker during the 2016 convocation at Mead Chapel.

At different points during the program, students gave readings themed around wisdom and resilience from secular and various religious traditions in both English and the original languages of the texts. The audience gave an enthusiastic standing ovation to Assistant Professor of Music Damascus Kafumbe, who sang and played an original song on a Ugandan bow harp known as an adungu.

Student Government Association President Karina Toy, a senior, said time passes very quickly at Middlebury and it’s important to make the most of it. “You are all united in a simple fact that this place is where you will be pushed to try new things, meet new friends, and, yes, stumble a few hundred times along the way.” A liberal arts education, she said, is about “inspiring you to dive deep into every activity you do with as much vigor and love as you can muster.”

The faculty heads of each of the five commons took turns presenting their students to the president. For the newcomers, each of the five professors offered a short history lesson about the person for whom their commons was named. Next, Vice President for Academic Affairs and Dean of the Faculty Andi Lloyd presented the faculty to the students, urging students to get to know their professors and become part of the Middlebury scholarly community.

Watch Convocation 2016.

In a convocation address infused with gentle humor and advice, President Laurie Patton first offered a few predictions. “All of you will remember something a professor said, 50 years from now, that helped you on your journey. And if our statistics are correct,” she quipped, “twenty percent of you will marry each other, though we’re probably guessing not while you’re here at Middlebury!”

Patton impressed upon the students the importance of understanding what wisdom means and how to achieve it. “Having a lot of information is not wisdom,” she said. “Wisdom is not knowing a lot, but knowing your own truth. So this is the first part about becoming wise. Your job is not to be like the others. Your job is to be like yourself.”

By Stephen Diehl; Photo by Todd Balfour