MIDDLEBURY, Vt. – The 552 graduates of the Middlebury College Class of 2017 basked in a splendid spring morning on Sunday, May 28, to celebrate the formal conclusion of their undergraduate careers.
Thousands of friends and family gathered for Commencement in the quadrangle below Mead Chapel, as the temperature hovered around the 70-degree mark, to hear from two guest speakers, watch as five honorary degrees were conferred, and cheer as the graduates crossed the platform one by one to receive their diplomas.
The student chosen to address the class, Jackson Adams ’17, from Towson, Md., spoke about having the courage to do the right thing in the face of adversity. He told of the Russian submarine commander who, in 1962 at the height of the Cuban Missile Crisis, insisted on surrender rather than fire a torpedo armed with a nuclear warhead.
That commander, Vasili Arkhipov, “saw an opportunity to prevent needless human suffering, and did not surrender to the hysteria of the moment. He did what was right,” Adams said. “And what I see in this story is that greatness does not require preplanning. People are not born to be great, nor must one be a fearless superhuman to achieve greatness. Greatness requires accepting fear and doubt and isolation, and doing the right thing anyway.”
partisanship. The point of America is not for all of us to think alike; that’s impossible and undesirable in any event. Autocracies are about total agreement, or at least total submission.
“The American republic is founded on the notion that even the person with whom I most stridently disagree might have something to say worth hearing and heeding. The only way I can figure that out is by listening to that other person, by weighing the relative merits of what is said, and by then, and only then, making up my mind. … We should not concede to the primacy of passion; give reason a chance.”
Members of the board of trustees presented five candidates for honorary doctorates:
- Cartoonist Alison Bechdel of Vermont, author of the graphic novel Fun Home, which was made into a Tony Award-winning musical, recipient of a Doctor of Letters;
- M.I.T. research specialist Kate Darling, an expert on social robotics, intellectual property law, and the economic incentives of copyright and patent systems, recipient of a Doctor of Science;
- Vermont singer and songwriter Grace Potter, who, in addition to her music, has done charitable work for WhyHunger and the Alzheimer’s Association, recipient of a Doctor of Arts;
- Fred Swaniker, the Ghanaian leadership development expert whose Global Leadership Adventures and African Leadership University are transforming the continent, recipient of a Doctor of Humane Letters; and
- Presidential historian and author Jon Meacham, the Commencement speaker, recipient of a Doctor of Letters.
The speeches and honorary degree presentations were a prelude to the awarding of degrees to the Class of 2017, with each recipient also receiving a replica of Gamaliel Painter’s cane. In keeping with Middlebury tradition, the first diplomas were presented to the valedictorian, Evelin Eszter Tóth of Budapest, Hungary, an environmental studies major, and the salutatorian, Noel Jean Antonisse of Silver Spring, Md., a double major in mathematics and economics.
Commencement concluded more than two hours after it started with three songs: Grace Potter on acoustic guitar performing “I Shall Be Released,” the singing of (and tapping along to) the song “Gamaliel Painter’s Cane,” and the alma mater “Walls of Ivy, Paths of Beauty.”
Associate Chaplain and Rabbi Ira Schiffer, in one of his final acts before he retires next month, delivered the benediction and recited the poem “Each of Us Has a Name,” by the Israeli poet known simply as Zelda. At long last the sky was filled with sailing mortarboards as the graduates whooped and cheered, soon to be reunited with family and friends who joined them on this day.
Reporting by Robert Keren, photos by Todd Balfour and Brett Simison