| by Jason Warburg

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Winter Commencement Group Shot
Middlebury Institute graduates including Jamila Hawkins MAIEM ’22 (standing, far right) celebrated Winter Commencement 2022 on Saturday. (Photo credit: Randy Tunnell)

The resonant song of bagpipes echoed through the Middlebury Institute campus on a sunny December afternoon this Saturday as 83 graduating students were celebrated by family, friends, faculty, staff, alumni, and peers. 

The Institute’s 2022 Winter Commencement ceremony honored the academic accomplishments of students from 10 homelands: Chile, India, Italy, Japan, Portugal, the Republic of Korea, Russia, Sudan, the United Kingdom, and the United States.

“It’s so exciting!” said International Education Management graduate Jamila Hawkins MAIEM ’22 of this culminating moment. “This feels like the conclusion of a really important part of my life, but also the start of a new direction. We started our program during the pandemic, so I’m still meeting classmates for the first time face to face today. It just feels really nice to be able to celebrate this moment together.”

The ceremony began with a procession led by bagpiper and Professor Mike Gillen and featuring the flags of each graduate’s homeland, followed by faculty and the graduates. Once the procession made its way from the Holland Center courtyard through the heart of campus to Irvine Auditorium, the graduates were greeted by Vice President for Academic Affairs and Dean of the Institute Jeff Dayton-Johnson, who spoke of the “tectonic shifts” students have experienced over the course of the past two years. Chief among these has been the shift to a hybrid learning model embracing both in-person coursework and online learning modalities, a process that Dayton-Johnson said has “unleashed inspiring energy and creativity” among Institute faculty, staff, and students alike.

In fact, the hybrid Commencement ceremony celebrated both graduates in attendance in Monterey and more than a dozen students who completed their degrees remotely from around the country and around the world. Among those joining the ceremony via Zoom was Middlebury President Laurie Patton, who commented on the daunting nature of global challenges such as terrorism and climate change that are the focus of Institute programs. In spite of this, she said, “I always leave Monterey incredibly hopeful and inspired by the actions our students are taking in the face of these challenges.” Patton cited the example of a group of students in one of Nonproliferation and Terrorism Studies professor Jason Blazakis’ classes who entered a national contest to develop strategies to counter hate, bias, and extremism. “Not only did they win the contest—that project, Diverting Hate, has now received a grant of $700,000 from the Department of Homeland Security.”

Each year at Winter Commencement, the featured speaker is the faculty member who has been honored with the Institute’s annual Excellence in Teaching Award. This year’s winner, Professor Xiaoyan (Grace) Shen MACI ’08, teaches both interpretation and translation courses in the Chinese Translation and Interpretation program. An alumna herself, Professor Shen’s heartfelt remarks reminded the graduates that “we are not defined by our resumés, but how many lives we have gently touched, how much we lived, loved and were loved,” encouraging them to—in the words of former MIIS president Clara Yu—“Live a life that is worth remembering.”

Selected by her classmates, student speaker Heba Mohamednor MATESOL ’22 acknowledged the uncertainty some graduates may feel in this moment when “The world is one big question mark.” Her advice was simple: “I encourage you to take a second and just breathe… it’s okay to not know, to not have all the answers.” She emphasized the significance of small acts: “What you can do, do it… It might not change the whole world, but changing yours, your little or large community, for the better, is enough.” Mohamednor, who received her MA in Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages (TESOL), was born in Doha, Qatar and raised in both Chicago and Doha.

Heba Mohamednor
Heba Mohamednor MATESOL ’22 (Photo credit: Randy Tunnell)

Following the ceremony, graduates, faculty, friends, and family enjoyed a festive reception at the Samson Student Center, toasting one another under the winter sun and talking about the next steps in their lives and careers. 

“I have a job already, which is exciting,” said Hawkins. “I’m going to be working in a university’s Study Abroad department. I’m really eager to work with students on their Study Abroad journey and help them have a good experience.”

On a day full of new beginnings and new directions, the Institute community came together once again to celebrate small acts that promise to send ripples of positive change out into the world.

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