Progress by Degrees: A Graduation Letter from President Patton
| by Laurie Patton
Dear Members of the Middlebury Community,
I write to offer my deep congratulations to all of you on the occasion of our graduates receiving their degrees from Middlebury, and my special congratulations to the members of the Class of 2020 themselves. One of the most inspiring parts of graduation—one I never get over—is the rows of chairs that appear so quickly the day before, and then disappear even more quickly hours after the ceremony. Sometimes, in the quieter moments before the beginning of Commencement exercises, I can see small groups of people camped in the rows, having ponderous, even tearful conversations, little islands of human intimacy in the mesmerizing labyrinth of wood. One season, I watched the Middlebury facilities team set up and break down just to witness their miraculous coordination and speed. In the words of the poet Lisel Mueller, in “Virtuosi,” “the words start over again hold no terror for them.”
This is a time of celebration of our graduates’ dedication and perseverance and inspiration—where we, and they, remember that they built something awe inspiring. A time of memory and acknowledgment, where we ponder the vital gifts that others made on their journeys. It’s worth remembering all that it took to support our graduates’ lives at Middlebury. Marvel today at their own miraculous coordination and speed that has created this moment. As always, it arrives quickly. As always, it is filled with tiny steps, or as the facilities crews teach us every year, one chair at a time.
The chairs are not there this year. But the work, the essential work, of helping our students make a transition from an educational institution out into the world has remained. In the time of COVID-19, we see evidence of the work everywhere—of people who have started and stopped and started over again on our graduates’ behalf. The facilities crews who are mowing the lawns on our Vermont campus this week, no matter that the usual thousands of feet will not tread the grassy paths. The dining teams whose prepping routine has kept students safe and healthy this spring. The MIIS tech staff who have stayed up nights and weekends to deliver the moving live graduation from the Institute we experienced this past Saturday. As our MIIS student speaker Rui Xue put it, all of these people have taught us “hope and strength in the face of challenge and disappointment.”
Take a moment to thank the postal workers who delivered messages from friends and family. Find out who shipped food to your local store as you celebrate with your loved ones. Ask who taught the faculty member to go online in an emergency so our graduates could finish their degrees. Remember all the faculty who taught them, from their beginning faltering steps to the blossoming energetic spirits they have now become. Consider how the staff members of the College and the Institute are keeping our campuses clean and safe so our students can return to us.
We knew, before COVID-19, that every one of these acts was an act of support. We know now, in the midst of COVID-19, that these same acts can save a life.
In my mind, the facilities crews are still setting up the chairs. I am comforted by the fact that those chairs will be here in the future, to welcome all graduates and families, offering small islands of comfort where they can whisper with their friends in the shade, or catch them when they jump toward the clouds.