September 12, 2021: Convocation Address
Welcome to Middlebury. You’ve had a whole week of college life behind you. You’ve met some people. You know a few buildings. You’ve got some mental maps to follow. And this ceremony tonight is another kind of mental map—a map of wisdom. The little book that we’ve given you, with sayings—we give that to students every year, and we want you to keep it with you. You can return to it again and again when you are in need of wisdom, when you are in need of lenses to help you to see better.
As a college student, you become wise. You learn that wisdom is more than just knowledge. It is using that knowledge in the right way, understanding information and how it can be used for good in the world.
In your booklet, Lenji the Zen master writes that the beginning of wisdom is students having faith in themselves. So let’s start there. Everyone at Middlebury is as talented as you are, but in a different way. And that can be exhilarating, but it can also be disorienting and discouraging. People already know staggering amounts about subjects you’ve never heard of, lived in places that you barely recognize on a map, competed in athletic contests you didn’t even know existed. And maybe you’ve met those people that Nicole just talked about—the novelist, three-sport varsity athlete who started her own NGO and hiked the Appalachian trail solo. And the most annoying thing was, as you’ve probably already discovered, she was really nice, too. That’s the Middlebury way.
But no matter how accomplished everyone at Middlebury is, know that intellect and accomplishment are not wisdom. Wisdom is not knowing or achieving a lot, but knowing and achieving your own truth. So this is the first part about becoming wise: your job is not to be like others. Your job is to be like yourself. So I ask you now, and I will never tire of asking you throughout your time here: how long are you going to worry, like some of you are right now, sitting in those benches and listening to us? How long are you going to worry about who you are not, when you should be getting on with the glorious business of being who you are? Your job at Middlebury is to become more like yourself—whoever that person is and wherever that person takes us and our community.
Once you’ve stopped comparing yourself to everyone else, then you can go on to the second part of wisdom: understanding that you are Middlebury; you belong here. You belong here because you have the creativity, and drive, and grit that is characteristic of the people who come here. You’ve come after a global disruption that we have not seen in a century. You come after COVID 1, and in the midst of COVID 2.0. You may not have experienced the give-and-take of an in-person classroom. You may not know the rules of engagement with professors, except online. You might feel rusty in your critical thinking skills—the very things you wanted to come to Midd to develop. You might be anxious about your social skills—an integral part of the college experience, yes, but not your college experience yet.
Even as you start college, the next major stage of your life, you might still be processing losses in your families from last year: loss of a loved one, of a job, of a dream. There are a myriad of ways, stated and unstated, that you are different than students have been before. It is our job to listen, to pause, to take the time to understand what experiences you are bringing with you. Our classrooms are your first communities since the pandemic. We welcome you into them, and ask you to evolve with us, into a wider Middlebury, one that incorporates all that we have learned from the challenges of the last year.
As you explore, remember that part of wisdom is having the courage to ask for help. It is a good thing to do so. A really good thing. You need friends, and family, and advisors, and professors, and classmates, and coaches, and librarians, and COMPASS mentors, and townspeople you met on a project, and teammates, to help you keep going. At Middlebury, we expect you to be brave enough to ask for help. You need what I call “local courage” to connect with others and learn from them so that you yourself can thrive. You are coming into a community that will help you—even as they travel on their own journeys. Last year, Middlebury students ranked others’ health above their own. That’s one among many examples you’ll find of how Middlebury people step up for the people around them.
I usually share with the incoming class notes from the summer to tell you exactly what kind of extraordinary community you are coming into. And I will do so today. Here is just a small sample of how we’ve been doing from over this past summer: In July, we celebrated the start of production of renewable energy at the largest anaerobic digester in the Northeast, right here in Addison County. It’s the culmination of a historic partnership between Middlebury, a local family dairy farm, and regional utility and renewable energy companies—and the execution of a vision conjured by Middlebury students, faculty, and staff, right here on campus a decade ago. From concept to practice, this germ of an idea is now a community reality that greatly advances this institution’s commitment to rely solely on renewable energy sources by 2028.
Middlebury undergraduate students in architecture courses are designing houses—not as theoretical exercises but in practice, partnering with Habitat for Humanity of Addison County to design and help craft homes for local families. Their exquisite work can be found here in Middlebury and in neighboring Vergennes, expressions of community built on those values of respect, curiosity, integrity, connectedness, and openness.
In Monterey, at the Middlebury Institute, where I hope many of you study, researchers and scholars working side-by-side with students at the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies are using open-source intelligence to challenge efforts by nations around the globe to conceal or exaggerate nuclear capabilities. It seems not a week goes by that these experts, our experts, are not written about in major magazines or quoted in international media outlets. Read the August 7 edition of the Economist. Your professors in Monterey are the major story. They are just one slice of our community of global scholars and learners and doers in California.
This fall, I eagerly await reports from our students who spent the summer engaged with work funded by Projects for Peace grants. Senior Febs Alexandra Burns and Olivia O’Brien led a cohort of six Middlebury peers in travel to Colorado and Texas, where they collaborated with nonprofit organizations to explore humane alternatives to immigrant detention, while junior Hieu Nguyen worked to expand a letter-writing project between youth and teens in Vermont and his native Vietnam to a series of countries, including Kenya, Uganda, Armenia, and Eswatini. Community in action.
Those are just a few of our stories from the past weeks. Our future weeks’ stories should be equally inspiring—and not because of the individual accomplishments, but because of the extraordinary, unique collaboration that helped those individuals to thrive.
But there is another story from the summer—one I believe is as inspiring as it is dramatic, and quintessentially Middlebury. If you’ve turned on the news even once in the past month and a half, you would know about the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan, the swift Taliban takeover of the country, and the chaos that erupted as many American and Afghani citizens feared for their lives and tried to escape.
Much of our August was spent working with two extraordinary Afghani Middlebury alumni and helping them to make a dangerous journey out of Kabul into exile—with only a few days’ notice and, in one case, an afternoon’s notice. Shabana Basij-Rasikh, Class of 2011, is founder of SOLA, the first boarding school for girls in Afghanistan. She brought 140 women—faculty, staff, and students—to the airport and to Doha, Qatar. From Doha she brought them to Kigali, Rwanda, where they are now pursuing study abroad as an entire school. As she had stated in her public writings during and since her escape, the uninterrupted education of women is one of the most important forms of resistance that can occur right now. She is teaching wisdom to the world.
Her fellow Middlebury alum, Bilal Sarwary ’10, also made a harrowing escape, from Kabul to Doha to Canada, where he arrived last week and is still in quarantine. Bilal is an Afghani citizen, a freelance, high-profile, pro-democracy journalist who also ran for a seat in the now-defunct Afghan parliament in a conservative, Al-Qaeda–dominated province. As an Afghan, he was low on the American list of potential evacuees. As a freelance journalist, he was not an official employee of any media company, and therefore low on all of their lists, too. And yet he was higher profile than many on those lists, having collaborated with many pro-democracy activists and written for and given interviews for CNN, NPR, ABC, BBC, Al-Jazeera. So: Bilal had no country. He had no company. He had Middlebury. And he had wisdom.
There are many other Afghani Middlebury alums that we are in touch with, all of them doing brave and important work. Yet it is worth noting in these two examples that both of these young people—one creating the first girls’ school in all Afghanistan, and the other relentlessly exercising his right to free expression on behalf of a democratic, equitable, and just Afghanistan—showed extraordinary courage in the last 10 years as they tried to build their country. Because of that courage, both of them were high-profile targets for the Taliban.
Let me give you further examples from their story.
The most dangerous part of Bilal Sarwary’s journey was not the flight out of Kabul. It was not being at the chaotic airport. It was getting to the airport. Early on I asked him, “How far are you away from the airport?” And he replied, “About three minutes. But I know I won’t be able to get there if people see me.”
For three nights I was in touch with the heads of almost every major news organization in the U.S. and their staff. Everyone knew Bilal, and some had even recently interviewed him. They knew the quality of his work. Because he learned to write at Middlebury, he became one of the best young journalists in Afghanistan as a result. But the wealth of all of these organizations, and his reputation, and even his most recent appearances on those channels, could not make him a priority for their evacuation plans, because he was not an employee. Here in Vermont, we thought about every option to get him to the airport—of helicopters, of underground tunnels. We thought of helping him to go in disguise, but Bilal did not have time to change his papers, and they would have given him away. He was just too high profile.
Instead, Bilal used wisdom—his connections with other reporters on the ground who knew people from the nation of Qatar. All throughout August, the Qataris had been quietly organizing protected convoys of Afghani citizens and some Americans to get to the airport. In some cases, the Qatari ambassador used his own military protection and security guard to create safe passage to the airport. In other cases, the Qataris used moderate Taliban escorts to protect the convoys. Finally, Bilal was able to land a place on one of those convoys. We were texting with him every yard of that dangerous journey, as he was escorted by the Taliban, the very group he was trying to escape.
The reading from Proverbs that we heard just now stated that wisdom is better than silver or gold, worth more than the gems of trade. We could take this to mean that it’s better to have a meaningful life than a wealthy life. And that would be true, and something we want you to remember. At Middlebury, you will get an education that will help you live a meaningful life, no matter what your salary is. But Bilal’s story shows us something more. He had the wisdom to know that friendship, not power, that connections on the ground, not highly resourced news outfits, would save his life.
In another reading you heard tonight, the Gita tells us that wisdom comes from controlling the senses, and being filled with trust. That being wise begins with discipline, and Middlebury will ask that of you. That’s the rigor that we’re known for and that we know you already have. But it’s more than that. Shabana Bisaj-Rasikh knows this well. She had less than a day to move 140 women, staff, and faculty out of their homes and to the airport. She had the discipline to plan. Even when those around her and those in the United States told her that Kabul wouldn’t fall, she thought ahead.
To take one poignant example: Shabana knew that, once they arrived at her school, the Taliban would find student records, and find student families from their addresses. So even though it was heartbreaking, she knew that, if the moment came, she would destroy the records of the entire school to keep the girls and their families safe. And the moment did come. Shabana also knew that the documents could not be burnt, because the smoke would show her location, attract attention, and create suspicion. So she had another plan. She used acid.
And when in early August Shabana got a phone call—“The Taliban are 10 minutes away”—she knew she had to leave instantly. And take her school with her. Many of them left in full burqa, or head-to-toe covering. The very thing that they had been fighting against as women, insisting on their right to an education and to move about in public, was used as a key form of disguise as they made their escape. Shabana had discipline and control, the foresight to plan.
In the reading from the New Testament tonight, James tells us that wisdom is “filled with mercy and with good fruits. It is not divided.” Shabana’s efforts to get the school to safety did not end with the destruction of the records. Later that day and the next, most of the SOLA women had been able to get inside the airport. In fact, it was miraculous that they had all reached the airport at all. But there were some stuck outside the gate. More than 50 of them, in fact. Shabana had promised every one that they would make it, and she could not let them down. Earlier, she had befriended a U.S. Marine inside the airport and happened to see him as she thought desperately about how to get the Taliban guard to allow these women to come in with her. When the Marine understood her predicament, and because of their spontaneous friendship of only a day, he found a way to go to the right gate and persuade the right people to allow those 50 women in. Wisdom is not divided, says James, and Shabana would not let her women be divided. She was guided by the wise determination that all women from SOLA should stay together.
In your readings for tonight, the Quran states that God “gives wisdom to whomever He will.” Certainly, whatever religion you are part of, or none, we can agree that it was given to these two extraordinary young people—who graduated only 10 years ago.
And here’s the most important thing of all. Shabana’s and Bilal’s stories of escape would be just one among many that we have seen and heard about on the news in the last month. Except for one thing. They both credit their Middlebury graduation and education with giving them the wisdom and courage to do what they did in an extreme situation. To be sure, they already had the kind of character that they have shown in the past month as the Taliban took over their country. But that character, those principles, were shaped, and deepened, here, at Middlebury, where you are now.
Middlebury gave them the relationships to keep them going. Trustees from Pakistan from the media, faculty with contacts in the Middle East, deans with contacts in the U.S. government, fellow students and staff, all came together to get them out.
Most importantly, their classes at Middlebury gave them the long view of history, and of politics, and of religion. It gave them the critical thinking skills to question, to probe, and to build. It gave them a sense of justice, and fair process, and the need for access to knowledge for all—whether through education or media. The relationships they built and ideas they encountered here were models for them as they moved out into the world—a world far more dangerous than the one we occupy in Middlebury, Vermont. In other words, they didn’t just gain knowledge here; they gained wisdom, and even courage.
Middlebury, the community, gave them that courage. And we may not have even known we were doing it. Bilal and Shabana’s lives were in danger because they continued to stand for their principles—principles they learned here. Middlebury literally gave them heart. And Middlebury will do it again, this year, for you, our first-year students.
I sent Bilal a picture of Middlebury every day that he was trying to flee from danger. He wrote back:
Middlebury is my second home. Middlebury’s training helped me make a name for myself in the world. I am overwhelmed by its kindness and I am trying to reach my mother of knowledge and her city as soon as possible.
During those most dangerous hours, and even in the second-by-second hair-raising drive through Kabul to the airport, Bilal took comfort from the pictures of the Vermont mountains all around us now, because that is where he found his intellectual and spiritual home. This is the essence of a 21st-century Middlebury education: to encourage, to give heart. Bilal and Shabana found their wisdom and courage here. And so will you. Thank you.
September 10, 2021: Address to Middlebury Faculty
I have been thinking a lot about what to say in this dumpster fire of a world that we are living in in September 2021. Why continue an education, particularly in a Middlebury incarnation? It’s a legitimate question, and one I believe always should be asked. Why educate when climate change is now creating more human cross-border movement, and threatening more wilderness, every day? When COVID does not stop, and there seems to be no true relief? When wars and the rumors of wars are destroying millions of lives and livelihoods? When wealth inequality and racism persist, and rather than being solved, become weaponized in endless polarizing debate? When fires and hurricanes devastate our landscapes? Today, in addition to all the Middlebury updates after the summer, I want to think with you briefly at the beginning of this year, a time of global urgency, about that question. Why educate?
I wanted, very much, for an answer to that question to be about educating during a recovery. Of a certain kind of resilience after COVID that includes lessons learned as we move forward. But alas, in the face of Delta, it can’t be about a rearview mirror. It has to be about living safely with COVID. About evolving to live in that reality. And my response to the question about the reason for a liberal arts and science education is related: In the face of this moment, these moments, we educate to meet the challenge of evolving as a community. Our classrooms, as our primary communities, challenge us to become something more than rule-governed places with set learning goals (although they should certainly start with that). Rather, as educators we are challenged to create dynamic evolving ecosystems, and the first mini-communities that students will know. And in addition to evolving community, there is a related answer to why educate in the liberal arts and sciences: we educate to instill courage. Our themes for this year, then, are learning how to evolve as a community, particularly in the classroom. And finding the courage to do it in the midst of disagreement, finding the will toward a common educational purpose.
We’re starting that project this year with the largest application pool, and the largest class, ever. This is unusual, and due to the fact that we made a decision not to deny access to anyone who wanted to return to Midd—from remote learning, from a year away. Like most other elite colleges, we had to get creative in making room on our campus, making room in our classrooms, to ensure a Middlebury education. Our team worked hard throughout the summer to make sure we offered enough classes to maintain educational access, and to provide faculty and staff resources for our students to learn. First and foremost, I want to thank you for your willingness to step up in this context, and our academic and student life teams will continue to support you in as many ways as we possibly can.
We also had to pivot in the context of Delta variant. We are making decisions in the following, complex context: A highly vaccinated community in the country, the constant flow in and out of our campus, and a highly fluid status of the virus itself. As many of you heard on Tuesday, I asked the team, as we did last year, to create thorough testing plans in accordance with state and local guidelines and grounded in the current science. Their protocols do exactly that, whether it is testing, quarantine and isolation, or masking. We will continue to monitor daily all of the many conditions that we monitored last year; we will continue to learn from the latest data available on breakthrough cases; we will pivot immediately, and have plans to do so. I’m proud of the extraordinary thing we accomplished last year, and this year we will continue with the vigilance, care, communication, and guidance that helped us be successful last year.
We closed this past year with a higher-than-hoped-for but still far-lower-than-projected deficit of around $12 million. We begin this year with a projected small surplus, a budget created in the midst of COVID in conversation with several faculty, staff, and student bodies. This year will be the first budget that we have created through the new budget process. We will continue that process of biweekly consultation with the faculty resources committee, open meetings to talk about priorities; David Provost and Jeff Cason are committed to this model. And, we will continue to work with the faculty resources committee on models for spending. We will also deepen our commitment to salaries and allocating resources to our people. Our healthy endowment growth of this past year will contribute to that work. Our new VP for HR, Caitlin Goss, is excited to continue the work we began on salaries, employee recognition, and many other important projects.
Our fundraising, in terms of actually bringing in the cash we need, was lower than we’d hoped. We believe that is due to the instability that COVID continued to reap, as well as some of the larger gifts being held for the campaign. The good news is that we started the leadership, or silent, phase of the campaign this past July, and are in quite a good place for building the 40–50 percent of the corpus that we need in order to start the public phase. We are in some very fruitful conversations.
I also want to take the time to remind you of our priorities for the campaign: access, academic excellence, and the student experience. Access is the number one bucket, the highest bucket. It involves financial aid, particularly endowed financial aid, as that is budget relieving as well as focused on the demographics of the future—where talent is abundant but opportunity might not be—and must be expanded. It also involves allowing student access to all of Middlebury—making sure the Seizing the Opportunities Fund is always available, that financial aid to other parts of Middlebury, such as the Language Schools, the Schools Abroad, Bread Loaf, and Monterey, is clear and accessible. All students should have access to all parts of the Middlebury experience.
Our second area—that of academic excellence—focuses on funding both traditional professorships as well as faculty-led initiatives across the humanities, social sciences, sciences, and arts, where we feel that Middlebury can uniquely lead. You’ve heard us speak about all of them, in some way or another—data literacy, in the form of MiddData, which was the topic of a Clifford Symposium last year and continues to invigorate so many small and large projects. Environmental literacy, in the form of the collaboration between our academic departments and the Environmental Council’s work on justice, the sustainability solutions lab, and Energy2028. Many departments and programs have been engaged here. The third: conflict transformation literacy—the ability to work across difference that was the cornerstone of the faculty-led Engaged Listening Project and has now developed into a faculty and staff conversation, and possible institutional grant, in conflict transformation that could also involve faculty teaching and research across all of Middlebury. The fourth: cross-cultural literacy, particularly in the area of Black Studies, where we have already raised funds for two professorships and hope to focus on more across the curriculum. These are all supportive and expansive of what we are already doing at Middlebury, something which builds on that which is already growing—indeed, grown by all of you.
The third area for the campaign focuses on the student experience. This includes building for a new student center—what one student called “a living room for the entire campus,” where the open architecture allows students to connect and dwell in a single public space, even as they are part of their own smaller living spaces, social groups, and identities. But this bucket also focuses on summer experiences, internships, our career center, our centers for creativity and innovation, and our new life-skills residential education program, headed by faculty member Rob Moeller, now called COMPASS. This campaign also involves fundraising for a new first-year dormitory, which is essential to replace Battell, and possibly a new museum, where there are major challenges in the current architectural design and our capacity to protect and display our growing collection.
Last year we were able to move forward with an anti-racist task force, which focuses on building community, the creation of PRISM, an LGBTQIA+ center, who will be housed later this semester at 23 Adirondack View, the hiring of a new director for AFC and a new student educator on equity and inclusion. We are thrilled to welcome them and I hope that you will be able to reach out to them soon. Our workshops on equity and inclusion in the classroom will continue, as will the grants from the CDEI fund. We are particularly excited to welcome the work of Tara Affolter, our director of equity and inclusion initiatives, and Christal Brown, who will be not only leading the task force on anti-racism but, as the Twilight Artist in Residence, integrating the work of anti-racism into the arts in new and exciting ways. Stay tuned for more from both of those colleagues working in new capacities.
I want to turn now to the theme that I see most deeply in our transition into this academic year: evolving community. The first and most important “evolving community” is the classroom. It dovetails nicely with the theme of our Teaching and Writing Retreat, which CTLR held on August 26 and 27 on campus with over 40 enthusiastic participants—“Making Connections.” CTLR hopes to develop that theme this year, beginning with their session earlier this month on curricular resources at the Axinn Center. As the Axinn Center event showed, our teaching can be supported by a host of offices and programs (from Beyond the Page to the museum to CCE to MiddData to Oratory Now to the Humanities Labs to Quantitative Skills Pedagogy, and much more). CTLR also partnered with the Engaged Listening Project to host a two-day workshop on Sept. 2 and 3 with essential partners in this work. We had 18 faculty and staff participate, and we plan to have that group engage in other programming this fall on dialogic tools for teaching and working with students. From our Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion faculty and staff, Roberto Lint Sagarena and Renee Wells both contributed to new faculty orientation, and CTLR plan to work closely with both of them as well as Tara Affolter. All of these workshops and programs are about that evolving classroom I mentioned earlier, and I hope all of us will take advantage of these opportunities to learn about our students and remember what we don’t know, as well as what we do, about our classrooms.
Evolving community also involves our environmental goals, and how we change to incorporate our teaching to address climate change. Here, our environmental work includes advancing Energy2028’s goals and using it as a resource for teaching and research, student theses, in all of our classrooms. We are also thinking about building resilience (physical, civic, and psychological) to address climate change. And Environmental Council is also working on integrating our DEI initiatives and curricula with our sustainability and environmental initiatives and curricula. I have also asked those working in these areas to imagine what the world, and our community, needs from Midd to foster a more sustainable future and start some conversations about that. We are already thinking about how our community will evolve after Energy2028.
Most importantly, evolving community involves rethinking who our students are, and what they bring to the classroom. Each year we have reached a new all-time high when it comes to the numbers of first-generation and students of color joining us—this year being no exception. The jump is to 18 percent first gen, and 37 percent students of color, and 13 percent international students. And we all know that naming numbers is an empty exercise if we cannot support our students when they are here. They come after COVID 1, and in the midst of COVID 2.0. Many of them have not experienced the give-and-take of an in-person classroom. Some of them do not know the rules of engagement with professors, except online. Many of them are rusty in their critical thinking skills—the very things they wanted to come to Midd to develop. Many of them are anxious about their social skills—an integral part of the college experience, yes, but not their college experience yet. Some of them have been our students for a year and are only now setting foot on our campus.
Many of them, like you, are still processing the losses in their families from last year: loss of a loved one, of a job, of a dream. Even more than previously, and that rate was already high, they are struggling with anxiety and depression. There are a myriad of ways, stated and unstated, that the students coming to us now are different than they were before. It is our job to listen, to pause, to take the time to understand what experiences they are bringing with them. Our classrooms are their first communities since COVID, and they must evolve to meet their needs.
We, too, are evolving as a community. Our governance processes are more robust than ever before. We now have ongoing conversations with trustees. We have a trustee DEI committee that has been inspired by the CDEI faculty committee—which itself is more active than ever before. Our uses of technology in the classroom have permanently changed—in both small and large ways. We have seen how online learning can be a supplement to our unchanged core commitment of transformational in-person learning. We have seen how students’ awareness of place, and of their larger communities, can fuel their learning. This year, as we evolve from the pandemic, we will see what becomes endemic to our own particular ecosystem of education.
I want to turn now to the second answer to the question, Why educate in the liberal arts and sciences? The work of evolving community takes courage, because we will not agree on things, and we live in a small community where we see each other all the time, every day, both on and off campus. That fact of educational intimacy, combined with the world of social media, where opinion usually outruns fact, creates intense pressures on all of us. Living and thriving in a small educational community demands graciousness and generosity even more than before. We should ask that of each other as we continue to deliberate on the things that inspire us, and the things that break our hearts.
Asking that of each other means having the courage to stay committed to the people with whom we disagree about deep things that matter to us—like future directions of a department, the nature of a hire, the validity of a course. That kind of courage is local courage. And it is all the more necessary for us because we are living so close together.
But in the midst of all these moments which necessitate local courage, there is something else we have done, and that is instill courage in our students. Around the world. Some of you may know that much of our August was spent working with two extraordinary Afghani Middlebury alumni, and helping them as they made their dangerous journey out of Kabul into exile—with only a few days’ notice and, in some cases, an afternoon’s notice. Shabana Bisaj-Rasikh, founder of SOLA, the first boarding school for girls in Afghanistan, brought 140 women—faculty, staff, and students—to the airport and to Doha. From Doha she brought them to Kigali, where they are now pursuing study abroad as an entire school. As she had stated in her writings during and since her escape, the uninterrupted education of women is one of the most important forms of resistance that can occur right now.
Her fellow Middlebury alum Bilal Sarwary also made a harrowing escape from Kabul to Doha to Canada, where he arrived last week and is still in quarantine. Bilal is an Afghani citizen, a freelance, high-profile, pro-democracy journalist who also ran for a seat in the now defunct Afghan parliament in a conservative, Al-Qaeda–dominated province. As an Afghan, he was low on the American list of potential evacuees. As a freelance journalist, he was not an official employee of any media company, and therefore low on all of their lists, too. And yet he was higher profile than many on those lists, having collaborated with many pro-democracy activists and written for and given interviews for CNN, NPR, ABC, BBC, Al-Jazeera. Bilal had no country. He had no company. He had Middlebury.
There are many other Afghani alums that we are in touch with, all of them doing brave and important work. It is worth noting in these two examples that both of these young people—one creating the first girls’ school in all Afghanistan, and the other relentlessly exercising his right to free expression on behalf of a democratic, equitable, and just Afghanistan—showed extraordinary courage in the last 10 years as they tried to build their country. Because of that courage, both of them were targets for the Taliban.
It is also worth noting that both of them credit their Middlebury education as one of the things that inspired them to do what they did. Middlebury gave them the relationships to keep them going. It gave them the long view of history, and of politics, and of religion. It gave them the critical thinking skills to question, to probe, and to build. It gave them a sense of justice, and fair process, and the need for access to knowledge for all—whether through education or media. The relationships they built and ideas they encountered here were models for them as they moved out into the world—a world far more dangerous than the one we occupy in Middlebury, Vermont.
You, the faculty, gave them that courage. And you may not have even known you were doing it. You literally gave them heart. And you will do it again, this year, for thousands more students. I sent Bilal a picture of Middlebury every day he was trying to flee from danger. He wrote back:
Middlebury is my second home. Middlebury’s training helped me make a name for myself in the world. I am overwhelmed by its kindness and I am trying to reach my mother of knowledge and her city as soon as possible.
This is the essence of a 21st-century education, and what we must do as we evolve as a community: to encourage, to give heart. Thank you.
May 29, 2021: Baccalaureate Address
Good afternoon, and welcome to your penultimate ritual at Middlebury before you go out to change the world. Changing the world—yes, that’s a lot of responsibility. But as I look at all that you have done since you began here, there is no doubt in my mind that you are fully prepared to take it on. You are the exceptional, remarkable Class of 2021, who together and as individuals have already managed more over the last four years—and under exceptional, remarkable circumstances—than what many people can dream of taking on in a lifetime.
Let me offer you some numbers as evidence.
Among you are two Watson Fellows, three Fulbrights, two Critical Language Scholar grant recipients, two Udall Scholars, and one Humanity in Action Summer Fellow.
Twenty-two of you are CTLR STEM tutors. Thirty of you are peer writing tutors; eleven are peer language tutors, working in Spanish, Arabic, Russian, Chinese, French, and Japanese—and some of you in several of those languages.
More than 100 of you were summer research assistants with Middlebury faculty. One hundred and thirty-one of you presented at a Spring Symposium—and one of you presented each of the three years that it was held.
One hundred and twenty of you competed in athletics. You have been part of five NCAA champion teams, including the field hockey team, which won the national title in each of three seasons they were able to compete during your time as students. You experienced great success against our NESCAC peers, earning 12 conference championships. The 2019 championship football team was the first in the conference’s 50 years to compile a perfect 9-0 record. And we can now say, because we had no athletics this past fall, that we’ve been undefeated for two years in a row! Four of you senior athletes garnered four All-American honors.
Fifty-seven of you participated in MiddCORE. Seven of you, through Language In Motion, developed and delivered programming to support the global awareness and curiosity and intercultural competence of literally hundreds of Vermont school children. Four of you received Academic Outreach Endowment Awards and 10 of you received Public Service Leadership Awards for projects that included compiling COVID-19 scientific data and strengthening local food systems.
Three of you completed the full requirements of the Privilege & Poverty Academic Cluster and are graduating as P&P Scholars. Four of you undertook a P&P Addison County internship, and one of you had a P&P’s national internship.
Six of you were Oratory Now head coaches. Fifty-seven of you participated in MiddCORE. Twenty of you worked at the Middlebury College Museum of Art, and almost half of the senior class are members of the museum. You led museum tours of exhibitions about Islamic art and women’s suffrage; you organized a film screening to mark World AIDS day, you helped curate exhibitions about activist art and the 50th anniversary of the moon landing.
Then there’s what you’ve accomplished as individuals and in small groups. You organized Nocturne, an all-night campus art festival; you developed and directed a translation project to gather, preserve, and share the story of Japanese-Americans during World War II; you co-led Midd Women on Wall Street; you developed and ran a girls empowerment program in Ethiopia; you designed furniture for a Habitat for Humanity house; you worked on a project to unlock the genome of the African diaspora.
And you challenged yourselves, and each other, to keep Middlebury learning in person this year, keeping our COVID cases low and our community safe. You challenged us to more directly confront systemic racism in our country and on our campus; to increase campus diversity and equal access to the full Middlebury experience; broaden our understanding of accessibility and gender identification and inclusivity; and acknowledge the original inhabitants of the land where campus now sits.
The statistics I just cited must be inspiring. You did all this. And yet they must sound like they are from another world—a dream.
A New York pandemic collaborative poem, cowritten by Tamilla and Rachel Leigh, ends with the following lines:
It was all a dream, I used to leave the house without a mask
But now I sneeze into napkin and push the window closed.
You must feel that way about your college experience. Because you had two college experiences. Before, in that dream-like time, there was a world without masks, inside or out.
When your circle of friends was not defined as your “pod,” or “close contacts” and people could come and go as they pleased. When you could walk into town and not worry about the person who walked by on the street. When you didn’t have to fight a sense of isolation every day, because you knew you would run into people to hang out with and do so without worry. When your faces, and the faces of your professors, your coaches, your friends, weren’t flattened by an image on a screen—but were whole, and alive.
Before, you lived in a world where performances could occur in front of packed audiences, including brothers and aunts from out of town, and bodies could touch on the stage. Where bodies were supposed to touch on the stage. Where a hug could happen at a hockey game. Where someone could lean over your shoulder to help you on a lab assignment, take a beaker from you and check the measurements and put it back in your hand.
You lived in another world, then. Where you never knew what the rules were going to be from one day to the next. Where you knew your friends and teachers only by their eyes and noses. Where you learned in childhood bedrooms that you thought you had left behind forever. Where you spent hours in two-dimensional sessions of endless squares. Where laughter was muffled by masks. Where your enthusiasm for a problem solved had to be contained by a simulation on a screen. Where the news from home included statistics from your county about the number of hospital beds available, and about people whom you knew from childhood who were sick. Where you didn’t just share stories of intellectual adventure, but stories of loss. Everyone has lost someone to COVID.
That second world has created habits in you that will stay forever. Your very DNA has changed. Your bodies have changed. You will have the muscle memory in your fingers that makes you put on a mask in a split second. You will never read a community health dashboard carelessly again. You will probably find it strange—and may even have a visceral reaction—to being in a crowd at a concert where thousands of people are singing along.
Those experiences will shape you. But as you leave Middlebury, I want to remind you of something far deeper, and more important. You are leaving us at a time of hope. In November, I spoke to a freezing group of Feb graduates at the stadium, physically distant, at an event hastily planned before the second Vermont shutdown occurred due to the alarming surge of cases across the country and the state. Today, in May, we are seated together with our families and friends nearby, with skyrocketing vaccination rates and plummeting positive COVID rates. We are in fact sitting in a county with one of the highest vaccination rates in the state that has the highest vaccination rate in the nation. Today, we are moving into a world of green, not yellow or red, warnings.
Yet today we feel a hope born of sorrow. A hope born of what you have witnessed. As Naomi Shihab Nye has written in her poem, “Before you know what kindness really is you must lose things, feel the future dissolve in a moment like salt in a weakened broth.” Naomi Nye goes on,
Before you know kindness as the deepest thing inside,
you must know sorrow as the other deepest thing.
You must wake up with sorrow.
You must speak to it till your voice
catches the thread of all sorrows
and you see the size of the cloth.
This poem has been a favorite of healthcare workers, who, as one put it, didn’t know what to do with all the sorrow, didn’t have a place to put it. They were traveling in the desolate landscapes between kindnesses, and found solace in the words that described a future crumbling before them—part of their everyday experience. This poem has also given solace to those, like you, who are working against the deep global challenges of climate damage, systemic racism, and socio-economic inequality that, even as the pandemic recedes, continue to undermine our hope for a better world.
You too have felt the future dissolve in a moment, like salt in a weakened broth. And yet, here’s the most remarkable thing. The awe-inspiring thing. The thing that we all do not cease to marvel at. In the midst of, and because of, the sad challenges of COVID, you have built a livable world.
You. All of you together. Have built a livable world.
Let me begin with the basic, extraordinary fact. Middlebury was open for in-person, residential learning all year. And Middlebury—you—had one of the lowest, if not the lowest, rate of positive cases of any college in the country this year. That’s reason to be inspired. And it’s reason to ask how. I know the answers.
You made Middlebury a livable world.
You did this first through a respect for health and for science. Through faithfulness in the simplest things—by wearing a mask, washing your hands, respecting physical distancing. In the simple sentiment in the note I received on my porch one evening from the student residents in an off-campus house: “We want to work together to make this a successful year.” Through faithful attendance at the testing center, Mondays, Thursdays, Mondays, Thursdays, Mondays, Thursdays. By sitting bravely in the stark loneliness of quarantine. By joining a peer counseling group online.
We struggled with surveillance culture. We struggled together with whether the “phases” of the fall term really helped. We struggled with mental health. With disappointed parents. With trying to apply the health and safety rules fairly. With parties that seemed OK, and then suddenly weren’t. With rules about close contacts that were, in the end, difficult to define. With anxiety about when and how we could be vaccinated. With missing our families and not being able to see them when we needed them most. But through it all, you respected each other and you respected the science.
You made Middlebury a livable world.
You did this also through strength and creativity of spirit. You found a way to continue learning online—as if it had always been this way. You called your professors more often. (COVID studies show that professors now embrace calling students, too.) You focused on collaborative classes with your fellow Middlebury students in China, in Turkey, in California. You learned with your professors how to do sustainable and affordable chemistry experiments. You created new ways to be artistic. Nocturne thrived in COVID. You built a new stage upon which you could perform. You danced at night on Battell Beach. The music broadcast throughout the whole campus. The long arguments of philosophy or literature continued. The team practices were a different kind of dance across Middlebury’s fields. The climate change activism created new partnerships with the residents of the town. You planned and flawlessly carried out powerful protests in a year of racial reckoning.
You made Middlebury a livable world.
Most importantly, you did this through kindness. You did this through Mutual Aid initiatives that helped other students. Through signing on for peer-counseling groups—more than ever before. You planned birthday meals for your friends in quarantine with dining services. You tutored primary and secondary school students online–more than ever before. In the spring, you made sure your peers could get the vaccine. Through fundraising drives for essential workers at Middlebury and in Addison County. When asked, you said that you cared about your peers’ health as a first priority. Your own health was a second.
This kindness made Middlebury a livable world. As Naomi Nye put it,
Then it is only kindness that makes sense anymore,
only kindness that ties your shoes
and sends you out into the day to gaze at bread,
only kindness that raises its head
from the crowd of the world to say
It is I you have been looking for,
and then goes with you everywhere
like a shadow or a friend.
You are going out in a time of hope—one that is born, woven, of challenges and moments of sadness that no college student should have to face. And yet you embraced them. You felt your future dissolve before you, like salt in a broth. And then you built a different one.
As you, and the world, move into a new, healthier time: never forget how you practiced that kindness. Never forget that the wise, seasoned, kindness—the kindness that knows loss—is the basis of the most profound hope. And that hope should go with you everywhere, like a shadow or a friend.
We are prouder of you than we could ever say in words. Go now, and build a livable world. Congratulations!