Welcome to your penultimate ceremony as a class. Tomorrow you will have your final ceremony—so joyous because it will also be traditional—something hundreds of classes have done in Middlebury’s 222-year history, since its first graduation in the early 1800s. In those numbers there are two classes who did not come together as a plenary, as a single entity. Those would be the two before you—last year we didn’t gather as a single class, but we gathered in pods across the campus. And the year before, in 2020, the graduation was held entirely virtually. On Tuesday, we will be welcoming nearly 500 of the 600-plus graduates of the Class of 2020 so that they can have the real thing. It will be the first and—we hope—the only combination Reunion/graduation for one class ever. Another first—as a result of the pandemic.
Today we return to tradition. We also return to some of the texts of wisdom that you began with in 2018. But it’s important to say: the wisdom you have gained is so different than the wisdom of a prepandemic college graduate. As a result of the pandemic, you have gained an understanding of a different order. Wisdom on steroids.
As a result of the pandemic…. a phrase you have heard so often before. You began your college years in 2018 and had a year and a half of “normal” college before the pandemic hit.
As a result of the pandemic, in March of 2020, you left everything abruptly as disaster struck. You returned to your families, to try to learn in high school bedrooms, in living rooms, in family rooms, in basements, even in cars.
As a result of the pandemic, you learned how to learn online. You learned in your majors, you learned in your electives. You learned collaborations that you never thought possible. You learned how to learn in person, but at a distance, and with a mask. You learned how to make meaningful connections online. You learned of the inequities that remote learning can introduce. You may not even remember what life was like before masks, before PCR and antigen tests.
As a result of the pandemic, you also learned loss. You lost loved ones. Neighbors. A sense of a reliable future. Sometimes you lost a sense of your own self. And you are the class that came together, expecting normalcy, then exploded across the globe in an involuntary diaspora necessitated by a public health emergency, and then returned. You lost your dreams, and then rebuilt them.
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 on the challenges that the world will place before you. You are the exceptional, remarkable Class of 2022, who together and as individuals have managed more in the last four years—and under exceptional, remarkable, and often seemingly impossible circumstances—than what many people can dream of taking on in a lifetime.
Let me offer you some numbers as evidence:
Among you are multiple recipients of nationally competitive fellowships, including one Goldwater Scholar, one Keasbey Scholar, a Public Policy and International Summer Institute Fellow, and three Fulbright English Teaching Assistants, as well as several Boren and Gilman Scholars, Critical Language Scholars, and Blakemore Scholars.
More than 100 of you were summer research assistants with Middlebury faculty. One hundred and fifteen of you presented at a Spring Student Symposium, and 155 of you presented at the symposium over your four years at Middlebury.
Twenty-two of you received Cross-Cultural Engagement Grants to pursue individual and group projects. Seven of you, through Language in Motion, developed and delivered programming, remotely and in-person, to support global awareness, curiosity, and intercultural competence in scores of Vermont schoolchildren.
Among you are varsity athletes who have been a part of 15 NESCAC championship teams, and six NCAA championship teams, including field hockey, which won four straight national titles, and women’s ice hockey, which finished this year with a perfect record. Many others of you participated in club sports from crew to rugby to Ultimate to water polo with passion and pride.
Forty-four of you were academically or professionally engaged with the Middlebury College Museum of Art. Almost half of you are members of the museum. You led tours of exhibitions about women’s suffrage; you organized a film screening and panel to mark World AIDS Day; you helped write and edit interpretive texts to make galleries more inclusive.
Then there’s what you accomplished as individuals and in small groups. Over the past three years, and through great disruption due to COVID, four of you were stalwart tutors of the writing center, mentoring your younger colleagues, conducting research, running programs, and making the writing center a more inclusive and engaging space.
Five of you were Oratory Now coaches, helping students find their voices. Two of you began Middlebury’s chapter of First Generation Investors, and you connected with high school students to help teach financial literacy and how to invest. Eight of you participated in the MiddCORE strategic challenge.
You helped to organize Nocturne, the all-night campus art festival. You managed a translation project to gather, keep, and share the story of Japanese Americans during World War II. You founded a new student organization for the expression and celebration of Caribbean and Latin American dance. You won first prize in a national climate crisis art contest. You found ways to get out the vote, and to create meaningful, immersive justice-based alternative break trips, and reorganize them when COVID got in the way.
And 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; to broaden our understanding of accessibility and gender identification and inclusivity; and acknowledge the original inhabitants of the land where the campus now sits.
I’ve been thinking a lot about this profile—your unique experience. You have a memory of college and then you have a memory of the pandemic and then you have this season of rebuilding. And that is what I think you are—rebuilders. Your calling is reconstruction. You experienced a pandemic and all of its humanity and inhumanity. You therefore know what it takes to repair, to begin again, to figure out how step-by-step you move out of something as large and overwhelming and disastrous as COVID. You are recovery artists.
And, as recovery artists, you are called to have a special kind of hope. I’ve been reading about this kind of hope—what it takes to begin again after a disaster. There are two essential tasks in rebuilding after a disaster. The first is about building institutions. The second is about something less visible, but in a way even more essential—building social capital.
As one writer on disaster relief put it, rebuilders must “advocate for the building of institutions and systems that are accountable, democratic, transparent, and efficient in service delivery. These institutions must have good leaders and must be as participatory as possible.” You have already begun to do this in all the magnificent ways I just named. Even at Middlebury, you have redefined inclusivity, health care, self-care, and compassionate systems.
So far so good. But rebuilders—recovery artists—are also called upon to strengthen social capital. They must “find ways of creating strong bonds among community members and humanize their relationships in ways such that members of the community care for one another.” I believe that this is what you, the Class of 2022, are uniquely called to do in this world.
You know, because you’re Middlebury students, that social capital has a great power. It is the bond between people that creates lasting value—the glue that is literally the adhesive of society. And building social capital again after a disaster is the beginning of hope. Let me dwell upon a particularly compelling example. This is the voice of Liz McCartney, who was in her early 30s in 2011, five years after Hurricane Katrina. She did not graduate from Middlebury, but she reminds me of you nonetheless. She was not that much older than you are now when she wrote this about her work of reconstruction:
“I am one of the cofounders of the St. Bernard Project. We’re a direct service organization in New Orleans. We rebuild houses for people who were primarily affected by Hurricane Katrina. We are also trying to tackle the blight problem in New Orleans. It’s one of the most blighted cities in America. Our model is really simple and straightforward. We utilize supervised volunteer labor. We work closely with a lot of different organizations, including the Mennonites, and we get families back into their homes. It takes about 12 weeks, $15,000 to $20,000, and we can get a family home.
I have a background in middle school, teaching middle school, so I’m really good at long division if anybody needs help with that. My boyfriend, with whom I started the organization, is an attorney. So if anyone finds themselves in trouble with the law, he can definitely get you out of jail. I tell you all that to say that I have no background in disaster work. My dad is an architect, and my grandpa was a builder, but aside from spackling, I don’t really know much about building homes.
It has been very revealing to me to learn how broken long-term disaster recovery is in America, and our commitment is to develop a model that can be taken to communities not only affected by natural or human-made disasters, as in the case of New Orleans, but also by economic disasters—cities like Detroit, and other communities that face very, very significant blight and have large populations that don’t have access to home ownership or any sort of asset building. How do we rebuild homes and communities, bring people up with those, and start to make our cities more functional?
The last piece of what I do, and this is where it starts to get very strange, is what’s weirder than an attorney and a middle school teacher opening a construction company, or a construction company opening a mental health clinic? We also run a mental health clinic in partnership with Tulane and Loyola Universities, and our primary focus is to work with people who don’t have access to insurance but are struggling very significantly with PTSD, depression anxiety, and a litany of other mental health problems that are a result of not only Katrina and broken communities but more recently the oil spill that happened about a year ago. So that’s what we do. I’m excited to learn from a lot of the professionals in this room and look forward to two interesting days of discussion.”
Liz is the consummate rebuilder. First and foremost, she worked at what she loved—being a middle school teacher. You will do that, too. Some of you are starting those careers. Some of you are exploring possibilities. All of you are thinking about defining the work that you love. That’s what you should be doing.
But recovery artists do something more. Liz used all of her education to do something completely new—and that is exactly what is required of you. She adapted her work from being a schoolteacher to a construction supervisor to a mental health sponsor. It’s clear that you already have begun this adaptive work at Middlebury. But you will also go on to adapt your skills in ways that you never thought possible. The times require nothing less of you. You will go on to build institutions differently to make them more transparent, to make them more just. You will go on, as Liz did, to create new forms of social capital.
At first, recovery may feel like it’s just going back to normal. You can get an ice cream cone again. You can go to a dance. You can even go to a graduation with thousands of people. But Liz knew there was more to recovery. Building school again for your younger sisters and brothers. Building respectful conversations again. There’s also rebuilding really tough things like the supply chain—where food can get to the people who need it. Where the building materials for a home can get to a couple who are remaking their life after fleeing persecution. Reshaping our healthcare system. Our capacity to create sustainable economies. Rebuilding race relations in America and across the globe.
You are recovery artists who must be deeply adaptive in all your skills. Because, in the end, you are doing what Matthew Jelacic calls “retrieving the wisdom of those in need.” You know it’s not the same as before. You know you are not going out just to start a life. You are going out to help rebuild others’ lives. In 2018, you started in this chapel as first-year students with statements of wisdom on how to live and learn at college. The pandemic has given you deeper, tougher wisdom. Because you lost your dreams, and then rebuilt them. And now, back here in this chapel, you are called to retrieve the wisdom of those in need.
There is a final adaptive skill that recovery artists need. In whatever work you are meant to do in this world, you must first try to listen. Relief and recovery experts tell us that one of the greatest impediments to community resilience after a disaster is not the communities’ lack of skills or resources, but rather relief workers who impose their own ideas about recovery and stop listening to those affected. So in retrieving the wisdom of those in need, you are called to listen first. Then you will be true recovery artists.
I will leave you with a poem about listening and hope after a disaster—a recent one that is deeply relevant for us, written by Poet Laureate Tracy K. Smith.
An Old Story
We were made to understand it would be
Terrible. Every small want, every niggling urge,
Every hate swollen to a kind of epic wind.
Livid, the land, and ravaged, like a rageful
Dream. The worst in us having taken over
And broken the rest utterly down.
A long age
Passed. When at last we knew how little
Would survive us—how little we had mended
Or built that was not now lost—something
Large and old awoke. And then our singing
Brought on a different manner of weather.
Then animals long believed gone crept down
From trees. We took new stock of one another.
We wept to be reminded of such color.
Our experience of COVID years has felt at times, as Smith describes—like a rageful dream. A hateful wind. A disaster that has utterly broken us down. But, as in the poem, when we knew how we still needed to mend, something large and old awoke in us. It awoke in you during your time at Middlebury.
Class of 2022: With your help, perhaps we can live the hopeful reality that this poem describes. Perhaps we can begin the time when people can sing again. When the weather will change. When animals reappear, and people can take stock of one another. You are our force for rebuilding, for seeing each other anew as we come out of hiding.
Class of 2022: You are our old song of hope, born again. We weep to see you go, but we weep with joy to be reminded of such color—the color you bring to recovery, the color you bring to the healing of the world.