Middlebury College graduates get a big send-off
MIDDLEBURY — Five hundred and seventeen students from 43 states and 39 countries — backed by a throng of over 5,000 parents and well wishers — gathered under a blue sky Sunday to receive their diplomas and say good-bye to student life and begin the world.
Middlebury College’s 215th conferring of degrees and commencement exercises on the green quadrangle west of Voter Hall began to the tune of a sole bagpipe. Then, to the trumpeted strains of a well-known Purcell processional, the faculty trooped in between a cheering gauntlet of black-clad students in gowns and mortarboards, who took their own places in the bright sun.
College President Laurie Patton presided over her first commencement as the college’s first woman president.
Student commencement speaker James Lynch addressed his peers with humor and honesty.
Lynch reflected that “the people we are today on the doorstep of the great Febmester we call life are not the same eager kids that swarmed Proctor with room keys swinging around their necks telling stories about prom from just four months before.” Lynch urged his fellow graduates to embrace “uncertainty” as “opportunity.” He reminded them that even though they were gathered to celebrate a tremendous success, it was their moments of proving themselves against the fear of failure that most helped them reach this day.
“This day is about nights in library carrels ... the Wilson cafe at three in the morning when the only things there were 12 blank pages, a deadline, and a blinking cursor saying you can’t do it.
“We didn’t know if we could do it. The only thing we knew ... was that despite our inadequacies, despite the challenges, the struggles ... the only thing that was going to get us through it was our brain and the work we were willing to do.”
“We have faced this before,” Lynch concluded. “We have worked, and we have gotten to this stage. Out of our doubt, we made our success. Out of our uncertainty, we will forge our future.”
Honorary degree recipients included Cornwall resident Bill Sessions, a 1969 Middlebury graduate and a federal judge. In noting the many highlights of Sessions’ career, Patton drew special attention to his landmark ruling in 2007 that enabled states to regulate auto emissions.
“We can all breathe a bit easier because of you,” Patton said.
Patton introduced commencement speaker Van Jones as a “passionate activist, unflinching truth teller, insightful political analyst, force for change. When you see injustice you find ways to fight it and right it.”
Jones served in the Obama White House as the Special Advisor for Green Jobs, Enterprise and Innovation. A CNN political commentator, attorney, environmental and human rights activist, Jones is also the author of the best-selling “The Green Collar Economy” and “Rebuild the Dream.”He has founded and led a number of social justice organizations and initiatives, including The Ella Baker Center for Human Rights, Color of Change, Dream Corp and Rebuild the Dream.
Jones electrified the audience with his rousing style of addressing the audience, his eloquence and his call for transformative engagement in civic affairs.
He first called on the soon-to-be graduates to stand up and honor their families and supporters.
“Nobody here changed your own diapers. Nobody here drove yourself to soccer. And nobody here co-signed your students loans,” he said. “Give your parents and the people who took care of you some respect. On your feet!”
When those shouts and cheers subsided, Jones launched into the core of his address by saying that he was “not going to do what most folks do ... confer and convey some wisdom from our generation to yours in hopes that something that we have been able to do might inspire you or instruct you.”
Instead, Jones declared that constructive dialogue on civic affairs is at an impasse, an impasse created by both the right and the left in a zero sum game of posturing and politics.
“What my generation is doing is not working,” said Jones. “I’m in politics and I have seen the right wing and I have seen the left wing in my generation fail you over and over again ... I come to you not trying to convey wisdom but trying to encourage your wisdom because what we are doing is not working.”
There’s “something wrong in the country in my generation with both the left and the right,” Jones continued, when even those “who have long felt silenced believe it’s more important to shut down other people’s speech than to lift up our own truth.”
Jones then appealed directly to the soon-to-be graduates: “We need your help to fix it.”
What most qualified the assembled “young folks,” as Jones occasionally called them, was the very liberal arts education they had received at Middlebury, which trained them to engage in open and respectful dialogue, across a range of views.
“What is missing in our country on both sides of this political divide is what has been encouraged in you, planted in you, nurtured in you. What is missing is the ability to talk where other people can listen and to listen deeply so that other people can talk ... That is a very, very rare gift that you’ve been given, and it is desperately needed now.”
Jones sounded his main theme, saying that those graduating in the biological sciences have something to teach the political sciences: “A bird needs two wings to fly.”
He then gave a series of examples from his career as an advocate for social and environmental justice of initiatives that would not have succeeded without cooperation from both sides and without ideas from differing sectors.
It was George W. Bush, said Jones, who signed the federal legislation that took his program to connect inner city kids with jobs in the green economy and “spread that program across America.”
His number-one partner in combating racial injustice in incarceration has been Newt Gingrich because both found common ground in addressing a system that wasn’t working.
When the African American teenager Trayvon Martin was shot by a white neighbor and “everybody was upset, everybody was talking, everybody was fussing, everybody was preaching,” it was a simple question from the musician Prince that helped Jones envision his Yes We Code initiative to “get young folks from Oakland ready to have jobs in Silicon Valley.”
Prince asked why it was that for so many people a black kid in a hoodie must be “a thug,” but a white kid in a hoodie must be “Mark Zuckerberg.” So in answer to the tragedy of Trayvon Martin, why not nurture more African American Mark Zuckerbergs? And thus Jones’ Yes We Code initiative was born.
An economic idea, often the realm of the right, was brought to address a social injustice, more often the concern of the left.
“Civility is not some little dainty thing,” Jones emphasized, punching each word for clarity. “It’s the cornerstone for civilization. And great nations fall when they forget that.”
Jones then gave his final example of a bird that “needs two wings to fly” by reminding his listeners of the “liberty and justice for all” that they had been reciting since kindergarten.
“They made you stand up and say something about ‘liberty and justice for all.’ Liberty. The right wing. Liberty. Concerned about individual rights, limited government, liberty. Justice. The left wing. Concerned about small groups being run over by big groups.
“But somebody had enough sense to put those two concepts together. Liberty and justice for everybody. That’s what you have been given: the ability at a high intellectual level and at a deep personal level to stand up for liberty and justice for all and not just here but around the world.
“You are the few who can appreciate both wings. We need you now to fly.”
Jones’ passionate and inspiring speech was answered by a lengthy standing ovation.
After the valedictorian and salutatorian received their diplomas, it was then time for the march across the stage for all graduates from American Studies through Theater and Dance. A handshake, a hug, a diploma and a cane for each student (each received a beech and ash replica of the famous cane left to the college, along with his fortune, by early Middlebury resident Gamaliel Painter), a smile and a flash from the camera, as each left the stage to cheers and applause from friends and family.
At the ceremony’s end, the bagpipes sounded the final notes, and a roaring cheer went up as close to 517 mortarboards flew up into the air and hovered just seconds, like black soaring birds, before plunging back to earth.