Alvarez to give college commencement address; Weybridge principal Johnston also honored

MIDDLEBURY — Middlebury College on Thursday announced that poet, writer and alumna Julia Alvarez will deliver this year’s commencement address. The institution will also bestow an honorary degree upon an Addison County elementary school principal at its May 24 graduation ceremony.

Alvarez graduated from Middlebury College in 1971 and is currently a writer-in-residence at the college. The Weybridge resident is widely known for writing the novels “How The García Girls Lost Their Accents,” in 1991 and “In the Time of the Butterflies,” published in 1994.

Middlebury College President Ron Liebowitz, who will step down from his post this June, praised the decision to choose Alvarez as commencement speaker.

“Julia Alvarez is greatly admired for her prodigious talent and insightful portrayals of the human condition,” Liebowitz said in a statement. “Her powerful storytelling reveals much about what it means to inhabit two cultures and to face oppression with courage

The renowned writer has been in the spotlight several times in recent years. Last summer, President Barack Obama awarded Alvarez the 2013 National Medal of Arts in a ceremony at the White House. In an interview with the Independent in July, Alvarez spoke fondly of Middlebury, and credited the institution for creating an environment in which students can grow.

“They call it an alma mater, and it really did nurture what it was that I was meant to do,” Alvarez said.

The National Endowment for the Arts commended her work, noting that “she illustrates the complexity of navigating two worlds and reveals the human capacity for strength in the face of oppression.”

Alvarez was born in New York City in 1950 to parents from the Dominican Republic. Her family returned with her to their native country when she was three months old, but they fled the Dominican Republic in 1960 to escape the dictatorship of Rafael Trujillo, which her father opposed. Alvarez earned degrees from Middlebury and Syracuse University.

WEYBRIDGE PRINCIPAL HONORED

The college will also award several honorary degrees at commencement, including Doctor of Education honors to Weybridge Elementary School Principal Christina Johnston.

Johnston, who has been an educator for 35 years and principal in Weybridge since 1993, said she was shocked when the college broke the news.

“I was just stunned and thrilled,” she said. “It was completely out of the blue, and it’s really thrilling.”

Recalling her time at Weybridge, Johnston said she was particularly proud with the relationship the school has formed with Middlebury College.

“We’ve been really active in working with the college, and just seeing them as a tremendous resource,” Johnston said.

The partnership works both ways, Johnston explained. Middlebury education students visit Weybridge classrooms to observe and interact with students, and youngsters often visit the college to participate in workshops there.

The campus provides opportunities that aren’t available to the students in Weybridge, Johnston said, adding that a collaboration with the college’s biology department allowed the students to visit the labs on campus.

Johnston said collaboration with Middlebury also gives her students an idea what college is like.

“Students who may not think of themselves going to college can envision that,” Johnston said. “Everybody should be able to dream that.”

Johnston said Weybridge’s partnership with Middlebury has expanded students’ horizons by allowing them to benefit from the resources of an elite private college, whose reach expands far beyond Addison County.  

“To give education a connection that’s beyond the school walls, that’s huge, and the college had played a big part of that,” she said.

Johnston was born near Seattle and spent her formative years in Washington state and Alaska. She earned a bachelor’s degree from Oberlin College in Ohio before completing her master’s at Tufts University, outside Boston. She moved to Montpelier to begin her career in education in 1969.

The other honorary degree recipients are biologist Martin Chalfie, Grammy-award winning violinist Hilary Hahn and political theorist Eric Nelson.

The commencement ceremony will take place May 24 at 10 a.m. on the campus’ main quadrangle behind Voter Hall on College Street.

Editor's note: This story was updated after it was originally posted to correct the place of Julia Alvarez's birth.

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