College caps 'watershed' year with commencement
MIDDLEBURY — One of the most remarkable things about Middlebury College’s 219th Commencement Saturday afternoon was the way it felt less like a triumph over COVID-19 — though by any measure it was — and more like a celebration of Vermont.
“I don’t think I realized how lucky we were to call these Green Mountains home,” said Student Commencement Speaker Nathan Gunesch, who hails from the tiny village of Government Camp, Oregon. “On a foggy morning the clouds veil the base of these hills as if the trees themselves were exhaling.”
Gunesch paid tribute to the feelings and sensations of Vermont during his Middlebury years, like the smell of the wood smoke from the hearth at American Flatbread, the taste of a “crisp apple straight off the tree at Happy Valley Orchard,” and in spring “the surprising warmth of sunbathing at Lake Dunmore on a 50-degree afternoon,” all of which felt “like being a part of something that extends beyond the borders of our campus.”
“Today I hope we all feel that Vermont tastes like a maple creemee,” he said.
All four recipients of honorary degrees from Middlebury this year are from Vermont.
John Derick, who coordinated maintenance of the Trail Around Middlebury for 30 years and volunteered with the Middlebury Area Land Trust, has “changed the way we and thousands of others have experienced the town in which we live,” Middlebury College President Laurie Patton said on Saturday.
Dr. Mark Levine, as Vermont’s Commissioner of Health, has “delivered a steady, measured, data-driven approach to understanding and managing the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic that has allowed Vermont to lead the nation in our response,” Patton said.
Curtiss Reed Jr., a civil rights leader “who knows how to get others to follow,” serves as executive director of the Vermont Partnership for Fairness and Diversity and leads several statewide programs including I Am a Vermonter, Vermont African American Heritage Trail and Vermont Vision for a Multicultural Future Initiative.
Singer-songwriter-playwright Anaïs Mitchell grew up on a farm in New Haven, graduated from Middlebury College in 2004 and launched a successful music career, releasing seven albums and creating the 2019 folk opera “Hadestown,” which won eight Tony Awards.
At the heart of Mitchell’s commencement address was the Bristol Watershed Center natural area, where she and her friends would hang out when she went to Mount Abraham Union High School.
During the pandemic, Mitchell “hiked around it with my family, my baby strapped onto my chest, and I kept turning that word, ‘watershed,’ over in my mind and finding it very beautiful,” she said.
The word also spoke to her in its metaphorical sense, she explained, as in “watershed moment” or turning point.
“I’m mindful that I’m speaking to a rare generation who is not only at a personal watershed but also a historical one,” she said. “Your lives and the world you’re entering have been changed forever by this watershed event of the pandemic.”
Mitchell recalled the historical watershed event of her college years — 9/11 — and suggested to her audience that such moments come with insight and perspective.
“A personal watershed moment offers insight and perspective that will change your life,” she continued. “A historical watershed moment contains insight and perspective that will change the world.”
Mitchell offered two pieces of advice to the 481 members of the Class of 2021: “create for yourself occasions to rise to” and “understand failure to be an essential part of mastery.”
And she concluded by singing, a cappella, a song she wrote last year called “Watershed.”
And then you’ll keep climbing step by step
By the grace of god and by your own sweat
And a river of tears that you won’t forget
But you will forgive if you haven’t yet
Cause they carved the path that you had to tread
And they’ll do it again for the path ahead
And the heaven you seek is not separate
From the heart that speaks when your cheeks are wet
The pandemic, which appears to be winding down in Vermont, still cast its shadow over the Middlebury Commencement. It came at the end of a 14-month period that saw the college send all of its students home in March 2020 to complete the semester via Zoom and any other means necessary. Language and other college summer schools were called off in 2020, and students returned to campus in limited numbers last fall and were constrained by many COVID-19 restrictions. After going home at Thanksgiving, students studied remotely in the January term and didn’t return to campus until late February.
That whole time college officials tested students and staff regularly — more than 50,000 tests — to stave off a COVID-19 outbreak. Mostly they were successful.
Then on Saturday, 481 members of the Class of 2021 and their guests assembled at six separate outdoor venues to comply with pandemic health and safety regulations, each with a stage and a large video screen. Attendance was strictly limited; even faculty weren’t allowed to attend in person. At an event that was hard to imagine just a few months ago — and one that required careful planning without the benefit of a rehearsal — joyful bursts of applause and cheering could be heard all over campus.
The first portion of the ceremony, including the speakers and conferral of honorary degrees, was broadcast from the Robison Hall stage, followed by in-person degree conferrals at each site.
“There are few moments in an institution’s history where it must pause to recognize the exceptional achievements and humanitarian service of one of its members,” Patton said. “This past year, the year of the pandemic — when we literally held one another’s lives in our hands — has been one of those moments for Middlebury.”
She reminded everyone that Chief Health Officer and College Physician Mark Peluso worked “ceaselessly in emergency conditions for the welfare of Middlebury. Because of your dedication and abilities, our community ended this year with one of the lowest positivity rates in the nation. Our students learned in safety; our faculty taught confidently; our staff worked with a sense of security. The college earned the trust of its neighbors. Our parents sent their students to Middlebury with confidence. Through your example, we were able to care for each other in better and more informed ways than ever before. Middlebury survived, and thrived, thanks to your endless labor and wise interventions. We are grateful beyond what any words can express.”
Patton presented Peluso with the first Middlebury Medal, “given on an extraordinary occasion where an individual’s humanitarian actions have profoundly benefited the Middlebury College community.”
“May those who follow you be inspired by your courage and humanity and carry forth your spirit.”
Reach Christopher Ross at email@example.com.