Noted journalist urges college grads to practice ‘radical empathy’

Editor’s note: Thousands of family and friends were on the Quadrangle at Middlebury College this past Sunday, May 27, to recognize a rite of passage for 532 members of the class of 2018 (including those who will graduate next February). The college hosted a commencement ceremony that was momentous for Rachel Cohen, herself a member of the class of 2018 and an intern at the Addison Independent this summer. Here she gives her first-person account of the big day.
MIDDLEBURY — On Sunday, May 27, just before 9 a.m., I descended down College Street along with my suitemates and the rest of the graduating senior class, clad in a black cap and gown. 
We gathered in front of Davis Family Library, received our tassels, and lined up by academic department in alphabetical order. At the same time, families scrambled to secure seating close to the stage, while others were content to sit on the lawn below Mead Chapel, or to lounge in Adirondack chairs in the back. 
While waiting for line-up, students rested their heads on their peers’ shoulders, exhausted from the night before. Like at other colleges, Middlebury seniors have a tradition of staying awake all night the evening before graduation. 
After dances and parties that seemed to have no time limit, we had walked in packs to Youngman Field at 4:30 a.m., and around 300 members of the class of 2018 slumped onto the grassy slope to watch the sunrise over the Green Mountains. As soon as students had decided that the sun was sufficiently visible, albeit behind some clouds, waves of seniors trekked downtown for a free breakfast courtesy of College President Laurie Patton (pictured below). 
Independent photo/Trent Campbell
Middlebury Bagel and Deli, The Diner, Otter Creek Bakery, and Shafer’s all opened their doors early — at 5:30, 5 or even 4:30 a.m. — for the seniors to enjoy their last breakfast as students of the college. I was lucky enough to squeeze into a wooden booth at The Diner to eat a breakfast burrito on the Middlebury institution’s last day of operation. 
Then, many of us retreated back to our dorms to catch a couple of hours — two for me! — of sleep before having to get dressed and out the door before 9 o’clock. 
After processing out onto the lawn, lining a sidewalk and greeting our professors as they passed through our cheering tunnel on their way to the graduation exercises, we continued to our seats on the Quadrangle between Voter Hall and McCullough Student Center. 
Independent photo/Trent Campbell
One of our own, Sebastian Sanchez, a political science major from Brooklyn, N.Y., addressed us as the 2018 class speaker. He talked about what he loved most about his time at Middlebury, and why he believes that this class is particularly able to tackle the issues of our world today.
“We are transitioning into a world where harsh views and fake news seem the norm, where people are unashamed to spew hate. But now we have the tools to engage with this world, leaving it a little more truthful, a little more kind,” Sanchez said. 
In her keynote commencement address, Isabel Wilkerson, a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and author of “The Warmth of Other Suns,” also spoke to us about the gravity of the particular political moment. She made the case for radical empathy as a solution to division. 
For Wilkerson, radical empathy means “putting in the work to learn and to listen with a heart wide open, to understand another’s experience well enough to know how they are feeling it, not as we imagine we would feel.” 
Wilkerson’s promotion of radical empathy reminded me — an aspiring journalist emerging into the workforce during a polarizing time — of the power of listening, of really trying to understand someone else’s story from their own perspective.  
Wilkerson was granted an honorary Doctor of Letters degree from Middlebury, along with Jeanne A. Brink, Elaine Ostroff, Velcheru Narayana Rao, and William P. Stritzler, who also received honorary doctorate awards. 
Then, under the overcast skies, we 532 undergraduates received our diplomas and, with a handshake and a piece of paper, became alumni. 
Department by department, from American Studies through Theater and Dance, students rose and lined up in front of the stage. Being in the Sociology and Anthropology Department meant that I received my diploma toward the end. As the clock approached noon I sat in my seat waiting eagerly. Surprisingly, despite my lack of sleep, I was not bored or unenthused; I cheered on all of my friends as their names were announced and they walked across the stage, thinking about how proud I was of their accomplishments, and that they were my peers.
When it was finally my turn to walk, I shook the president’s hand, received my diploma and my own replica of Gamaliel Painter’s cane, and smiled for a photograph at the far end of the stage. 
Gamaliel Painter, a founder of the town of Middlebury and the institution of higher education that took the town’s name, left a major gift to the college, along with his cane, when he died. Seniors have been receiving replicas of the cane at their graduation ceremonies since 1995, and singing the song written in 1917 about Painter’s cane. 
Although few seniors — except for the ones leading the charming song on stage — knew the tune beforehand, we chanted the “rap rap raps” and “tap tap taps” with a playful passion. Then, up Mead Chapel we went as graduates of Middlebury. Along the way, we were hugged by professors, and cheered on by families and friends, until we made it to the top. 
During the rest of the afternoon, parents took photographs of their graduates with roommates and siblings, families helped to clean out cluttered dorm rooms — must be out by 11 p.m. — and friends tried to delay saying their goodbyes. By early evening on Sunday, Middlebury’s streets, which had been bustling with excitement just hours earlier, sat quiet, waiting for the next bout of activity, the Memorial Day Parade the next morning. 

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