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College seniors celebrate graduation remotely

MEMBERS OF THE Middlebury College Senior Committee spoke briefly to their classmates on Sunday. The committee was instrumental in developing the May 24 “Senior Celebration” that brought together the class of 2020 online to mark the occasion of their graduation.

MIDDLEBURY — In lieu of what would have been its 218th commencement ceremony, Middlebury College streamed a “Senior Celebration” online Sunday afternoon.
“Gather us all,” said Dean of Spiritual and Religious Life Mark Orten from a quiet, empty Mead Chapel. “Now are we gathered, more now than here, because of a spring interrupted. A senior year, split between gathering here and gathering now.”
After sending most students home in March to help slow the spread of COVID-19, the college on April 7 suspended in-person classes for the rest of the school year and announced that its May 24 commencement would be held “virtually.”
As Middlebury seniors looked on from hundreds of locations across the globe, Orten invoked the names of special spots on campus.
“These are the places our bodies communed, put on pause by a virus, though our hearts stayed in tune,” he said.
President Laurie Patton addressed students from a bench in Alumni Stadium.
“Ever since you left campus, it hasn’t been the same,” she said. “You bring life to this place, and your lives here will forever be a part of Middlebury’s legacy and its history.”
Patton promised seniors that the college will hold an in-person commencement ceremony “in the year” ahead, and announced that the commencement speaker would be Jason Collins, a retired professional basketball player, human rights activist and one of the first major athletes to come out as openly gay.
Collins, 41, played with the New Jersey Nets from 2001 to 2008, and then with several other teams until his retirement in 2014.
He came out as openly gay in a May 2013 article in Sports Illustrated.
Collins appeared briefly in Sunday’s online ceremony, congratulating seniors and looking forward to the day when they would all be together in person.
“In the meantime,” he said, “I want to leave you with a quote from (Apple Computers co-founder and CEO) Steve Jobs. ‘Innovation distinguishes a leader from a follower.’ We live in some really challenging times right now (that) are calling on us to adapt, to change, to innovate. I want you to reflect on this moment. I want you to think about the past four years and all the skills you’ve acquired. And I want you to look at this as an opportunity … We need you.”
Student Government Association President Varsha Vijayakumar told her classmates that she has been thinking a lot about resilience lately.
“Some of us have lost family members and close friends to the virus, some of us are struggling to adjust to this new reality of social distancing, and yet others feel like the future ahead seems very uncertain,” Vijayakumar said. “All of these feelings are real and true. And sometimes they make it difficult to celebrate and take pride in our accomplishments guilt-free. But I want to ask you to try.”
Regardless of what they’d named themselves — “Class of COVID-19,” “Class of 19.75” — Vijayakumar assured them that they were “going down in Middlebury history.”
The 32-minute presentation also included a Senior Video Montage and the singing of the Alma Mater.
Had this been the official commencement ceremony, the class of 2020 would have viewed Patton from dozens if not hundreds of feet away, as she stood at a podium onstage.
On Sunday, when it came time to confer degrees, the president’s words, spoken into the camera in physical isolation, felt more intimate, and, perhaps because of that, more laden with meaning.
“Until we see you again in person, please rise as you are able, wherever you are, and don, if you have them, your ‘caps’ and your ‘gowns’ as I pronounce bachelor’s degrees to be conferred upon you,” she said. “I’ll pause just a moment while you get into position.”
One is left to imagine the motions, expressions and feelings of those students who participated.
“Now inasmuch as each of you presented to me has completed the requirements for the degree of Bachelor of Arts,” Patton continued, “I have the honor by virtue of the authority vested in me by the trustees of Middlebury College to confer upon you the degree of Bachelor of Arts with all the rights, honors, privileges and responsibilities here and everywhere pertaining to this degree.
“Congratulations.”
A video of the ceremony is available at middlebury.edu/senior-celebration/.
Reach Christopher Ross at christopherr@addisonindependent.com.

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