Education News

College commencement honors, encourages ‘People of the Eclipse’

WITH A GAMALIEL Painter cane in one hand and a Middlebury College degree in the other, Pearl Obeng-Sefah gushes with joy at Sunday’s commencement. The daughter of Ghanaian immigrants graduated magna cum laude with a major in Neuroscience and a minor in Chinese (she also speaks American Sign Language and the West African language Twi). She hopes to become a physician. Independent photo/Steve James

MIDDLEBURY — Four years after the COVID-19 pandemic canceled and drastically altered high school graduation exercises across the globe, members of the Middlebury College Class of 2024 finally got a chance to walk across the stage in front of friends and family at the college’s commencement ceremony this past Sunday. 

“For those of us that graduated high school in 2020, welcome to our very first graduation,” said student commencement speaker Adayliah Ley, a history of art and architecture major from Somerset, N.J.

While the May 26 commencement was the first for many of the 474 graduates recognized, it also marked the last for Middlebury College President Laurie Patton, who in January will leave the institution to become president of the American Academy of Arts & Sciences.

A NEW MIDDLEBURY graduate gets a hug from President Laurie Patton.
Independent photo/Steve James

 Middlebury College Board of Trustees Chair Ted Truscott on Sunday lauded Patton for her service to the college and presented her with a replica of Gamaliel Painter’s cane, a keepsake symbolic of the college’s founder. 

“This is an unexpected moment for all of us, and I think we’re all still processing,” Patton said. “The academy’s mission of strengthening American democracy through the cultivation of thought leadership is core to my life’s work, and I bring to that all that Middlebury has taught me about that mission and the work ahead. I hope to make you proud.” 

During her remarks, Patton acknowledged how members of the Middlebury College and broader Addison County communities have shaped her. 

“One of the greatest things to ask when you leave a place, and I hope everyone is asking it today to themselves, is ‘How am I different, how has this place changed me?’” she said. “Right now, my heart is filled with gratitude for all that Middlebury has shaped in mind, heart, body and soul.” 

A GRAD DISPLAYS the Palestinian flag at Middlebury College commencement.
Independent photo/Steve James

Patton thanked Middlebury students for what they taught her through the years and reiterated a message she shared during the college’s baccalaureate service on Saturday. 

“You are people of the eclipse, and that clamor today that you hear is not only celebrating your journey from a dark, viral corona in 2020 to a blazing, solar corona in 2024 in April. It is also celebrating who you will become,” Patton said. “As people of the eclipse you will hear many times in your life a sudden hush when hope seems to vanish. As Middlebury people, you have proven over and over again that you have the strength to persevere beyond that sudden hush, beyond that unexplained darkness and stand witness to the next moment, the moment of hope when you embrace again that brilliant flash of promise.” 

THE WORK AHEAD

Reflections on the COVID-19 pandemic were present in other remarks. Ley noted in her address how pandemic restrictions shaped students’ undergraduate experience. 

“From the first moment we stepped outside our rooms, negative tests results in our inboxes and masked-up, we took the campus by storm. From one Panther apart, we formed a community,” she recalled. 

The graduating senior noted she, like other students, ultimately found her footing on campus and began making memories that won’t soon be forgotten. 

“Our experiences at Middlebury will serve as an anchor, grounding us in the rhythm of the seasons,” Ley said. “Whether you find yourself in bustling cities or tranquil countrysides, the memory of fall foliage painting the campus in hues of red and gold or the quiet beauty of winter snowfall blanketing the landscape will undoubtedly resurface. These seasonal markers will not only remind us of the passage of time, but also of the growth and transformation we underwent during our time at Middlebury.” 

MIDDLEBURY GRAD EMILY Lieb, also a member of the U.S. Army Field Artillery, joins in the singing of the college alma mater.
Independent photo/Steve James

In her remarks, Ley acknowledged members of the college community who died in recent years; assistant professor of Luso-Hispanic Studies Raquel Albarrán and students Evelyn Mae Sorensen, Yan Zhou and Ivan Valerio. 

Ley also called attention to the lives lost in Gaza during Israel’s ongoing war against Hamas. She was one of several graduates carrying Palestinian flags and donning keffiyehs, a traditional Arab headdress that’s considered a symbol of solidarity with the Palestinian cause. 

“Standing on this stage, moments away from graduating myself, I think of all the Gazan students who cannot graduate from their universities because they’ve all been destroyed,” she said. “And for all of the students on this campus, our friends and peers, who cannot go about their daily lives because their people are dying, we need to keep talking about Palestine.” 

Ley encouraged fellow students to continue resisting injustice as they enter this next chapter of their lives. 

“The work does not stop now that we are done with our assignments and transitioned out of our roles as student leaders. We must continue to stand up for each other, for BIPOC and LGBTQ+ communities, and those who are silenced by the oppressive regimes that strangle our society,” Ley said. 

“Class of 2024, going out into the world, we must take what we have learned in our four years and break these cycles in our everyday lives,” she continued. “The memories and lessons from our collective college experiences serve as examples for what we will face in the real world and how we can navigate these new challenges as informed individuals.”

MIDDLEBURY UNION HIGH School alumna Alice Ganey, center, was one of several Vermonters to walk across the stage at Middlebury College Commencement on Sunday. She’s all-smiles ahead of the ceremony with fellow psychology majors.
Independent photo/Steve James

HONORARY DEGREES

While conferring over 400 undergraduate degrees on Sunday, Middlebury College also presented honorary degrees to five respected and accomplished individuals.

They are:

Joe Castiglione, a radio announcer for the Boston Red Sox in his 42nd season. In addition to his broadcasting career, Castiglione has lectured at Northeastern University, Franklin Pierce University and Emerson College; authored two books; and received several honors, including the 2024 Ford C. Frick Award, presented each year for excellence in broadcasting by the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum. 

• Michael R. Katz, the C.V. Starr Professor Emeritus of Russian and Eastern European Studies at Middlebury College. Katz, the former dean of the Middlebury Language Schools and Schools Abroad, has translated more than 20 Russian novels into English. His 2023 translation of Fyodor Dostoevsky’s “The Brothers Karamazov” was named one of 2023’s best books by The New Yorker. 

• Linda Cliatt-Wayman, a renowned educator who has dedicated her career to helping low-income students escape poverty through education. Cliatt-Wayman spent over three decades working in public schools in Philadelphia, including as principal of Strawberry Mansion High School, which was removed from the federal Persistently Dangerous Schools list and saw significantly improved student test scores under her leadership. 

• Emily Welty and Matthew Bolton, academics and peace activists who both took part in the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons, which won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2017. The married couple co-directs the International Disarmament Institute at Pace University, where they are both professors. 

MIDDLEBURY COLLEGE COMMENCEMENT attendees got innovative this past Sunday, using event programs to shield themselves from the hot sun during the ceremony.
Independent photo/Steve James

• Terry Tempest Williams, an award-winning author and environmentalist. Williams is currently a writer in residence at Harvard Divinity School. She has authored several books, including her 1991 memoir, “Refuge: An Unnatural History of Family and Place,” which is considered an environmental classic. 

Williams delivered Sunday’s commencement address. During her remarks, she told graduates of a trip to Utah’s Great Salt Lake, where she and a group of Harvard Divinity School students were met with 80-mile-per-hour winds. She recalled how the students together broke into song to the tune of the storm.  

“The louder the wind howled, the more powerful their voices became until their song seemed to soften the blow of the storm,” Williams said. “Storms are blowing around the world, physically and metaphorically. The winds of change are strong. We have a history of bravery in this country, and we must call it forward now. A livable future is guaranteed only by the degree of our personal engagement, the size of our hearts, the risks we are willing to take, and our commitments to build trust in our capacity to work together among our differences.”

LISTEN TO YOUR HEART

Williams addressed the students who’d participated in the Gaza Solidarity Encampment at Middlebury earlier this month. She referenced a “dignified tradition of civil disobedience” in the country, from abolitionists opposing slavery to the women’s suffrage movement.  

“Thank you for your civil disobedience, offering up your voices on behalf of peace, sustaining social and environmental justice in the fertile gardens of dissent. Your voices matter,” Williams told students. “Engaging in civil dialogue, all of us, through varied points of view while honoring our differences, which are beautiful, and painful, and instructive, where empathy and compassion are cultivating respect; it’s deeply American.” 

Williams noted that transformative conversations can be challenging but are worth the work. As they navigate turbulent times, Williams urged students to trust their heart for guidance, which she described as “the first home of democracy.” 

TERRY TEMPEST WILLIAMS delivers her commencement speech at Middlebury College.
Independent photo/Steve James

 

 

“The heart is the path to wisdom because it dares to be vulnerable in the presence of power. Our power lies in our love of our own home ground,” Williams said. “If the open space of democracy feels like it is closing inside our ‘Divided States of America,’ the remedy is here with you and your fellow graduates today, celebrating in the midst of your diverse disciplines, identities and beliefs. I trust you. We trust you. Side by side, you are singing with the winds, changing the orientation of your hearts, our hearts, that is deepening all of our capacity to not look away, but to stay with the troubles.” 

Williams told graduates that such troubles, which range from war to climate change, are interconnected and interrelated. 

“The crisis we find ourselves in, whether it is in the Middle East in the humanitarian crisis in Gaza, or here at home where we are banning birth control in some states and protecting the reproductive rights of women in others, where we are screaming ‘drill, baby, drill,’ on one hand and divesting from fossil fuels with the other, these issues cannot be seen simply as part of our political crisis,” Williams said. “This is also our spiritual crisis, demanding our devotions. Each of you is on a spiritual journey, uniquely yours. Let these challenging times open your hearts, not close them. We lose nothing by loving.” 

Williams concluded her commencement speech by again calling attention to students’ hearts and their power. 

“This is the geography of hope. This is the sight of beautiful disturbances, and disruptive discourses, beginning with yourself that will radiate outward as light, a stay against darkness,” she said. “Bless us in our differences and the differences we make. You have a voice, and we hear you, and we believe in you. Cheers to you, the class of 2024, to your beautiful, revolutionary hearts, dearest people of the eclipse.” 

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