May 25, 2008
by President Catharine Bond Hill
Welcome to the 144th Commencement of Vassar College. 144 is a number that tells a story, but before I get to that story, I want to acknowledge the reason we are here, and that is to honor and celebrate the accomplished, creative, vibrant, dedicated and somewhat sleep-deprived Class of 2008. You have fully earned your place in the 147 year history of Vassar College and I look forward to continuing to celebrate your accomplishments as you move on to the next phases of your lives. We see great things in your futures.
Your parents, families, and friends who have gathered here today saw that promise in you from the day you were born, and the trustees, faculty, administrators and staff here today recognized it from the day you arrived at Vassar. Think back to that day. Remember, among other things, a sea of bandana people making light work of moving in. I have bad news for you: there are no bandana people to help you move out. Welcome to the real world. But those who have gathered to march today as well as other members of the Vassar community who are here have supported you long after the bandana people disappeared. Today you are surrounded, both literally and figuratively, by your greatest admirers.
So what’s the story with the 144th Commencement? Well, the College was founded in 1861, but instruction didn’t actually begin until the first class entered in the fall of 1865 and the first degrees were awarded two years after that in 1867 – to the four of the original 353 Vassar students who had advanced standing. So if you’re keeping score, this is only the 142nd year of there being any students at Vassar who possibly could have graduated. How could this be the 144th commencement? This question caused a slight moment of panic in my office as we prepared the Commencement program. Had we simply been adding one to the previous year’s count without checking on its accuracy? Had we – in the language of business – not been conducting zero-based Commencement planning? A quick check with Vassar’s truly amazing historian, Betty Daniels, provided the explanation, namely that during the period of the Second World War, Vassar, in response to a general mobilization of resources in the country, gave students the option of completing a degree in less than four years by attending summer sessions. So for a period, commencements were held twice a year. Mystery solved. You are in fact the 144th commencement class to graduate.
If you are looking for a point to this story, I’d like it to be an illustration that throughout the history of the College, Vassar has been a full participant in the times and issues that have affected the world outside of Vassar’s walls – that supposedly distinct “real world”. For example, not only did Vassar accelerate its academic program during those war years, but following the war it made a Vassar education available to returning male veterans in response to the tremendous increase in demand for higher education created by the GI Bill. The men did not actually live on campus (as far as we know) and, when they graduated, their degree was from the State University of New York. Later, though, after Vassar went coeducational in 1969 (and our state charter allowed us to offer degrees to men), we awarded these men official Vassar degrees.
At times, Vassar’s role been has been a leading role, most prominently, of course, in the founding of a College for women in 1861, perhaps the most difficult moment in America’s entire history. Soon after the turn of the century, Vassar students were involved in the movement for women’s suffrage – despite barriers put up initially by the College’s administration. In the 1950’s the College was in the news for defending some of those targeted by Senator Joseph McCarthy. In the 1960’s and 70’s, civil rights and anti-war activism played a significant and sometime disruptive, but constructive, role on campus.
Today the activism of Vassar students takes many forms – such as those of you who have made involvement off campus an important part of your academic program through fieldwork at local agencies that provide services to the Poughkeepsie community – such as the Family Partnership Center. Others have participated in programs like the prison projects at Greenhaven and elsewhere. Some participate primarily on campus, through involvement in campus governance or other leadership opportunities. Perhaps more than ever before, Vassar students’ engagement with issues is global, not only through study abroad, but through projects supporting schools and services in places like Haiti and Uganda, and a commitment to address globally important issues of climate change. The multitude of these efforts and the sometimes limited general awareness of them on the part of others – even on campus – mean that we need to be reminded that current students are just as active as their counterparts in, say, the 1960s, when the activism was more focused and discussed, and therefore more visible.
But there is a sense in which life at Vassar is different from what one might call “the real world’ – although not the sense invoked by those somewhat pejorative terms “ivory tower” and “the Vassar bubble.” The sense I have in mind recognizes that this is a place whose main reason for existence is to provide an intellectual, social and physical environment in which for four years, as much as possible, your only responsibility has been to explore issues and ideas, develop powers of reasoning and expression, and prepare to assume positions of responsibility in settings where there isn’t likely to be an entire organization dedicated to your development. In fact, in many of those settings there will be those who will be relying on you instead.
In short, you have been given the opportunity of a Vassar education. With it comes the responsibility to use that education thoughtfully and constructively. Many of you have already done so during the last four years – and discovered that in the process of assuming responsibilities you have been given new opportunities – that there is a natural self-perpetuating cycle of opportunity and responsibility.
I would be willing to bet that almost every person in this audience could tell his or her life story as the story of a cycle of opportunity and responsibility. At each of our spring and fall convocations, we ask a faculty member to speak, and typically those addresses are quite explicitly their own stories of the importance of taking advantage of often unplanned opportunities and assuming the responsibilities that followed.
I wish I could say that every opportunity leads to responsibility or responsibility to opportunity. In peoples’ lives, the opportunity/responsibility cycle can be particularly unstable, with lives thrown off track by a lost opportunity or an irresponsible moment. Successful lives are much more easily derailed than they are sustained.
We all experience setbacks in our lives, so the challenge is to have the resources to overcome those setbacks. That you are all here today and that we are celebrating your success is a testimony to your having had those resources. In that spirit, I think it is important to recognize the people who have helped you make the path to today’s celebration a stable path – beginning with the parents, family and friends surrounding you. Their unconditional support has been probably the most important and most stabilizing factor in your lives. I would like to take this opportunity to thank them and I invite you to join me in doing so as well. These are also the people who will continue to be there to support you, especially those of you who checked recently to make sure they haven’t turned your old room into a den or given it away to your little brother or sister.
I hope that you think of Vassar in these terms as well (although we have most definitely given your room away as of 9am tomorrow morning!). The trustees, faculty and administration behind me have definitely been a part of your support team, sometimes directly, but often in ways that work behind the scenes. Let us thank them as well. Education is almost by definition about creating and sustaining opportunity, and the philosophy of a liberal arts education in particular is to encourage the exploration of new ideas and the taking of curricular risks in a supportive environment Vassar has sought to provide the opportunities, with lots of support. That so many of you have chosen paths that include reaching outside of Vassar’s walls is ample evidence that you understand your Vassar education as a way to contribute to opportunities for others – and that you have already begun to accept the responsibility to use your education to make such a contribution.
We all have that responsibility because, unfortunately, much of the world lacks many of the supporting mechanisms that facilitate cycles of success, even when it comes to education itself. In all too many countries children are forced to work rather than allowed to learn. Even in the United States, where a college education is considered almost essential for anyone expecting to participate fully in a society increasingly technologically and economically complex, the goal of getting a college education is, of course, not universally met. An unfortunate fact is that the failure to meet that goal is strongly correlated with family income; children from poorer families are dramatically less likely to go to college, often because of inadequate mechanisms to support a cycle of opportunity and responsibility from preschool on. The cost of college is certainly a factor, but often less so than most people think. At Vassar, I’m proud to say that our admissions and financial aid policies have enabled us to provide all students admitted on the basis of academic qualifications the financial support necessary for them to attend. We continue to look at those policies and to try to understand additional measures that can help make the full promise of a Vassar education available independent of financial means.
This is a class that understands these challenges and supports these goals, and it has been my pleasure to have had the chance to work with you in pursuing them. I’m proud of you and I’m sure that you can feel the pride from others that fills this magnificent amphitheater.
So let me conclude these remarks with the simple request to the class to make the most of what you have learned here, to continue to take the responsibility of providing opportunities for others, and to do so in a way that recognizes the challenges that result from the lack of resources of finance, family and community – resources so many of you have enjoyed and have contributed to your success. We celebrate your accomplishments today; we look forward to recognizing even greater accomplishments in the future.