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Welcoming Remarks

Sunday, May 28, 2017
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by Jonathan Chenette, Interim President

Welcome on this glorious morning to the 153rd Commencement exercises of Vassar College. Class of 2017, you have long anticipated this day, some with eagerness, some with anxiety, most with a complicated mix of emotions – but whatever you are feeling now, hold on to a keen sense of pride. You have completed a long journey and reached a special destination today in the company of friends, family, and mentors. Savor the moment.

A week ago Saturday, I did what a lot of us do when faced with pressing deadlines… procrastinated. I might have stayed home working on these Commencement remarks or preparing for this week’s Board of Trustees meeting, but the day was beautiful and I felt a strong compulsion to get away from everything Vassar. My spouse and I decided to spend the day working at a beautiful place we’ve grown to love: a trail on the Shawangunk Ridge across the Hudson in Ulster County whose maintenance we’ve adopted as volunteers for the New York-New Jersey Trail Conference.

We packed our tools and our lunch, placed our bicycles on the car rack, drove the 45 minutes to a state park, rode our bikes nearly five miles on old carriage roads to our out-of-the-way stretch of trail, and started pulling fallen trees off the path, trimming back huckleberry and blueberry and mountain laurel, restoring cairns and blazes, and sawing or lopping off the occasional branch whose spring growth had encroached on the trail since our last visit. We saw not a soul during our entire day’s work, until a buzz of happy-sounding, youthful voices arose. I looked up, saw a sizeable group approaching, noticed what they were wearing, and said “Vassar College?”

“Yes, we’re seniors at Vassar.”

I said “And I’m the Interim President.” A couple of them seemed to believe me, and someone pointed out my hat from this year’s Founder’s Day as if to prove my claim. Needless to say, as when any Vassar folks meet unexpectedly, a lively conversation ensued. I provided directions to nearby Lake Awosting and mentioned what a pleasure it would be to shake their hands and present their diplomas next week (i.e., today). They took off down the path, but before long, one came back and asked if we could join them up ahead for a group photo, which I understand is now on Instagram.

As I got back to trimming the undergrowth after this chance encounter, I thought of a few lessons I might draw for today’s graduates. First, Vassar will follow you everywhere. You might imagine you can escape to some wilderness, but soon enough, someone will appear out of the horizon and say “I’m from Vassar”, or, “Are you from Vassar?” Make sure to wear an identifying mark– perhaps a Founder’s Day hat or a VC tattoo in the middle of your forehead – to maximize the chances of such encounters.

Secondly, those Vassar folks you encounter in the wilderness might just be people willing to clear a trail for you and help you along your way. Strike up a conversation. Ask for directions. Take a photo and Instagram it. Request a job, or an internship. See where it all leads.

Lastly, you might think that procrastination is counterproductive, but sometimes it leads you precisely where you need to go to accomplish the thing you’ve been avoiding. For me, it provided a story to tell in my Commencement welcome and gave me a special connection with eleven members of the class of 2017. We had walked the same trail.

A wonderful writer on our English Department faculty, Amitava Kumar, is a big proponent of walking as a basic technique for the writer. Number five of his Ten Rules of Writing is “Walk for ten minutes. [by which he means ten minutes each day.] If you do not exercise regularly, you will not write regularly.”

Commencement weekend provides many opportunities for walking:

  • Strolling around campus with friends you’re hesitant to leave or family who want to see the sights;
  • Swaying in rhythm while processing into the Baccalaureate celebration to the beat of the Kariamu Drummers
  • Filing into hillside rows this morning accompanied by stately brass music
  • Gliding gracefully across stage in just a short while to receive your diplomas
  • Tromping up and down staircases and into and out of elevators as you pack up your Vassar belongings to prepare for the next stage of your journey.

There are many kinds of walking. An extreme form is wire-walking, like that done by Philippe Petit, who visited campus last fall and recreated in our imaginations a day in 1974 when he stepped out on a cable 1350 feet above the streets of New York, walking between the just-completed Twin Towers of the World Trade Center.

There’s a kind of walking expressing resilience and solidarity, evoked in song by Ysaye Barnwell from “Sweet Honey in the Rock” during her campus visit last November as she taught us to harmonize and improvise:

Gonna keep on walkin’ Keep on talkin’
March up to Freedom Land.

There have been marches this year, too:

  • A march downtown for a rally the morning after the November election
  • The Poughkeepsie Women’s March Across the Hudson in January, on the Walkway Over the Hudson
  • An offshoot of the national March for Science in April, ending on the Poughkeepsie riverfront.

As you leave Vassar today, walk with confidence that you’ve packed well for your next journey. Follow the paths others have cleared for you, strike out on your own path, and do what you can to clear a path for others. If you’re feeling too settled or complacent, embrace risk. Teach yourself to walk on a wire in thin air.

You’ve all walked on the same trail over the past four years, each in your own way. There may at times have been fallen trees and overgrown brush obscuring the way. But you’ve kept on walkin’, kept on talkin’, and made your way to this hillside together.

Welcome to Vassar’s 153rd Commencement.