Sunday, May 26, 2019
Back to Ceremony
by Elizabeth H. Bradley, President
Welcome Class of 2019.
And a warm welcome to the many friends and families who have gathered here to celebrate for the 155th time in Vassar’s history the momentous occasion of commencement.
As we convene here in the splendor of nature all around us—this green field, the lovely lake to the side, and this sturdy hill in front, we remember the thousands of people who have called this place home before we did—students and faculty most obviously but also Poughkeepsie residents over millennia. I want to take the time to acknowledge the Wappingers Peoples, the Lenape, and the Mohicans—Indigenous peoples and their descendants who are still here, on whose land we gratefully gather. When we convene as a community, we come together respectfully—mindful of the traditional and present custodianship of this place and our responsibilities to that.
I would also like to thank the staff who have prepared this event from arranging for the chairs, transportation, tents, food, safety—every piece of this two-day event, so that we may all celebrate the grand accomplishments of the students, soon to be graduates, here today. Please let’s have a thundering round of applause to show our gratitude.
Students, if I may ask, please look around to find your parents, friends, and families who have come here to honor you today. Meet their eyes if you can. Thank them.
And now, I would like to ask the faculty to stand if they can, so everyone can see this spectacular group of scholars and educators. Together, this group includes dozens of Guggenheim, Ford, and other prestigious Fellowship winners; National Science Foundation and National Institutes of Health grant awardees; creative artists, performers, and writers; and innovative scholars and productive researchers of all kinds.
These are the people who have cared so very deeply for our students, and who have dedicated their time and talent to the education of this inspiring group of young adults. Please join me in honoring them just as we honor their students.
One of the privileges of being President is that I am the last Vassar professor to talk with you as an undergraduate. In a short time, you will have passed through this undergraduate phase of life and be on to the next adventure.
I cannot possibly encapsulate all the lectures, seminars, and meetings you have experienced during the last four years and summarize it all in five minutes.
But I do want to leave you with a thought.
You know that one of my traditions has been to send a Sunday email. I write and send these after Sunday office hours in the evening, after which I have often seen several students—all with different treasures and insights about life at Vassar.
With students’ reflections freshly in my mind, these (typically late-night) emails help me to think through the various happenings of the previous week and to prepare for the week ahead.
I usually end the Sunday email with a “quote of the week.” Often the theme of that quote is to take a step back, get perspective, and think about the longer-term. Some examples:
Rivers know this: there is no hurry. We shall get there one day.
—author/playwright, AA Milne
If you don’t understand, ask questions. Then listen…
—Nigerian novelist, Chimamanda Adichie
My humanity is bound up in yours, for we can only be human together.
—Nobel Peace Prize winner and human rights activist, Desmond Tutu
The reason these types of quotes have been significant to me is that often when I meet with students, they are upset, or confused, or questioning something. They do not always let on, as our students have amazing capacity to function under great pressure, but their anxiety sometimes seeps through—over tea and chocolate.
Often, I am not sure what to do, other than to be present, acknowledge what they are saying, and think with them about the longer term…recognizing that the current anxieties are real, but they will not be here forever. And we might together think through the future and how to get there.
Today, I want to do almost the opposite. I do not want to encourage us to think about the future. Rather, let us think deeply, deliberately, and passionately about this very moment. Let us not think about what is ahead after you receive your diploma. Instead, let’s think about right now and all that you are feeling in this very place at this very moment.
I ask you to take a look around at the classmates that are here together for the last time, look at the faculty who have challenged you—maybe exasperated you— and cared for you…and look at the guests who have supported you. Absorb the smells, the sounds, the breeze, the heat of the sun, and savor the particular feeling of this moment.
May 26, 2019 at 10:29am. While this moment is part of the continuous flow of each of our lives, it is one where time seems to stand still, or even bend. This is a transition moment—from all that has come before to the hope that lies ahead.
I suspect that your Vassar story is a bit like this—a 4-year continuous journey marked by unique moments when time seemed to curve, like the moment you changed your mind about something you always felt to be true, the moment you arrived on campus and saw its stunning beauty, the moments you fell in love or out of love, or the moment you felt like you truly understood a new and complicated idea.
It is these moments that punctuate a mindful and meaningful life, that give us a glimpse into our deeper humanity. If we let it be, in these moments—when we give ourselves permission to put the distractions of the past and the apprehensions about the future over to the side and out of sight—we can find connection and fulfillment, which allow us to the hear the calm echo that says, we are ok.
Vassar Class of 2019 as you proceed from this place, I hope you will remember and cherish the distinctive moments you have spent here. Just as you have grown, so too you have helped Vassar grow, and we are forever grateful.
Be well, Class of 2019, and come back to see us often. Congratulations!