Despite Pandemic-Imposed Interruptions, the Class of 2023 Persisted
Three years after a global pandemic interrupted their normal college experience, members of Vassar’s Class of 2023 were lauded for their remarkable resiliency at the College’s 159th Commencement exercises on Sunday, May 21.
Commencement speaker Margaret “Peggy” Hamburg, whose mother, Beatrix McCleary, had experienced challenges of her own as Vassar’s first self-identified Black student in the 1940s, told the 621 members of Vassar’s graduating class they too had been tested by adversity. “In all your anxious thoughts about what could happen at college,” Hamburg said, “I assume that the emergence of an infectious disease threat that would kill millions and basically shut down the planet was not on your list. But [in 2020], the COVID pandemic abruptly sent you home and into a strange world of virtual classes.”
Hamburg, who served as New York City’s Health Commissioner during the HIV/AIDS epidemic and was Commissioner of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration under President Barack Obama, said she had learned to face life’s challenges by drawing on the strength she had witnessed in her mother, who was the first Black woman to graduate from Yale Medical School and went on to have a successful career as a psychiatrist. “My mother would have been so proud and excited to be here today,” she said. “I was thinking of her as I prepared this address—how her life experiences taught me about so many things: the power of perseverance; the surprising gifts that can be hidden in unexpected and unsettling events; [and] the importance of building communities like those that you have found here at Vassar.”
Hamburg noted that she could deliver this message to any graduating class. “But I know this class has been tested in ways few others have,” she said. “Many restrictions and changes altered life on campus, yet you powered through. You found purpose in adversity. You discovered your own resilience. And perhaps it made you think in new, important ways about community and connectedness.
“Never lose sight of the fact that you have already—in just two decades—been tested with once-in-a-generation challenges and emerged the stronger for them,” Hamburg told the graduates. “You are ready!”
In her remarks to the graduates, President Elizabeth Bradley said she was confident that Vassar had prepared them for the challenges ahead. “One of the many capacities that a Vassar degree confers is critical thinking,” Bradley said, “being a little suspicious about simple answers, asking incisive questions, and—let’s face it—never following instructions.”
The President warned the graduates that they are certain to encounter communities that do not embrace such ideas willingly. “These communities may not seem to be as free or as accepting of challenges as you may have experienced at Vassar,” she said. “You may become disappointed, enraged—or the opposite, withdrawn—because the vision of a just society seems simply too far away.”
Bradley advised them to draw on words of advice by the late University of California at Berkeley Professor of Anthropology Saba Mahmood in those moments: “Critique is most powerful when it leaves open the possibility that we might also be remade in the process of engaging another’s worldview, that we might learn things that we did not already know before we undertook the engagement.”
The President concluded by asking the more than 2,000 people gathered for the ceremony to reflect on their surroundings: “Pay attention to the littlest of items—the blades of grass, the slight breeze on your cheek, the smell of the moment,” she said. “We will not be all together in this place again. May we be mindful of the enormity of the moment.”
As the graduating seniors moved on to the next phase of their lives in the Vassar community, two notable alums, Anthony Friscia ’78 and Monica Vachher ’77, urged them to fully embrace the alum community.
Friscia, who serves as chair of the Board of Trustees, told the graduates that while he was fairly certain most of them would not remember that he spoke at their Commencement exercises, they would certainly forge lifelong friendships—not only with their classmates but also with alums who came before them and those who will come after them. “Those who benefit the most from their Vassar experience are those for whom today is just the beginning of their relationship with Vassar,” he said. “So, while your time here was short, the experience defines you. This will always be a place you can call home.”
Vachher, who serves as President of the Alumnae/i Association of Vassar College (AAVC), told the graduates they were joining a community of more than 41,000 alums, many of whom are ready and willing to help them make personal and career-related connections throughout their lives. “Vassar is not just a place,” she said. “Rather, it is almost a state of mind. There is something about Vassar that imbues our psyches, that becomes a part of our very beings, that helps to define us and connects us.”
Class of 2023 President Leonard Versola had his fellow graduates engage in an exercise that emphasized that connection. He noted that for the past four years, classmates had introduced themselves many times by stating their name, their hometown, and their major. Versola said he believed imparting this information helped each of them define many of their values and their connection with one another, so he asked them to do it one more time—in unison—as he ended his speech.
At the start of the ceremony, Dean of the Faculty William Hoynes paid tribute to six faculty members who are retiring this year after a combined 236 years of service to the College. They are: Professor of English Paul Kane; Associate Professor of English Peter Antelyes; James H. Merrell, Professor of History on the Lucy Maynard Salmon Chair; Miriam Rossi, Professor of Chemistry on the Mary Landon Sague Chair; Professor of Psychological Science Randy Cornelius; and John McCleary, Professor of Mathematics on the Elizabeth Stillman Williams Chair.
Following the ceremony, parents and faculty members reflected on the students’ achievements.
“I watched my son grow from a young man to a man at Vassar,” said Joe Wooldridge, father of Alistair Swank ’23. “I’m grateful to Vassar not just for the material my son learned but also because it taught him how to think.”
The graduate’s mother, Saige Swank Wooldridge, agreed. “Alistair had an amazing experience at Vassar,” she said. “He was exposed to many new ideas, and we are grateful for the support he received from so many at the College and for the relationships he established with members of the faculty and with President Bradley.”
David Harter, father of graduate Charlotte Harter, said he was impressed with the support the College provided as his daughter and her classmates coped with the challenges of the COVID-19 pandemic. “Charlotte was afforded the opportunity to grow both academically and personally,” Harter said. “And the pandemic provided an opportunity for her to develop resiliency.”
Professor of History Nancy Bisaha said she always takes pride in watching her students graduate, but she said she had a special fondness for the students of the Class of ’23. “They started college in a normal way, and suddenly they were plunged into an experience that was very different,” Bisaha said. “It was inspiring to see them rise to the challenge, and I was really moved watching them graduate.”
One member of the Class of ’23, Alex Koester, said he cherished the final moments he’d be spending on the campus. “I woke up this morning with my four housemates and we all walked over here together,” Koester said as the ceremony was about to begin. “It’s kind of crazy because we all met first week—Orientation week—and we’ve been housemates for the past two years, so today is just about those friends and seeing all of that culminate into this awesome day.”