Vassar’s Class of 2024 Graduates as ‘One Big Family’ Forged in Challenging Times

Photos by Karl Rabe and Samuel Stuart

Vassar’s Class of 2024 enrolled at the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, living in “pods” and taking classes in tents. As they received their diplomas at the College’s 160th Commencement on May 19, the College’s 553 graduating seniors were lauded for their endurance and congratulated by their Commencement speaker, British actor and filmmaker Emily Mortimer, for appreciating the importance of “knowing nothing” and questioning everything.

The commencement speaker in academic attire at the podium during a graduation ceremony.
The 2024 Commencement speaker, actor and filmmaker Emily Mortimer, told grads the world needs scholars who “know nothing” and yet are “patient enough to seek the truth.” 
Photo: Samuel Stuart

“You are graduating at a time when…the world is in desperate need of people like you—people who have been taught to challenge preconceptions and make considered arguments, people who are allergic to doctrine, dogma, and easy sanctimony, people who feel the need to seek out nuance and complication,” Mortimer said in a rollicking, often self-deprecating speech to the graduates, their families, and others in the Vassar community on a mild, sun-splashed day on the Poughkeepsie campus. “More than ever, we need wise scholars like you who are smart enough to know they know nothing, and patient enough to seek the truth through dialogue, humility, and openness.”

Mortimer, who freely admitted she had not taken her Oxford education particularly seriously, opened her talk by telling her audience that when her friend, filmmaker and Vassar Trustee Jason Blum ’91, had asked her to deliver the speech, she felt woefully unqualified “because I thought to myself, I have nothing whatsoever to impart. I know nothing useful…I literally know nothing!”

A collage in four quadrants, each with graduates smiling
View a gallery of images from Commencement.
Photos by Karl Rabe and Samuel Stuart

Mortimer told the graduates she was certain they had made their families proud of them, “but don’t forget it was you who did this. You who managed to keep your wits about you, kept putting one foot in front of another, while the world went crazy, day by day, hour by hour, learning, being open and humble, admitting you know nothing, and now you have a degree.

“There’s no nuance to that, no consensus arrived at via Socratic dialogue, no two ways about it,” she concluded. “It’s just empirical FACT. You guys did it. You should feel incredibly proud of yourselves. I congratulate you from the bottom of my heart.”

In her remarks to the graduates, President Elizabeth Bradley, also expressed her admiration for the “special group” of students in the class of 2024. “Your class, more than many others, has faced and overcome seismic shifts in our world in just two decades,” Bradley said. “You started elementary school in a financial crash followed by a prolonged recession…You started high school as President Trump was elected to the U.S. Presidency in a highly polarizing moment, from which deeper political and social divisions have only grown since. And then you started college in masks, assigned to pods, and in fear of COVID.”

Wearing blue academic regalia, black cap, and a medallion, the College president shakes hands with a graduate during an outdoor ceremony. Faculty members are in the background.
This year, President Bradley awarded diplomas to 553 graduates. 
Photo: Samuel Stuart

The President paused her speech and asked those in attendance to applaud “this resilient, resourceful, and gifted class of young adults.” The crowd of about 2,000 stood and cheered.

Bradley then shifted the tone of her speech, saying she wished to focus not on the negative aspects of the graduates’ challenges but on a different emotion: joy. She then recited a poem, I Go Among the Trees, by Wendell Berry, that describes the transition that can take place when one takes time to search for beauty in one’s surroundings. “After all the days of labor—the work, the anxiety—we can hear our own song and we sing it.” she said.

A young person in academic regalia speaks at a podium during an outdoor ceremony.
VSA President Olivia Gross emphasized the importance of community in her address to the class. 
Photo: Karl Rabe

A member of the class of 2024, Vassar Student Association President Olivia Gross, echoed this theme by congratulating her class on overcoming the obvious obstacles facing them and choosing to create a unique community. She highlighted the work of one of her classmates, Karun Krishnamurthy, who had built a community gathering spot on Vassar Farm and Ecological Preserve, volunteered at a local shelter for homeless children, and helped many students repair their bicycles. “I’ve brought up my friend because what I most admire about him is his unequivocal understanding of the importance of community and the unimportance of recognition,” Gross said.

She said she was also proud of her classmates who had supported female members of the faculty who had filed a lawsuit claiming they were not receiving fair compensation for their work and for students who had set up an encampment on campus to protest the war in Gaza. Alluding to an agreement reached by the students and the College administration, Gross said the outcome of the protest had proven that “peaceful action can lead to tangible outcomes.”

Gross said that while she hesitated to talk about the struggles triggered by the COVID-19 pandemic, “being part of what is unfortunately called the ‘COVID class’ is an important part of who we were and who we will become.

“We felt like our college experiences were being stolen,” Gross continued,  “what was really happening was that we were given a unique opportunity to redefine what our college years would be like, not only for us but for every forthcoming class at Vassar. Because we didn’t know what life was supposed to be like, we created our own way of life and that’s our legacy.”

A split image, each half an image of a speaker in academic regalia standing at podium during the outdoor ceremony.
Board Chair Anthony Friscia ’78 and AAVC President Monica Vachher ’77 reminded students that their fellow alums will be their best friends and supporters. 
Photo: Samuel Stuart/Karl Rabe

Two members of the Board of Trustees, Alumnae/i Association of Vassar College (AAVC) President Monica Vachher ’77 and Board Chair Anthony Friscia ’78, also lauded the class of ’24 for its resilience but said they were certain Vassar’s alums were ready and willing to help them in their post-Vassar lives.

“These are difficult and unsettled times, as they were when you graduated from high school,” Vachher said. “We are so proud of you for your values and your accomplishments. So yes, you will be leaving your classmates who have thus far defined your Vassar community. As of today, however, you are now an essential part of a dazzling community of over 42,000 Vassar alums.”

Friscia said he didn’t fully appreciate the power of the Vassar alum network until long after he had graduated. “They will be there and will be happy to help you— reach out,” Friscia said. “While your time here was short, the experience defines you and this will always be another place you can call home.”

A graduate in a cap and gown holding a diploma stands next to a smiling person on a campus lawn with a brick building in the background.
Another example of resilience: Brian Lepak, originally ’20, returned to graduate after his studies were interrupted by health concerns. His fiancé, Jordan Nasif ’20, was there to celebrate the accomplishment.
Photo: Samuel Stuart

One member of the class of 2024, Marines veteran Brian Lepak, said Friscia’s words had resonated with him in a particularly strong way. Lepak enrolled at Vassar in 2017 but left early in his senior year for medical reasons, returning to finish his coursework for his degree as a film major last fall. As he stood on the lawn of the President’s House for a reception following Commencement, Lepak said he had already embraced Vassar as a second home. “I truly appreciate the support I received from the amazing faculty and so many in the administration,” he said. “The academic growth was one thing, of course, but even more I appreciate the personal growth that was instilled in me here. As Tony Friscia said, Vassar is a family.”

Three people standing outdoors, posing in front of a historic building. One person in the middle is wearing a graduation cap and gown, while the other two people stand on either side.
Alums Shari Leventhal and Steve Kauderer, both ’85, with their grad, Remi Kauderer ’24, center. 
Photo: Karl Rabe

Two alums who are the parents of a graduate, Shari Leventhal ’85 and Steve Kauderer ’85, said they too appreciated all Vassar had done for their daughter, Remi Kauderer ’24, over the past four years. “Notwithstanding the challenges Remi and her classmates faced then when got here, Vassar made the best of it and provided all the support they needed,” Leventhal said.

Steve Kauderer agreed. “Today was an emotional day for me,” he said, “and I credit Vassar for making it special.”

Remi Kauderer, who is enrolled in Vassar’s Dartmouth-Thayer Dual Degree Program in Engineering, will complete her studies at Dartmouth next year. She said she was certain the challenges she and her classmates had faced when they arrived on campus four years ago had made the bonds among them stronger. “We started college confined to our own pods, so it was hard to get to know others in our class at first,” she said. “But since then, we’ve made an effort to make up for that, and now we are one big family.”

To view the ceremony in full or to read transcripts of the speeches, visit the Commencement Website.

Each year, Vassar hosts Senior Week and Affinity Programs to honor graduating seniors. This year was no exception. View a gallery of images from the celebrations leading up to Commencement.

May 21, 2024