Vassar College Commencement
Sunday, May 27, 2018
Welcome Class of 2018. You made it!
And a warm welcome to the many friends and families who have gathered here to celebrate for the 154th time in Vassar’s history the momentous occasion of commencement.
I am delighted to be here with you in this beautiful location surrounded by friends and family to celebrate together. As we do so, 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—the original peoples of this place and who are still here today, on whose land we gratefully gather.
In my first year here, I have enjoyed asking many different people what Vassar has been like for them—to this question, I get a range of answers. But nearly all agree on one thing: Vassar has been transformative.
Do you remember the first events that made you realize “I am at Vassar”? I am not referring to just physically living somewhere new. Rather, I am talking about when you realized: “I am at Vassar, and it is getting into me; it is changing me; I am becoming something new.”
I remember my first “I am at Vassar and I am something new” moment vividly. It was one lovely evening early in the fall on the quad. I was told about “fire show” where students perform acrobatics and juggle flames. This seemed charming and interesting so my husband John and I decided to go. We sat with many others on the grass to watch.
About half way through the show, as darkness fell thick over the quad, several student performers appeared with huge torches. They came to the front of the crowd sitting on the grass and started to juggle the fire…to many “oohs and ahhs” from their audience. And then without any warning, the student performers touched the torches to the ground, and lit the whole place on fire! I was catching my breath in disbelief, when Professor Paul Ruud in his dry wit leaned back to me and said, “have you paid the college’s insurance?”
The fire subsided, no one was hurt, and most of my experience was entertainment and learning. But there was that other part deposited in me—recognizing how experimental and challenging Vassar was, and then recognizing who I was in this place—the president, who enjoys the folly but also has to keep the long-view in mind, and….pay the bills. So, it was a “growing up” moment for me.
Growing up. How did that happen for you, at Vassar?
I have noticed that Vassar encourages the finding of one’s voice. This is not a quick or easy process. The Vassar education exposes students to a diversity of thought and with it a social norm of experimentation: try it, free yourself from what you may have thought before, and try something new. In other words, learn. Of course, learning is messy.
Think again about the person you were when you arrived. Since then, you have probably inhabited multiple, even contradictory, stances before you found your own. And Vassar has given you the time, the space, and the social environment for that work to be done, so that out of that messiness could emerge a greater sense of self, and your authentic voice.
But Vassar has stretched you beyond finding your own voice. It has brought you face to face with difference. And we struggle with what to do with “other.” While assimilation or segregation might be easy, we are working at engaged pluralism where we see others’ difference as a part of our own holism. This opportunity to confront difference may not always have felt like a gift; and the burdens and benefits of our diversity have not always been equally shared. But to have earned the Vassar degree bestowed today shows that you have stayed with it, you have been resilient as a person and as a community, and you have prevailed in spite of enormous challenge.
My belief is that this painstaking work of engaged pluralism helps forge two assets, which together make for a meaningful life and a life that contributes positively to society.
The first of these assets is imagination—seeing something different sparks our imaginations. What would it be like if I lived the way that another person does? What if I see myself through someone else’s lens? What could we co-create that might make us both better off? How might we unlock our disagreements and find a new way of being?
And the second of these assets is empathy. I hope that your experience at Vassar has embedded in you the ability to be empathic when confronted with people of differing beliefs, identities, and worldviews. To not just tolerate difference, but to engage and flourish within a diverse world. Being this way in the world requires muscle memory, which is built through practice. We have started that lifelong work here together.
As you leave today, I hope you will continue to be courageous in the face of difference and choose inclusion and embrace. When challenged by views that diverge from your own, it can be easy to assume that your own newly forged, independent voice—the one you worked so hard here to develop—is your greatest asset. But when much is at stake, our words often fail. In such times, you will do well to call forth your other assets—your imagination and empathy. They will be essential in building a vibrant community wherever you may live. These assets will also support you in tackling your own new set of responsibilities. You will need to pay your own bills—but more broadly, the work of putting your pluralist values into action across the country and the globe is now upon you.
Take a moment and look around to your left and to your right. Note our differences—visible and invisible. And feel the community you made while you were here at Vassar. Feel the community we are making at this very moment. The future is open and waiting to welcome you, Class of 2018, into the journey ahead. We are all so proud of you. Congratulations.
—Elizabeth H. Bradley, President, Vassar College