Welcome and Presidential Remarks

Vassar College Commencement
Sunday, June 6, 2021

So nice to be here with you, whether you are remote or right here on Graduation Hill! You are the first class that I have seen through all four years of Vassar, as I came to Vassar when you did in 2017.

What do you remember of those first weeks together? One thing I remember was a huge dance party at Gordon Commons after my inauguration. I also remember Anish Kanoria, the then-president of VSA, warning me that if I were going to write to the College every Sunday, I would have to be very careful. And the Sunday email was born.

Class of 2021—in four years, I feel like we have been through a lifetime! Transformational forces from climate change, to racial injustice, to the COVID-19 pandemic have shaped our time together.

It is one thing to weather such upheaval—and another thing to learn from it and thrive amid such chaos.

I want to take us back to May last year. I remember the intense pressure. We were worrying about whether or not it would be safe to return to campus and whether students could tolerate, or even enjoy, campus with the necessary safety restrictions. Would students stay on campus? Would they wear masks all the time? Would faculty teach outdoors? And what about partying?

At the point in May, we had gathered as much information as we could. We had talked with experts, checked in with peers at other colleges, read the CDC guidelines, studied what Vassar did in the 1918 flu, and sought out trusted advisors. But really nobody knew what would be safe.

I remember the day at a senior team meeting when we screwed up our courage, knowing we had to make a decision before we had all the answers.

And we decided: We are coming back in person.

Herein is my first reflection. Sometimes, when we face seemingly impossible tasks, we just have to make a decision. Gather all the information possible, and after that, put a stake in the ground. Knowing the endgame focuses the attention. All the needed strategies and tactics can then follow.

The meetings after the fateful one when we decided we were coming back were frenetic. And we endured hours of meetings—arguing through what was the best way forward and making dozens of lists, with check boxes and progress measures about everything we needed to decide: testing rules, quarantine and isolation spaces, move-in practices, etc., etc., and etc.—honestly it felt like a Situation Room on Zoom.

At the height of our anxiety, when we had about 2,000 students arriving on campus in ten weeks, and we did not yet have a full idea about how we were going to do it, one of our team members said, “We need to lay out the values that will guide our decisions with consistency and integrity.” And we determined three: the first was to protect our most vulnerable; the second was to promote equity in any way we could; and the third was to pursue our mission providing the highest quality liberal arts education in a diverse and inclusive setting.

Here is my next reflection. In those hectic, out-of-control times, one of the best responses is to slow down and go back to the basics. And think: what are our values?

Fast forward to today. If you are like me, you are coming to this graduation with mixed emotions. Jubilant that this day has come, and at the same time, stinging with all the losses—senior year traditions missed, the lack of family guests at this ceremony, lives forever altered by illness and economic devastation, and the loss of loved ones to COVID-19. You might also be feeling ashamed and outraged by the persistent disparities by race, ethnicity, national origin, sexual preference, gender identity, and income laid bare by the pandemic and still impeding global healing. But also, maybe you are feeling triumphant to have made it through.

In the end, this was a year in which our humanity was tested—certainly physiologically, but also in almost every other way one could imagine. And at Vassar, the humanity that you have worked so hard to inculcate together stood the test.

Each of you has many memories of the showing of humanity this year. I want to share one that has stuck with me. I taught a hybrid class this fall, and we had about 15 students in class and one remote in Ukraine and another remote in Korea. When I realized the class would be at 10:00 p.m. in Ukraine and 4:00 a.m. in Korea, I offered to meet separately—teach a different class—for the remote students, at a more reasonable hour for them.

But they said no! They wanted to be in class with all their peers—and their peers wanted to be with them. I was stunned to see the class rally around the hybrid style, accommodating all kinds of different approaches to inclusive learning—it was one of the most fulfilling classes I have taught, as people’s humanity and compassion for each other was so apparent.

So, what did we learn this year?

We learned that Gordon Commons can deliver dozens of meals to different self-quarantine locations every day—but Grubhub is better. We learned that if everyone wears masks, we have less mono on campus. We learned that we don’t actually need that “yellow form” for registration; we can register online.  And we learned that Zoom is pretty effective—even genetic sequencing can be done at home! These are all fun facts with which to regale future generations, but we also learned something more meaningful.

We learned to recognize that we are part of something bigger than ourselves. It took sacrifice: not leaving campus to attend various events, eating outside and often in dorm rooms, spending hours and hours on Zoom, trying to hear nuances of the seminar in a tent…but these mundane times were punctuated with moments of exhilaration. We together watched the dashboard, rejoicing when cases were in the single digits and then even zero, or when vaccination rates soared to almost 90 percent; and when new friendships formed on the grass on a spring day—with really nothing else to do. We did this together. We accepted our interdependence and kept each other healthy and safe. We saw in each other our humanity.

It is my hope that as we come to a safer place with this pandemic, we will sustain some of the important lessons. For the graduates here, after approximately 17 years in structured education settings starting at age 5 or younger, you now have more decisions that you will make on your own. Now, after you have gathered all the information you can from the advisors and friends, after all the classes and seminars and papers and exams, it is now time for the full expression of your life. I hope you will find the courage to make a commitment even if all the details are not yet known, define your values early and let them guide you, embrace our inevitable interdependence, and remember you are part of something bigger than yourself.

Class of 2021, on behalf of the faculty, administrators, and all the employees of Vassar, you have our profound thanks and admiration for enduring these challenging times together, for sharing yourselves and your joys with us, and for showing resilience and courage in the face of the massive disruption over the last 15 months. In these difficult times, we truly all learned from each other.

Congratulations on your remarkable achievement, Class of 2021!

—Elizabeth H. Bradley, President, Vassar College