Welcome and Presidential Remarks

Vassar College 2020 In-person Commencement
Saturday, May 28, 2022

This is a new experience for you and for me. I have presided over many commencements, but this is the first time I have given “commencement remarks” to a group of people who graduated two years ago. I know that we had some communication issues and not everyone who wanted to was able to return. This is being livestreamed so hopefully everyone who wants can participate, even if at home—and it will be made available on the Vassar main webpage after today.

This ceremony was designed by the Class of 2020! Thank you for answering surveys and giving ideas for the weekend. So this is what to expect: In addition to my remarks, we will hear from some of your classmates, and then we will get to the ritual of the awarding of degrees. Although you already have your degree, performing the age-old rite of passage is meaningful—walking across the stage as Dean Porcello, our new Dean of Studies, reads your name, shaking hands, hug, elbow bump—whatever—with the president, and getting the folder for your diploma. The ceremony ends with a “charge to the class” as has been read for years at the end of the Vassar Commencement.

Before we get going, I want to recognize the staff and administrators who have worked hard to ensure this event and whole weekend could happen—from facilities, safety and security, health services, dining, residential life, student growth and engagement, campus activities, advancement, communications, media resources, and the president’s office. And I want to thank the many members of the Class of 2020 who put in time to survey your class and design a fitting commencement event. I especially want to thank Heather Phan Nguyen, Eugene Lopez-Huerta, Karina Norton, Antonella DeCicci, Precious Davis, Owen Murray, and Ashley Kim, who joined countless meetings with the College in support of this weekend’s events.

As is custom now, I will begin today with the Vassar Land Acknowledgment.

We acknowledge that Vassar stands upon the homelands of the Munsee Lenape, Indigenous peoples who have an enduring connection to this place despite being forcibly displaced by European colonization. Munsee Lenape peoples continue today as the Stockbridge-Munsee Community in Wisconsin, the Delaware Tribe and the Delaware Nation in Oklahoma, and the Munsee Delaware Nation in Ontario. This acknowledgment, however, is insufficient without our reckoning with the reality that every member of the Vassar community since 1861 has benefited from these Native peoples’ displacement, and it is hollow without our efforts to counter the effects of structures that have long enabled—and that still perpetuate—injustice against Indigenous Americans. To that end, we commit to build and sustain relationships with Native communities; to expand opportunities at Vassar for Native students, as well as Native faculty and other employees; and to collaborate with Native nations to know better the Indigenous peoples, past and present, who care for this land.

And now to some brief welcome remarks:

I imagine that you have spent a good deal of today and the rest of the weekend answering the question from friends, “What have you been doing for the last two years?” and maybe the more interesting question, “What have you learned over the last two years?” I am here to give you a peek into what Vassar has been up to since you graduated and what we have collectively learned.

After the end of the Spring 2020 Semester, when we completed the semester virtually and graduated you all virtually, the Senior Team talked about how we would enter the Fall of 2020. I don’t know if you all remember the naivete we felt back then, but our thinking then was “we just need to come up with a plan for the Fall Semester,” and then COVID will be over and we can return to “normal.” We were indeed naive.

In the fall of 2020, we invited all students back to campus and about 85% returned while about 15% chose to study remotely or could not return from international settings. It was by no means a typical semester or year. We created an island and asked students who returned not to leave campus. Extracurricular gatherings were limited, classes were often held outside in tents, and for the first part of the year, all dining was grab-and-go. As the incidence of COVID waned, more spaces opened on campus, but for the year, we remained an island; graduation was in-person but outside and without guests.

By the fall of 2021, students were allowed to leave campus; masks and vaccination were required, and large indoor gatherings were kept to a minimum. We had between 0-60 students with COVID at any one time.

So that gives you a quick answer to the first question, “What’s been going on at Vassar for the last two years?”

But what about the more interesting question: “What did we learn in the last two years?”

First, we learned that our fates were tied together. The simple phrase we started with, “We precedes me” stuck and has gotten applied regularly to other domains on campus, I think in good ways. We have recognized that our behaviors affect not just oneself but also the entire community and our ability to be together depended on agreeing to certain norms, to which we adhered for the most part.

Second, we learned deep appreciation for this campus and this time together. Every class has its fondness for Vassar but in the last two years when so much was taken away (or could be taken away), the appreciation for one another was palpable. In the fall of 2020, in the typical Vassar fashion, people became very creative in how they used the tents, how they enjoyed dining outside, and the Preserve (which most students often never see) became a regular hangout. Check out the new labyrinth there! Our little “island” teemed with life and creative ways of making community.

Third, we learned that isolation and separation were not good for our collective mental health. We adjusted to balancing social and mental health with physical health, a balance we are still grappling with as COVID does not seem to be done with us yet.

And finally, we learned resilience. Many events had to be modified in the last two years. We have had concerts in masks, performances on outside stages, and hybrid classes of every sort and shape. We have all lost a lot—job opportunities, travel, our health broadly defined, and the health and, in some cases, the lives of loved ones. And you and the Vassar community lost the time together from March 2020 until your graduation. Those losses are not forgotten but have become part of us, a cornerstone in our individual and collective grief that is part of our healing.

Since you have left campus, much has changed and much has stayed the same. We remain a fearless community that can tackle tough problems. We are ambitious—ambitious for a better world, one in which we aspire to greater equity, greater community, purpose, and a sense of being part of something bigger than ourselves. Today’s celebration—a ritual that has been practiced for 157 years on this campus amid elated graduates and proud friends and families—reminds us that we are in fact part of something bigger than ourselves, that as much as the world changes, we are buoyed by each other, by our care for each other, and by our common purposes. The fact that so many of you took this weekend to return to campus demonstrates how much we value our community of Vassar whether here in Poughkeepsie or far-flung parts of the world.

May today be for you full of wonderment surrounded by this beautiful space and may this ceremony not only give closure to your college experience but also be an opening to our collective future and to your forever place in the Vassar community.

Congratulations Class of 2020!