Presidential Remarks

Sunday, May 19, 2024
by Elizabeth H. Bradley, President

Class of 2024—CONGRATULATIONS!!!

You look beautiful…and take a look at this view!

Parents, families, loved ones—Welcome to Vassar on this very meaningful day. We are so honored and delighted to have you here to celebrate this momentous occasion.

In a moment, I will give some brief remarks to the class, but before then, I would like to take a moment in the very beginning of this ceremony to recognize the many people who have worked so hard to put this Commencement together—staff from Campus Activities, Facilities Operations, Campus Safety, Student Growth and Engagement, Living and Wellness, Health Promotion and Education, Health Services, the Dean of Faculty Office, Dean of the College Office, the student volunteers as Daisies and Violets helping the procession, and the President’s Office. So thanks everybody so much.

I’d also like to welcome back to campus former president of Vassar, Fran Fergusson, who is the grandmother of a graduate.

Today, the celebration will unfold as follows:

I will make some remarks, and then the Dean of the Faculty will recognize our retiring faculty. Then the President of the Senior Class Council will make remarks. Next, we will hear from the chair of the Board of Trustees and the president of the Alumnae/i Association of Vassar College.

After that, we will have a wonderful address by our Commencement speaker, Emily Mortimer.

And then—the awarding of the degrees. The service will conclude with my charge to the class, and then you are invited to join the reception on the President’s Lawn, under the tent by the President’s House, and meet faculty, friends, and celebrate your graduate!

A few remarks:

Class of 2024, you are a special group—your class more than many others has faced and overcome seismic shifts in our world, in just two decades. Most of you were born in 2002 or 2003…near the beginning of the millennium, at the inception of the Iraq War, and at the beginning of making available effective treatment for HIV/AIDS globally. You started elementary school in a financial crash followed by a prolonged recession, which drove increases in unemployment, new mental health needs, and substantial loss of trust in institutions. 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. Due to the pandemic, most of you never had a real high school graduation ceremony, so for you and your families, this is your FIRST real commencement ceremony!

From all this, let us—all of us who can stand—stand and applaud their accomplishments.

I am honored to be here with you to lavish in your accomplishments and in this moment. And while we cannot help but be reminded of all the turmoil you have lived through, and the human tragedies that surround us, as I prepared my thoughts for today, I had a different emotion in mind—and that was JOY.

Joy is one of those funny words—it’s so simple–three little letters–and so complex at once. So natural—we feel joy in so many momentary events—and yet it is also so elusive. Is it a superficial feeling of fun and laughter or is it a deep, abiding faith in the goodness of life and in our own wellness? I guess it’s all at once.

As I searched to answer that question for myself, I was reminded of a writing by poet and pacifist Wendell Berry, from which I would like to read an excerpt.

It’s called: I Go Among the Trees (by Wendell Berry)

I go among trees and sit still.
All my stirring becomes quiet

around me like circles on water.
My tasks lie in their places
where I left them, asleep like cattle.

Then what I am afraid of comes.
I live for a while in its sight.
What I fear in it leaves it,
and the fear of it leaves me.
It sings, and I hear its song.

After days of labor,
mute in my consternations,
I hear my song at last,
and I sing it. As we sing,
the day turns, the trees move.

To me, the poem reminds the reader what we have to clear away in order to find joy, to find well-being, and to be in tune with all that is around us. The first of these are our many tasks. Busy, busy, busy! I am the first to be guilty of this! Has anyone here ever been so distracted with work that you forget to take in the beauty all around you? Of course, we all have. And after we let go of our tasks, leaving them where they will be when we come back—then the second piece of the poem suggests bringing our fears close up and sitting with them, right next to them, until the fear leaves and a song remains, a song we can hear.

The juxtaposition is so poignant.

And then the third piece—after all the days of labor, the work, the anxiety—we can hear our own song and we sing it. That is joy! And as the poet recognizes, then the day turns and the trees move. Perhaps the world, as we experience it, shifts.

My hope is that your time at Vassar and on this campus—this arboretum—has afforded you the time and the immersion in nature that has allowed you to be in touch with moments of joy, of course surrounded by work and anxieties but still solid moments of joy that have punctuated and propelled your growth and resilience in an uncertain and contested time. It is in these times—the difficult ones—that we most need to reach back and call up the experiences of joy we have felt at some time and in some place.

And because graduation is a joyful event, let us take a moment and savor that.

I ask you to take out a pretend handkerchief—or maybe just the palm of your hand. And now, think about some joys. It could be the beautiful blade of grass at your feet, or the light breeze from the water behind me, the color of your nail polish, the thought of a family member or loved one who you have not seen for a long time being here with you now, a professor you spy on the stage behind me, or maybe even a moment of pride in all you have accomplished. Whatever your sources of joy are in this moment, stick them into your handkerchief, and fold it up, carefully, and put it into your pocket so you may take it with you throughout today and beyond.

Class of 2024, you have made a difference at Vassar. Your intrepid spirit and resilience have inspired us all. From those early days when John and I used to bake cookies for the “COVID cases” and drop them off to the Hampton Inn to your stubborn refusal to call the Deece by its proper name, we have loved you and you have made a positive mark on us. You may leave us today, but remember—we will not forget you. Come back and visit often, and, again, congratulations!