Vassar College

Welcoming Remarks, Catharine Bond Hill, President

April 27, 2011

Welcome to Spring Convocation. 

This is the busier of the two convocations that we celebrate each year, one at the open and one at the close of the academic year.  But this convocation is not entirely about closing the year.  I suspect that for many of you, like for me, it doesn’t really feel like the end of anything right now knowing the significant amount of studying, meeting, writing and examining that will fill the next two weeks. 

Even to view today’s ceremony as primarily closing the year would be to overlook significant continuities, both in the life of the college and for many of us in the Vassar community. Only for the seniors is this Convocation in some sense a period (a full stop of some sort) rather than the comma (the brief pause at best) it represents for the great majority of the students, faculty, and staff.  Our work will continue through the summer (for many of us), and resume in the fall. 

There is another aspect of continuity inherent in this year’s Sesquicentennial celebrations and their reminder of how the college has continuously grown and evolved over the past 150 years.  And one cannot reflect on that history without recognizing the responsibility we all have to see that growth and evolution continue for at least another 150 years. The Sesquicentennial too is just a comma in the story of the college.

There are two parts of today’s program unique to the Spring Convocation, and which, at least indirectly, speak to continuity.  One is the passing of the VSA presidential gavel from Mat Leonard to Tanay Tatum.  Since Tanay is currently on the VSA Executive Board, there is that additional dimension of continuity this year.  Today’s other ceremony of continuity is perhaps less obviously so, and that is the presentation of the class banner to the Sesquicentennial Class of 2011.  It is the banner that will make its appearance at reunions every five years, and perhaps at other times the class might find to rightfully celebrate itself.  It is the banner that you might think of as symbolizing how even for the seniors, this convocation doesn’t really represent a period either, perhaps more of a semicolon. Which is to say, a more significant break than a comma – one that will require (if you will allow me to torture this metaphor just a little longer) require new subjects and verbs in your lives as Vassar alumnae and alumni, but still subjects and verbs that are closely related to your identities and actions as Vassar students on the earlier side of that semicolon. 

While I’m so evidently stuck on matters grammatical, I want to make two observations about the use and meaning of those words, “alumnae”, “alumni” and their other forms.

The first observation is that a surprising number of people were tripped up when it was announced that Chip Reid would be the first alumnus to be a Commencement speaker.  The response was: “well, what about Lisa Kudrow and Meryl Streep?”  The distinction here being, of course, that “alumnus” is the masculine form, Meryl and Lisa each being an “alumna.”  (By the way, Chip Reid will be the fifth Vassar graduate to be the Commencement speaker since 1978.)  Some confusion is understandable since the masculine plural form “alumni” is considered by some as acceptable use in referring to a mixed group.  This has not been the usage at Vassar.  Vassar students become members of the A-A-VC, the Alumnae and Alumni of Vassar College. 

The second point is what these words actually mean.  While it is commonly assumed that alumnus or alumna refers to a graduate of the school in question, the standard dictionary definition is “a graduate or former student of a particular school, college, or university.” 

The interpretation of this at Vassar is that once a student has matriculated, he or she qualifies as an alumnus or alumna, and once the class graduates, becomes a member of the AAVC. 

Some of you might consider this a distinction without a difference, particularly at an institution where currently the graduation rate is something like 92%.  This was not always the case at Vassar and it is here that our history as a women’s college highlights the significance of using the literal definition of alumna, in particular.  If you go to the library and pull out a Vassarion from, say, the 1950s you will find a section with pictures of about 1/3rd of the members of the class who matriculated, but did not graduate with the class.  They were typically women who made the choice to get married and start families – a choice that was as common and admired then as are the many more common and admired choices students have now.  Many of those alumnae continued their education later, often in quite demanding circumstances, and have been impressively – even spectacularly – successful.  Many also have a loyalty and identity as a Vassar alumna that rival any graduate – to the great benefit of Vassar and its current students.

Frankly, these days the world needs as many Vassar alumnae and alumni as it can get. (Having just told you that we will consider you an alum when your class graduates whether you do or not, I’d like to encourage you to graduate none the less!)  Lately we seem to be living in a world full of uncertainty at best, and catastrophe at worst. 

I suppose the times in which one lives can always be expected to feel uncertain – even threatening.  Certainly, as we look back on our first 150 years, it is hard to imagine the courage and foresight it took Mathew Vassar to persist with his vision while in the midst of the Civil War.  The Vassar charter was signed a few months before Fort Sumter was first bombarded, and the school opened in September of 1865, just 5 months after the end of the war.  In between, 620,000 people perished in perhaps our country’s most devastating but most defining period.  Looking at more recent times, however, I don’t think I’m being unrealistically nostalgic in thinking that the world pre-9/11, pre-Katrina, pre-financial meltdown, pre-Japanese earthquake and pre-at-least-partial nuclear-reactor meltdown was a world where optimism was easier to muster and ambitious plans were more optimistically undertaken and achieved.  For those of us whose personal memories extend back 25 years before 9/11, we were simply not used to thinking in terms of limitations on our institutions or our country or even our world, and so we are challenged now trying to sustain the promise and progress of those years while we reassess where we are and where we can realistically hope to go. 

Such reassessment can be disheartening, and so, in a peculiar sort of way, the current generation of college students has something of an advantage having become teenagers after 9/11/2001.  What I think of as the world’s “new normal” is just “normal” for you and the challenge “the normal” presents is taken as the starting point at which to apply your energy, ambition and education.  It is that energy and ambition that also makes me much less pessimistic than I might be, especially since I know that Vassar graduates use that education in ways that very much make a positive difference in their own lives and in their communities and institutions. 

I think some people underestimate the extent to which individuals do make a difference, and underestimate the importance of having individuals with the kind of education Vassar offers involved in making decisions.  I’m reminded of that when one is allowed to hear the candid and unedited conversations of those involved in decisions as grave as going to war or responding to crises.  The striking thing is that those discussions sound and feel a lot like the deliberations any other group of people have about almost any decision – uncertainty, conflicting opinions, second thoughts, opposition.  

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