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Commencement 2018Nearly 600 Receive Degrees

Vassar’s 154th Commencement formally welcomed 586 individuals into the Vassar alumnae/i family.

The ceremony included thoughtful, hopeful, and energizing comments from several speakers, including Heather McGhee, who delivered the Commencement address; President Elizabeth Bradley; Jasmine Raizel Basbas Martinez ’18; Danielle Katlin Winter ’18, Senior Class President; William Plapinger ’74, P’10, Chair of the Board of Trustees; Milbrey “Missie” Rennie Taylor ’68, President of the Alumnae and Alumni of Vassar College; and Jonathan Chenette, Dean of the Faculty.

With an overcast sky in the background, Commencement kicked off with opening remarks from President Bradley, who talked about what she’s learned during her first year at Vassar.

“Nearly everybody can agree on one thing: Vassar has been transformative for them,” she said.

The college is a place where people come face-to-face with people from many different worlds, and in some spaces, that leads to segregation or assimilation, Bradley said.

“We’re working on engaged pluralism, where we see others’ differences as a part of our own wholism,” she said, noting the Engaged Pluralism Initiative, which began at Vassar in 2017.

Martinez, President of the Southeast Asian Student Alliance, who presented the student gift—$9,864 for the Class of 2018 Scholarship Fund—encouraged her classmates to continue to give back to Vassar, so more first-generation, low-income students can benefit from the college’s education.

Senior Class President Danielle Katlin Winter ’18

“We, as a school, are committed to preserving diversity in thoughts, passions, and experiences. Ensuring that Vassar remains financially accessible plays a huge part in this commitment, and I urge our class to continue supporting this cause,” she said.

Winter referred to a significant moment in American history—the 1969 Apollo 11 moon landing—in her remarks. Action and intellect helped the crew—Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin, and Michael Collins—overcome a frightening barrier to reentry. We live in similar dire times, she said, and called on her classmates to work together with their unique strengths and talents—much like the crew of Apollo 11. She quoted the benediction from the mission’s successful return to Earth.

“Speed our enthusiasm and bless our joy with dedicated purpose for the many needs at hand. Link us in friendship as we strive together to better human conditions.”

Plapinger, who is serving his last year as Chair of the Board of Trustees, talked about Vassar’s mission to educate, noting that education is the best path toward economic and social well-being and the best way to address inequality.

“We know that while talent is evenly distributed among our fellow citizens and around the globe, opportunity is not. Vassar seeks to reduce that inequity,” Plapinger said.

Taylor compared today to the tumultuous ’60s, citing the backdrops of the Vietnam War, the civil rights movement, and the assassinations of national leaders. While there is certainly strife and work ahead, she noted, she urged students to reflect on what they have gained from their time at Vassar. 

“We all walked out of here with our wonderful Vassar education, our deep connections to faculty, and our friends for a lifetime,” Taylor said.



Commencement speaker Heather McGhee, President of Demos, a public policy organization.

The final speech of Commencement, on what it means to be an American, received a passionate round of applause. McGhee examined the early years of the nation, when American was defined as “white,” and called on the class of 2018 to define American anew. 

“I believe that if there is such a thing as American exceptionalism, our gorgeous diversity is its source, and your generation will be the one to finally reap the benefits of that, to enjoy the alchemy that’s created when people of different backgrounds join together to make a place better—more welcoming, more fair, more human—than they found it.”

A Festive “Prequel” to Commencement 

The campus was abuzz with activities the day before Commencement.  

Those who had risen to academic distinction were honored during the Awarding of the Prizes on Saturday morning. As is tradition, the day before Commencement, alumnae/i of Asian and Pacific descent presented seniors with a red satin stole and black alumnae/i bestowed seniors with traditional kente cloth to wear over their graduation robes. Members of Vassar’s Posse Veterans Program also celebrated their achievements.

But the fun didn’t stop there. Seniors were fêted by President Bradley, had a champagne reception, attended a celebratory bonfire, and more. 

This year, the Baccalaureate address was delivered by Feminista Jones (aka Michelle Taylor), social worker, activist, author, and recipient of a Black Weblog Award for Outstanding Online Activism. “Life is about to get real,” she told seniors, as they prepared to step into the world beyond Main Gate. But she urged them not to shy away from challenges that frighten them because they fear failure. “Go back to the person you were when you did not fear disappointing others,” she said. Jones contended that true “failure” is a refusal to learn from mistakes that one will inevitably make in life.

Two awards were bestowed during the ceremony. Facilities Operations employee Evegene Lawson was honored with the J-Task Award and Paula Williams Madison ’74 received the Class of 1991 Alumnae/i Award for her enduring concern for and support of students of color.

Read Commencement speeches here.