Vassar alumnus and Trustee Jason Blum ’91 has become one of the most successful moviemakers in the world by scaring his audiences. His message to Vassar’s Class of 2020 as they received their diplomas in the midst of a global pandemic: Don’t be scared.
Blum, who has produced such chilling films as Paranormal Activity, Get Out, and The Invisible Man, delivered his speech remotely May 24 to the 629 graduating seniors, their parents, and others in the Vassar community. He dubbed his talk, “Lessons You Need to Survive and Thrive in a Horror Movie.”
The COVID-19 crisis forced the college to postpone its in-person Commencement exercises for the first time since the annual ceremonies began in 1867, when four students received diplomas. This year’s remote event, viewed from the college’s website, was planned by a committee of students, faculty, and administrators.
In his 18-minute address, Blum joked that most on-campus Commencement events aren’t particularly enjoyable experiences for graduating seniors, but he acknowledged it was “a huge bummer” for this year’s graduates to have been deprived of a normal end to their final semester. And as they embark on the next phase of their lives, Blum said he felt eminently qualified to offer them some advice. “With a world out there that looks like a horror movie, who better to help you navigate it?” he asked.
Blum told the graduates he had experienced plenty of anxiety himself as he left the Vassar campus 29 years ago, and his career path was anything but a straight line—he was rejected by four graduate schools and once sold cable TV subscriptions door-to-door. “You can get scared and intimidated or daunted (by the future),” he said, “or you can look at it as the next great adventure. The challenge can make you stronger. Pandemics, like all crises, are the mothers of invention.”
In her remarks to the graduates, President Elizabeth Bradley reiterated her promise that the college would hold an on-campus celebration for them as soon as the threat of the pandemic has subsided. And she thanked them for all they had taught her since she arrived on the campus herself when they were sophomores.
“I have learned a lot from you that has shaped my thinking about the role of the president at Vassar,” Bradley said. “I learned that students are fearlessly consequential here. They care and are deeply engaged in the life of the school, its culture, and its community. And I learned that students question everything—especially authority, which actually gives me great comfort that as you move on from here, you will continue to think deeply and analytically about what you are told—still questioning everything.”
Bradley lauded the class for its unwavering optimism in the faces of the current crisis. “I learned that students believe in the possibility of a better, more equitable world,” she said. “That beautiful aspiration—shared by so many—toward greater equity and inclusion has been inspiring.”
In her address to her fellow graduates, Senior Class President Heather Nguyen echoed Blum’s observation that leaving Vassar and embarking on new paths and careers is a source of worry and concern. “It’s scary, “Nguyen said, “but what motivates me to leave my comfort zone is the community I found here. The Vassar experience and the people I met here are irreplaceable and will get me through each day.”
Nguyen and her classmates were welcomed into a new community—the community of Vassar graduates—by Steve Hankins ’85 P ’13 ’17, President of the Alumnae/i Association of Vassar College (AAVC). “On behalf of the 40,000 alums who span the globe, I’m here to say, ‘Congratulations, you did it!’” Hankins said.
Hankins assured the graduates that he and all of his fellow alumnae/i were ready and willing to help them forge their career paths. “We’re there for you anytime you need us.” To reinforce the point, the AAVC continued its tradition of giving AAVC baseball caps to each graduate. The promise embroidered on the back: “Vassar for a Lifetime.”
In addition to streaming the Commencement ceremony May 24, Vassar hosted the following virtual events:
On Friday, the Asian and Pacific Islander Alumnae/i of Vassar College hosted a virtual graduation celebration for 144 seniors. Speakers were Della Cheung Hom ’20, Peipei Qiu, Professor of Chinese and Japanese on the L.B. Dale & A. Lichtenstein Chair, and Nicole Kormendi ’20.
Four traditional events took place Saturday via Zoom:
- Dean of the College Carlos Alamo-Pastrana and Dean of Studies Debra Zeifman hosted the awarding for senior prizes and scholarships.
- Alumnae/i of Latinx descent and faculty joined identifying seniors for a celebration marking their transition to the world outside Vassar. The annual Sarape ceremony was hosted by the Latinx Student Union.
- Members of the African American Alumnae/i Association celebrated the achievements of 46 Black seniors at the annual Kente Cloth ceremony. Speakers included President Elizabeth Bradley, Daniel Alexander Jones ’91 and AAAVC Co-Chairs Dennis Slade Jr. ’91 and Tracy Elise Poole ’82.
- Seniors and faculty took part in a virtual Baccalaureate ceremony, sponsored by the Council of ALANA Seniors. Stacy Floyd Thomas ’91, Associate Professor of Ethics and Society at Vanderbilt University Divinity School and the Graduate School of Religion, was the keynote speaker. Floyd Thomas was one of the founders of the Baccalaureate service in 1991. Other speakers included Assistant Professor of Education and Africana Studies Kimberly Williams Brown, Vassar College President Elizabeth Bradley, Associate Dean of Religious and Spiritual Life and Contemplative Practices Sam Speers, and Kevin Arce ’20, President of the Council of ALANA Seniors.
Videos of Virtual Commencement and other weekend ceremonies, as well as additional related content is available to view at the 2020 Commencement website.