Crossing This Stage
President Katherine Bergeron
Remarks for the Class of 2020 at the Belated 102nd Commencement
June 12, 2022
Thank you, Dean King. And welcome, everyone! What an amazing sight. I really cannot believe this day has arrived! And I have to begin by thanking everyone who made it possible: our staff in the Arboretum and grounds who groomed the campus; our staff in custodial and dining who prepared for your comfort; our security staff who welcomed everyone so beautifully; our staff in advancement and events who worked closely with the Class of 2020 to plan every detail. And I also want to acknowledge and thank, in turn, all of you who are here to bear witness: representatives from our Board of Trustees; our distinguished honorees; members of the faculty, staff, senior administration, and the alumni board of directors; so many family members and friends seated right here on this beautiful green or watching remotely; and, of course, every one of you in the singular, the historic, the passionate, and the exceedingly patient Class of 2020: You cannot know how happy I am to stand before you and to be able at long last to declare these extraordinary exercises, the long awaited 102nd Commencement of Connecticut College, officially open.
This is such a powerful moment. Three weeks ago, I stood in this same spot to celebrate the College’s 104th commencement with the Class of 2022. Then we cleared away the platform and the chairs and filled the hillside instead with tents to hold our first live and in-person reunion since 2019. That was just last weekend. And then the tents came down so that we could re-install this outdoor theater for your long postponed commencement. I think you can feel the abundance of Camel love and Camel pride that has filled this green in the progressive sequence from Commencement to Reunion to today’s unique Commencement-Reunion, the first such celebration in the history of this College. Each of you will cross this stage today in acknowledgment of your individual accomplishments and your common bonds as a class, bonds that have been strengthened through everything that you have experienced together. But what does it mean for you to be crossing this stage after all this time? That’s what I would like you to think about today.
Let’s take this in for a moment, Class of 2020. There will never be another day like this one because there never will be another class like you. A historic class. I know I said this two years ago, when we celebrated the first-ever virtual commencement in the history of the College. I even said it way back in 2016, on your move-in day, when I predicted that you would have a momentous first semester. And you did. Yes, it’s true: you witnessed one of the most significant electoral upsets in our nation’s history. But you were also arriving at Connecticut College just as we were making big plans for your future. In the Fall of 2016, your very first semester, our trustees adopted a new strategic plan, Building on Strength, that laid out an ambitious set of goals for the next ten years. One those goals was to transform the liberal arts through a bold new curriculum called Connections. You were the class that launched Connections. You rose to the challenge of this new program and ended up defining its future. I will never forget the inaugural All-College Symposium we held in November of your senior year. That, too, was a historic day. During the closing ceremony, your classmate Kaya Blumenthal-Rothschild called it “a monumental day,” a day that allowed all of you both to reflect on the different paths you had taken and to be inspired, even awed, by the collective talent: by what becomes possible when you put the liberal arts into action. I firmly believe that the two symposia we have held since then have been so good because that first one, which you created, set the standard.
No one could have known that November, of course, that in just a few short months we would cross a very different stage, as the World Health Organization declared the novel coronavirus a global pandemic. The College was forced to send most of you home. All in-person activity ceased. Your faculty worked valiantly to deliver classes online so you could finish your work remotely. It’s impossible to account for all the levels of loss you experienced, including lives lost to this new sickness.
What did you do? You focused on what mattered. You helped your families and friends cope. You put your liberal arts education into action again and again. Working as first responders. Leading teammates in remote practices. Completing ambitious theses and integrative projects. Winning fellowships. Mounting virtual concerts and exhibitions. And, most importantly, finishing what you had started.
And then, you crossed the next stage without missing a beat, entering into very rich lives after college. As I have learned over the past two days: You are in new jobs and new relationships. You are pursuing or already holding master’s degrees. You are working in elementary, secondary, and higher education. You are graduate researchers in think tanks and in competitive PhD programs. You are social workers and paralegals and admissions counselors, budding lawyers and MBAs. You are in marketing and advertising and fashion and the visual and performing arts. And you have done all this while continuing to support your families during one of the most challenging periods we have ever known. I marvel at your tenacity and success. Honestly, you have demonstrated what it means not just to survive and thrive for yourself but also to contribute to the flourishing of others. What gives me great joy in having you here is to see this new version of you: to see how, in this long period of uncertainty, you have truly become the creative and compassionate leaders that we knew you would be.
Which is why I want to spend the little time I have today not speculating about your future but rather focusing on what we are doing right now. Why are we bothering to enact this ritual of commencement when you have not only already received your diplomas but also already moved so far in your lives beyond college? What does it mean for you to be crossing this stage today? There are two answers I’d like to suggest: one has to do with your community; the other has to do with yourself.
Do you remember the crowdsourced video we included in your virtual commencement of 2020? It was narrated by your classmate Vidi Villalva Salas and put together from words and images you had sent from wherever you were around the world. It begins and ends with a simple observation: that when you were asked to speak about a quintessential aspect of your Conn experience, you kept returning to connections, the bonds of this community. This weekend is about giving you back your community——not just for pleasure but for another purpose: for the power of bearing witness.
And that has everything to do with the ritual we are about to enact. Very often, as you know, for a ritual to have an effect, it has to be not only performed in the proper way but also witnessed by an audience of informed observers. You are going to bear witness to each other in today’s important ritual of the conferring of your degree, an act that can be seen as the last stage in the long rite of passage defined by your education at Connecticut College. It is a ritual that, in effect, changes your social identity, changes your relationship with the larger college community and with the world. Commencement is the last stage of that transformation. You came to Conn as adolescents and you leave as adults. When you step on the stage, it is your final act as a student of this College. When you cross to the other side, you have become Conn alumni. It’s both simple and profound. And until now, it is something you have experienced only privately. Today we affirm its truth by making it public.
So this is the one thing I ask of you: I want you to think about that transformation as you cross this stage today. It’s a long walk from that ramp to this podium. At other commencements, I have seen students who seem to wish that part finished——and quickly. But yours is no ordinary commencement so, today, I want you to love every step. Cherish this walk. You are no longer seniors who are tentatively stepping out into the world. You are already in the world. You are changing the world. And so I invite you reflect on everything it took to get you to the point where you are now, all the highs and lows, and all the people in this community, many of whom are gathered here today, who showed you a way to keep going. And I ask you to give thanks for each of them with every step.
Then, when you reach the podium, I should tell you: what you will receive is not a copy of your diploma——you received that two years ago——but the leather and satin sheath that is its proper home. And inside that you will find one more piece of wisdom that I think speaks to the stage you have crossed between 2020 and today. It’s a poem about the shape of a wave by Judy Brown——the poem, you may remember, that our honoree, Patrick Awuah, read to you during your virtual commencement back in May 2020. It reminds us that, when engulfed in disappointment and despair, we have a choice: we can either sink further or be lifted up but only if we remain open, mindful, observant, and patient. And if we do that, the poem says, “time alone will bring us to another place where we can see horizon, see land again, regain our sense of where we are, and where we need to swim.” You have now arrived at that other place, and we give thanks to each of you for making the crossing with such grace.
Class of 2020, we love you and we are so, so proud of you. There will never be another class like you in the history of this College. We know that the connections you have made, the bonds of this community, will continue to lift you up as you work to make this world a better place. Thank you for honoring us with your talent, your wisdom, your great strength, and your patience. We wish you much continued happiness and success as you cross the next stages of your life beyond Connecticut College. And we look forward to seeing you here again and once more welcoming you home.
And now we have arrived at the part of our program when you get to hear directly from a member of the Class of 2020. As you may remember, we have a tradition of selecting the class orator through a competitive nomination process open to the entire senior class. That happened before the pandemic, and the student who was chosen then is only more appropriate today for the way she embodies the persistence and strength that define your class: I’m speaking of Viridiana Villalva Salas, the senior I just mentioned, who narrated your commencement video in 2020.
A Posse Scholar from Chicago, Illinois, Vidi graduated with a bachelor's degree in English and was a scholar in both the Holleran Center for Community Action and the Mellon Mays Undergraduate Fellowship Program, all while earning her teaching certificate in secondary education. During her last semester, she taught full-time time at the interdistrict school for arts and communication in New London. The previous year, completed an internship at Chicago’s largest network of charter schools, an experience that informed her senior integrative project on creating more equitable and culturally responsive teaching in English-language classrooms. She participated in the College Year in Athens, Greece, where she conducted cross-comparison qualitative research focused on the differences in teaching practice in a local community school. This research led to her being recognized with the Charles Church Teaching Award for Social Justice.
Vidi was an equally engaged member of the campus community, as evidenced through her work as a senior admission fellow and a house fellow for Jane Addams, and as the artistic director for the Womxn’s Empowerment Initiative. In the two years since leaving Conn, she expanded her educational opportunities, receiving a master’s degree in curriculum and instruction from Boston College, the first in her family to achieve both the baccalaureate and the master’s degree. She has returned to her native Chicago to give back and now works at Erie Neighborhood House as an instructor in English as a Second Language.