Thinking Inside the Box
See the full gallery of images from Commencement.
Speaking at her college graduation had been a lifelong dream for Viridiana Villalva Salas ’20, a first-generation college student and the daughter of two Mexican immigrants. She was thrilled to learn she’d been selected to address her classmates at Connecticut College’s 102nd Commencement in May of 2020, and she couldn’t wait to share a poem she’d written to honor the sacrifices and support of her parents.
Then COVID-19 spread around the world, and Conn quickly transitioned to fully remote classes. Commencement was postponed indefinitely.
Today, more than two years later, Villalva Salas finally took the stage on Conn’s iconic Tempel Green. Her dream, at long last, come true.
“It is my distinct honor to be standing before you today, looking upon the faces of some of the brightest, most driven and resilient people I have ever had the pleasure of calling my friends,” she told the more than 300 members of the Class of 2020 who returned to campus this weekend to finally celebrate their considerable achievements in-person.
“As we sit here, moments away from finally crossing this stage, I would like you all to think back to two years ago, when most of us were on our final Spring Break, and we found out we would not return to finish our senior year on campus. Think back to when you committed to your current master’s, Ph.D., and fellowship programs, or when you applied for your first job out of college. Think back to when the world united in protest over the murders of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, and the world that you knew seemed to cease to exist forever. I ask you to remember these historic moments over the course of the last two years to remind you of the strength that we all possess, which is what we are here to celebrate today.”
Villalva Salas, a Posse scholar who majored in English and earned a certificate from the Holleran Center for Community Action and Public Policy, reflected on all that her classmates had accomplished, first as students, and then as graduates during a time of great uncertainty. Members of the “COVID-19 Class” started new careers, moved to new cities, earned additional degrees, and began to make their mark on the world; Villalva Salas spent a year teaching in downtown Chicago and then began graduate study at Boston College’s Lynch School of Education and Human Development. Just last month, she graduated with a master’s degree in curriculum and instruction and a certificate in social justice leadership.
“The Class of 2020 is filled with people who dream of a world that is more just, more fair, and filled with more radical love. With the support of our families, advisers, professors, class deans, coaches and fellow classmates, I believe we have accomplished and persevered through more than any other class within the past decade,” she said.
Then, Villalva Salas finally had the opportunity to share the poem she had written as a tribute to her parents more than two years earlier. (Read the full poem and speech here.)
“You came to this country for us
So I could take our culture
Our native tongue
And learn to
Habla para que sepan que lo te tu tienes que decir es importante
Speak so that everyone knows what you have to say matters
That we matter,” she recited.
“Para el hombre y mujer que me dieron vida
Here’s a poem for you
Here’s a poem for us
Performed on the only stage worthy of you
It’s a small way of saying te quiero.”
Villalva Salas concluded her remarks by again addressing her fellow 2020 graduates.
“As we embark on our new journeys, I ask that you go forth with the determination, dedication and devotion you have shown this campus, and never stop fighting for a future worthy of you, even if a global pandemic tries to stop you.”
Keynote speaker Patrick Awuah, renowned entrepreneur, educator and founding president of Ashesi University, Connecticut College’s partner college in Berekuso, Ghana, asked the graduates to think all the way back to when they first arrived on Conn’s beautiful campus during his remarks.
“I too remember my very first day at college, when I arrived in the United States from Ghana on a scholarship and with US$50 in my pocket. I remember taking a 20-minute taxi ride from Philadelphia airport to Swarthmore College, a ride that cost $20—a dollar a minute. I’ll admit a moment of anxiety when I realized that I may have come to America with just ‘50 minutes’ of cash; but as I stepped into my dormitory with the remaining $30, I mostly felt on top of the world,” he said. “I felt that way because of the opportunities that I knew college would open to me.”
Awuah studied engineering, and after graduation, he worked at Microsoft, where he was part of a team tasked with developing software for dial-up internet access. But after the birth of his son, he began thinking more about the future of Africa and “became fixated on the idea of contributing to an African transformation.” At first, he considered starting a tech company in Ghana, but eventually decided to focus on the transformative power of higher education.
“I proposed to set up a university that would be intentional about educating future African leaders who are deeply ethical; who are committed to the common good; who expect problems to be solved; and who possess the skills and the courage to solve those problems,” he said.
“My challenge was to determine a meaningful first step that I could make towards this larger goal.”
Awuah described the many small steps he took—and the challenges he had to overcome along the way—to found Ashesi, which now enrolls approximately 1,300 students, has more than 2,000 alumni representing 30 African countries, and is currently ranked No. 1 in Ghana and No. 7 in Africa on the Times Higher Education University Impact Ranking.
“This year, Ashesi officially celebrates its 20th anniversary. Yet, we consider every day to be just another small step,” he told the Class of 2020.
“I suspect that your ambitions for your lives will be greater than what my generation imagined when we graduated from college,” he continued. “Many of you will be scared by the size of the journeys you decide to embark on. Don’t let that stop you. At best, let it guide you about what to pay attention to in order to achieve success.
“Most importantly, I urge you to find that first step and then take it.”
Prior to the keynote address and in honor of his revolutionary achievements in higher education on the African continent, as well as his inspiring commitment to the same values that animate Connecticut College’s mission of the liberal arts in action, Awuah was awarded an honorary doctor of humane letters honoris causa by President Katherine Bergeron.
During her remarks, Bergeron spoke about the extraordinary nature of the long-awaited 102nd Commencement.
“There will never be another day like this one because there never will be another class like you … the singular, the historic, the passionate, and the exceedingly patient Class of 2020,” she said.
Bergeron noted that the Class of 2020 arrived just as Conn was launching its bold new curriculum, 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,” Bergeron said, “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.”
Then, when the pandemic hit, members of the class focused on what mattered by helping friends and families cope, working as first responders, completing ambitious theses and integrative projects, mounting virtual concerts and exhibitions, and winning fellowships, she said.
In the two years since the members of the class celebrated the conclusion of their academic careers at Conn with a first-ever virtual ceremony, they have become teachers, graduate researchers, social workers, paralegals, admission counselors, lawyers, MBAs, and professionals in marketing, advertising, fashion and the visual and performing arts.
“I marvel at your tenacity and success,” Bergeron said. “In this long period of uncertainty, you have truly emerged as the creative and compassionate leaders that we knew you would be.
“I want you to think very hard about your transformation as you cross this stage today,” she continued.
“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.”
Later in the ceremony, the College awarded an honorary bachelor of humane letters, honoris causa, to environmental historian, biographer, alumna and emeritus trustee Linda Lear in recognition of her considerable achievements and her work on women, science and the environment. Lear, who won acclaim for her definitive biography, Rachel Carson: Witness for Nature, (1997; 2009), and later for Beatrix Potter: A Life in Nature (2007), was awarded the Connecticut College Medal, Conn’s highest honor, in 2013.
The College also recognized 2020 Oakes and Louise Ames Prize winner Madeline Washburn Bank ’20 and 2020 Anna Lord Strauss Medal winner Christina Cruz ’20. Bank, a dance and art history major and scholar in the in the Museum Studies Certificate program, received the Ames Prize for her honors thesis, “The Female Body, Myth, and Sexual Power: Women in Italian Renaissance Art.” Cruz, a sociology and Latin American studies double major and scholar in the College’s Holleran Center for Community Action and Public Policy, was honored with the Strauss Medal for her deep commitment to educational access and social justice for Latinx students and lower income communities in the United States.
At the conclusion of the ceremony, Bergeron performed the “Alma Mater Blues” with Persephone L. Hall, the Hale Family Executive Director of the Hale Center for Career Development, and Butch Rovan, spouse of the president, with musical accompaniment by the New London Big Band. Bergeron, Hall and the band also performed the Connecticut College “Victory Song.”
The Commencement exercises concluded a full weekend of events for members of the Class of 2020, including “Senior Week” highlights missed after Conn went fully remote in the spring of 2020. The alumni enjoyed a champagne toast with Bergeron, tours of the newly renovated Athey Center for Performance and Research at Palmer Auditorium, a block party featuring live music and local food trucks, and a Lily Pad dance featuring a live performance by the rock cover band Wicked Peach.