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Welcoming Remarks from the One Hundred Fifty-Sixth Commencement

Welcome to your virtual Commencement…and as you know, we are still planning for an in-person, on-campus graduation celebration for you later, after the threat of the pandemic has subsided.

You were sophomores when I came to Vassar, and I remember the early days so well. My most memorable day was six weeks in when I was asked to share financial data with VSA in Rocky one evening. I thought about a dozen people would be there, and 200 or more showed up. Yes, the Sunday Forum…do you remember? A lot of you were in the room, or watching the live stream. I remember talking about two hot topics—the student fellows program and financial aid. And you let me know, in no uncertain terms, what you thought.

Then and since, I have learned a lot from you that has shaped my thinking about the role of the president at Vassar. 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. This commitment will serve you well in a world of false narratives and increasing authoritarianism around the world. And last, I learned that students believe in the possibility of a better, more equitable world. That beautiful aspiration—shared by so many—toward greater equity and inclusion has been inspiring.

In preparing to say farewell to you all, I went back to look at my pictures from the fall of 2017—a moment in time when my life changed dramatically (because I came to Vassar) and when I first met so many of you. The pictures were great! Do you remember the big inauguration party we had at the Deece (now Gordon Commons)? It was all new then. We danced, and I do believe there was some alcohol flowing…for those 21 and up. And then that Halloween party at the President’s House. I remember that I hardly knew my way around the house (it still felt like a hotel to John and me), and so many of you came all dressed up in fabulously creative costumes. That party really made me start to feel like part of the community. In December, I went to Russia and visited students studying there, and by February, we were partying again in the house—serenaded by the Majors. All year, I was bowled over by talented students and fabulous arts and athletic performances…from the many musical groups, to the Contrasts fashion show, to the many dramas and exhibitions I visited along with regular rugby, field hockey, squash, and other contests. And then the celebration of Holi in the spring where we threw brightly colored powder at each other…ah, those were the days.

Your time here, although cut short by this pandemic, has been so memorable to me and I imagine to you. I am betting that your last years have had ups and downs, and they have been marked by learning, by changing your mind, by intense conversations, and even more intense emotions. You have likely fell in love and fallen out of love. You have found something you are really good at but do not like, and other things you love but seem to have no special talent for. And then, you have happened upon activities you both love and excel in. You have had regrets and you have experienced uncanny luck as well. And you have been changed.

I previously said that the Sunday Forum in my first six weeks with you and at Vassar shaped my experience and understanding of my role. What I mean is, I learned there that students were suffering and had goals that were not being met, they felt let down—perhaps by the school, or by their friends, or maybe even by themselves. And my job was, at least in part, to be present with students as they journeyed through those feelings of disappointment, anger, fear of the future, and recognition of injustices in the world. And that can be hard because it feels a lot better to “solve the problem.” To listen, digest, and solve the problem. (And for some issues, a president can do just that, which is always a pleasure.) But for so many other times, the solution is elusive, the scope of the challenge is ever-expanding, and our capacities, limited. I have had to face that, and I bet you have had to or will have to face that reality. In fact, the recent months of living in a pandemic reminds us of this reality.

And what does one do? For sure, we problem-solve around the edges—engaging our most collaborative, generous, and creative selves and all the assets and capabilities we can muster in our community. But when the discomfort, the unease, the anxiety continues—what then? My own learning, from you, has been to let go. Settle for being present, and wait for the right opportunity. That is, listening, feeling, and attending but also not taking action, not recommending, not prescribing anything. Just being present—accompanying others through the journey takes courage, restraint, and a deep and abiding faith—the ability to admit that the situation is dire, and that it will be dire for some time. But that it will not always be this way. That all situations evolve, and in time, new energies and new openings will emerge.

I have seen this kind of wisdom in how you accompany each other in this community, and I have seen it so clearly in these last months—even as we have been online. You have been courageous, patient, and faithful that we will in fact be together again, and that the love and care in this community will sustain until we meet again in person.

I am so sorry not to have you right here in front of me—to shake hands, to high five, to give a hug, to meet your parents…but you are here in spirit. I can feel it.

One of my favorite books to this day is The Little Prince, and I am reminded of a quote from its author Antoine de Saint-Exupéry. He writes: “The most beautiful things in the world cannot be seen or touched, they are felt with the heart.”

Take a moment now and think about your friends, your faculty, the many staff and administrators you have known here at Vassar—the people who got you through and are celebrating your accomplishments today. We cannot see or touch them now. But we can feel them with our hearts. We are together, on graduation hill.

It has been an honor to work with you at Vassar and I will miss you terribly. Please stay in touch, and be well.

CONGRATULATIONS, Class of 2020!

Elizabeth H. Bradley, President
VASSAR COLLEGE
Poughkeepsie, NY 12604
@EHBVassar