Your College and You

In athletics, too, you have excelled:

  • Thirteen members of your class earned All-American honors in intercollegiate sports.
  • You garnered 101 all-NESCAC academic honors and 52 all-NESCAC playing honors.
  • You played on teams that won 17 NESCAC championships, as well as three NCAA national titles: one in men’s soccer and two in women’s cross country, plus a national club championship in men’s rugby.

These are just a sample of the accomplishments of the Class of 2010. We are enormously proud of all of you, and thank you for all that you contributed to this vibrant and talented community.

I provide this summary at Commencement each year, recognizing that I couldn’t possibly include all that your class accomplished during the past four years. I do it to highlight the kinds of things the class leaves behind as an important legacy to this institution—an institution that has been around for 210 years—and to highlight, as well, the ways in which this institution has left its stamp on you as you begin the next chapter of your lives.

As I think about your graduating class, what it accomplished while here, and what it adds to the College’s rich history, I can’t help but think about something I have now heard from seniors in just about every one of my 26 years here at the College . . . and that is how Middlebury has “changed so much” since one’s first year. And the laments have been so similar, year after year: “First-years are smarter than we were; they are more serious academically; they are too focused; they actually try to do all the over-the-top amount of work we are assigned;” and, finally, “we would never get into Middlebury today.”

I have given considerable thought to these rather confounding observations by seniors, especially since I became president six years ago, admittedly perplexed by their predictable consistency, yet likely impossibility. Could this be true? Could so many successive groups of seniors have really experienced such noticeable change in three short years?

It took an observation by my wife Jessica during a lunch with students at 3 South Street before I could put all this apparent angst about how much Middlebury had changed, or might be changing, into a greater context. Jessica’s fresher perspective on the College didn’t hurt: I have, in many ways, become part of the so-called wallpaper, having been at the College since 1984, while Jessica is a relative newcomer, having only arrived here in 2003.

Upon hearing seniors express their traditional lament about Middlebury changing—“The first-years are smarter than we are; they are too serious; they study too much; we would never get in today”—Jessica’s response was the following: So what if the average SATs of the entering class might have increased significantly over the years; the world is getting more competitive. And, of course, broad changes in society, both nationally and globally, have made institutions like Middlebury more diverse. But none of that is powerful enough to change the essence of this place. This is a liberal arts college forged in remote, beautiful, hardscrabble, non-sectarian Vermont. These things cannot help but define the imprint that this institution has on all those who pass through it, no matter how much the student body changes over time.

Jessica’s comments resonated deeply with me, perhaps because I knew this all along, but hadn’t stopped to think about it. I know they resonated with the students, too, that day at lunch.
And why might this be the case, anyway? As a geographer, I would, of course concur with Jessica, that the place itself—the physical environment—is responsible for exerting the greatest and most durable influence on each of you. I agree with the poet Wallace Stevens, who wrote: “His soil is man’s intelligence,” and it is hard to argue with Stevens. We learn from our environment, our environment shapes our experiences, and there is no doubt that the physical beauty of the Champlain Valley plays some role in what we learn and take from our time here.

But there is more to it than the sheer beauty of the place. The hardy and variable Vermont climate, part of Stevens’s metaphorical “soil,” along with the College’s remote location, creates the kind of environment in which friendships and personal relationships form more naturally and become more meaningful, more long lasting, than in most other settings. There are few distractions in this beautiful, sparsely populated part of New England, which means students who come to study at Middlebury must rely heavily on one another for their social, intellectual, creative, and academic sustenance and energy. Though one of the great benefits of being at a place like this is the opportunity for students to get involved and make a difference in town, in Addison County, and even in our state capital, living and learning at Middlebury revolves around being part of a strong and tightly knit intellectual community.

And this intellectual community isn’t recreated from scratch each year, or every four years, as it may seem to be while one is about to graduate and, quite understandably, holds but a four-year perspective. It is the product of 210 years of history, shaped most prominently by an ethic that dates back to its founding, rooted in making the best use of resources available and a necessary spirit of collaboration and teamwork.

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