Students, faculty, family, and friends gathered on Miller Lawn on Saturday, May 22, for Colby’s 202nd Baccalaureate, marking the achievements of the Class of 2023 with a ceremony that celebrated the importance of hope, community, resilience, and laughter.
“Of course, commencement is about new beginnings, but it’s also a time to reflect on where we’ve been. The pandemic was filled with tragedy and hardship in many ways, but it also taught us much about ourselves,” President David A. Greene told the students. “The first is that we can do hard things, and we can get through moments of uncertainty. I hope this is a lesson that you will take with you whenever you face adversity, and we all face adversity throughout our lives. When the going is toughest, and the road ahead is darkest, your values and principles provide you with the guidepost you need to keep moving forward.”
Members of the Class of 2023 came to Colby from 38 states and 33 countries. For the first time, Colby translated the ceremony into Spanish and Mandarin in real time via the College website.
Two students—co-class presidents Anthony Burnett ’23 and Lowell Carr ’23—came forward at Greene’s invitation to humorously translate his farewell message. The president does not use social media, and the abbreviations and diction of modern communication, he admitted, can be a mystery to him. He called Burnett and Carr “the perfect sherpas to guide me through this treacherous climb” to explain his message to their peers.
The student “translators” added a note of hilarity to the event.
“As you take leave of Colby, I hope you’ll always find your way back to this extraordinary place that you helped shape for the better,” Greene said. “We will miss you, but this home of yours will always have its doors open, awaiting your return.”
Burnett’s translation was quick, and emphatic.
“Hey, yo, we’ve been getting active here for four years now, so y’all better slide back or I’m throwing hands for real. First reunion gonna be active,” he said, before giving a memorable sign-off. “With love, Daddy Greene.”
Baccalaureate speaker Amna Nawaz, an award-winning broadcast journalist whose parents were first-generation immigrants from Pakistan, told the graduating seniors that she felt panic at her own college graduation 20 years ago. She didn’t know what she wanted to do next, at a time when it seemed that all her classmates had a clear direction and a plan. But hope got her through, and it can do the same for them, she said.
“Hope can feel like a wishy-washy word. All rainbows and butterflies and big dreams. I’m here to tell you, it’s not,” said Nawaz, co-anchor of PBS NewsHour. “Hope is a verb. Hope is strength. Hope is resilience. I see it every day in the stories I cover, in parts of the world and corners of this country, in moments where all seems lost. Hope is the bridge between what is and what will be.”
The path will reveal itself, she told them. Their hope got them to Colby, got them through a once-in-a-century pandemic, and it will get them through the struggles that every person has.
“It got you to this day—it’ll get you to the next, and the next, and the next,” she said.
Another factor that will make a difference in a person’s life is their chosen community: family, friends, and the people who surround them. Nawaz encouraged them to seek out a broader community, one that will help them grow and see the world differently.
That happened to her as a child, when her Muslim parents sent her to an all-girls, Episcopalian school for the high-quality education available there. She went to religion class, read the Bible, went to chapel, and got to know people of another faith.
“I learned early that community isn’t just a mirror to hold up to yourself. It can be a door, it can be a window, it can help you better understand the world,” Nawaz said.
She encouraged the graduating seniors to follow their own path and not be stifled by the narrow expectations or limited imaginations of others. “Work hard to stay curious, and silly, and kind. These are all things in short supply and in dire need out there in the world.”
The readings chosen by the class marshals, Abigail Mynahan ’23 and Matt Rocha ’23, echoed some of those notes. Mynahan read “The Journey,” by poet Mary Oliver, which begins with a clarion call about the importance of listening to one’s inner voice.
“One day you finally knew what you had to do, and began, though the voices around you kept shouting their bad advice,” Oliver wrote.
And Rocha read from Walt Whitman’s seminal “Song of Myself.” “Do I contradict myself? Very well, then, I contradict myself. I am large. I contain multitudes.”
Adrianna M. Paliyenko, the Arnold Bernhard Professor of Arts and Humanities, delivered the invocation, a poem by Ukrainian poet Lesya Ukraïnka, and English Professor Michael Burke read an excerpt from Leslie Jamison’s essay Layover Story.
The Tinpanic Steel Band performed two songs for the ceremony, a student jazz group performed “On the Sunny Side of the Street,” and the Colby Collegium sang “I am Unbound.”
Cedric Bryant, Lee Family Professor of English, began his benediction by encouraging listeners to read banned books, a call that was met by applause.
“Books are banned because those who censor them believe they contain forbidden knowledge, which is unintentionally ironic,” he said. “A way of saying that this is knowledge we need—knowledge to become ourselves, to know ourselves. To make ourselves.”
He ended by reading Lucille Clifton’s “blessing the boats,” a short poem he uses to salute the graduating seniors in his classes every spring.
“May the tide / that is entering even now / the lip of our understanding / carry you out / beyond the face of fear,” Bryant read. “May you kiss / the wind then turn from it / certain that it will / love your back may you / open your eyes to water / water waving forever / and may you in your innocence / sail through this to that.”
Commencement begins at 10 a.m. Sunday, May 21, on Miller Lawn, with seniors and invited guests. Political analyst Amy Walter ’91, Litt.D. ’17, the publisher and editor in chief of the Cook Political Report with Amy Walter, will deliver the commencement address.
Colby will give honorary degrees to Nawaz, Daniel Minter, a nationally renowned American artist and the cofounder and artistic director of Indigo Arts Alliance in Portland, Maine; Márcia Minter, an arts advocate and community leader based in Portland, Maine; Gerald Talbot, a civil rights leader, educator, veteran, and author; and Dr. Loren Walensky, a pediatric oncologist and chemical biologist at the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute and Boston Children’s Cancer and Blood Disorders Center.
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