Buoyed by a message of hope and optimism and empowered by their Colby education to change the world, the 538 members of the Class of 2022 celebrated their legacy with a stirring commencement Sunday, May 22, that included moments of unbridled joy, deep reflection, and a call to action.
Underlying all those emotions was the recognition that the pandemic, climate change, and the social and political upheavals of recent years have cast today’s graduates into a world they must make safer, fairer, and more equitable for all.
President David A. Greene praised the students for their strength and resolve during the pandemic, for their commitment to their education, and for coming through life’s most challenging times stronger and prepared to make a difference on issues important to them.
“My dominant emotion today is gratitude,” Greene addressed the graduates. “I am thankful to this amazing class for all you have done to make this community, both on campus and in Waterville, stronger, more vibrant, more just. I appreciate your willingness to make sacrifices for the common good.”
More than 1,500 friends and family attended commencement on Miller Lawn, bringing their enthusiasm and support to campus in celebration of the graduates’ accomplishments. Class speaker Jordan McClintock ’22, a science, technology, and society major from Wading River, N.Y., told her classmates they have experienced a whirlwind of momentous events in their four years on Mayflower Hill, with history unfolding “before our very eyes. During our time at Colby, every single one of you has accomplished many things in academics, athletics, and civic engagement. But your biggest challenge awaits—finding yourself and using your gift to change the world. No pressure.”
McClintock, who came to Colby as a Ralph J. Bunche Scholar, won a prestigious Watson Fellowship during her senior year. She will use her award to study medical inequities and healthcare struggles facing child refugees around the world. She told the audience that she had a hard time at Colby when she arrived, struggling academically and feeling like an “imposter.” She learned to thrive after she discovered her true self, and she thanked her mother—her voice cracking with emotion—for inspiring her.
She told her classmates they have the power and the obligation because of their Colby education to make a positive difference. She asked them to “be curious and be ready to stand up for what is right. Disrupt and challenge the systems. Be bold. You will all go on to do amazing things, but it is up to you and you alone to step out of your comfort zone.”
In addition to McClintock, Greene also honored Roshauna Follett ’22, a biology major with a concentration in cell and molecular biology/biochemistry, who received the prestigious Condon Medal, which recognizes the finest qualities of citizenship.
Pulitzer Prize winner and National Humanities Medal recipient Isabel Wilkerson, author of the best-selling book Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents, delivered the commencement address. She also wrote The Warmth of Other Suns, which won a National Book Critics Circle Award and tells the history of African-American families from the South who uprooted their lives and moved to the North during the Great Migration of the 20th century.
The first Black woman to win a Pulitzer Prize in journalism, Wilkerson told the graduates the key to moving toward a just and equitable society begins with understanding history.
Noting the toll of the pandemic globally and in the United States, she asked, “How did we get to this moment? What are we called upon to do with the reprieve that is life itself? How is it that we have survived a pandemic, political upheaval, ongoing climate change, and the ongoing ruptures of human division? What is our purpose going forward? What have we learned not just in the classroom or on campus, but as a species in this era of discontent? And what are we to do with what we have learned?”
She compared the United States to an old house in need of repairs, with “wind, flood, and human distemper” battering a structure weakened by flaws left unattended in the original foundation and construction. Today’s students, and others, are tasked with fixing the foundation, she said.
“We are the heirs to whatever is right or wrong with it. We did not erect these uneven floors and joists and beams, we did not install the frayed wiring and corroded pipes, but they are ours to deal with, and any further deterioration is, in fact, on our hands,” she said.
Wilkerson said she was counting on the students to do the hard work necessary to fix the house.
“Your education does not end today,” she told the graduates. “This is only the beginning. It is our responsibility, each of us as the survivors of our current upheavals, to commit ourselves to repair this old house, heal from our inherited wounds, to run toward history and not away from it, and to learn from history as the instructional manual that it could be, if only we could open our eyes to it.”
Wilkerson was among six guests who received honorary doctoral degrees during commencement. Greene saluted each for making meaningful contributions to their professions and for changing their communities through their work and generosity of spirit.
In addition to Wilkerson, Colby gave honorary degrees to Maulian Dana, Penobscot nation ambassador and an advocate for Maine’s indigenous people; Ana Rowena Mallari, cofounder of QuestBridge and an education advocate for low-income students, who delivered the baccalaureate address May 21; outgoing Chair of the Board of Trustees Eric Rosengren ’79, retired president and CEO of the Federal Reserve Bank of Boston; Dr. Nirav Shah, director of the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention; and Jamie Wyeth, renowned painter and art icon.
“Their accomplishments inspire us to consider how we might align our values and talents to do important work,” Greene said. “And I will just say this for the senior class, when you find that in your life, when you find your values and your work are 100 percent aligned, it makes an amazing life, and I hope that for all of you.”
For more information on Isabel Wilkerson, please visit prhspeakers.com.