More than 300 members of Colby’s Class of 2020 triumphantly returned to campus June 11 to celebrate their graduation, two years after the pandemic abruptly sent them home.
The graduates had received their diplomas and participated in virtual commencement exercises in May of 2020, but the cap-and-gown celebration during a warm spring reunion weekend offered the chance to be together again, in person.
President David A. Greene welcomed them back to campus by leading a festive celebration on Miller Lawn.
“I’ve got to tell you how much it warms my heart to be here today to see all of you, to see your families—welcome. This is so long overdue,” he said. “I am thrilled you are here, and I am thrilled we are having this moment.”
Greene, Dean of the College Karlene Burrell-McRae ’94, and faculty speaker Cheryl Townsend Gilkes, the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Professor of Sociology and African-American Studies, praised the students for their resiliency, compassion, and sacrifice—and urged them forward with courage, resolve, and a commitment to helping others.
Burrell-McRae said the decision to close the campus in March 2020 was difficult and dramatic, and also necessary. “We knew at some point when it was safe, we would do right and honor you, and here we are today,” she said, saluting the students for their endurance.
She said that Colby missed the students as soon as they left campus, and she thinks of them often, including when she walks past a tree the College planted in their honor two years ago. “I think about what it means to have the roots planted and growing and the leaves coming up, and I think about your strength, I think about your commitment, I think about the joy, and I think about what it means to weather all kinds of storms, literally and figuratively. It makes me proud to be a part of your community.”
In his remarks, Greene also recalled the difficult decision to close the campus in 2020. At that time, Greene spoke with students about the decision, and he expected them to express anger and frustration. Instead, they offered empathy and compassion.
“You chose to think about others through all of this. It was amazing to me,” he said.
He compared the unsettled nature of spring 2020 to reading a novel without a final chapter. “I turn the page and the last chapter is gone,” he said. “Today, here it is. And I feel so good about that, because this day is bringing us full circle, but knowing it’s not an ending, knowing it’s a beginning and it just leads to another chapter that is better still.”
He said the next chapter will be written with the lessons of the pandemic. The first and most important lesson is that community matters more than ever, and communities will help people survive the most challenging times. The second lesson is that adherence to values and principles will guide people “during the foggiest moments in life. … When you can’t see ahead because things are so cloudy, think about those guiding values and principles and they will be the brightest guideposts that you can ever have.”
Finally, Greene told the graduates that it’s never too late to do the right thing. “It’s never too late to reach out to the ones you love. It’s never too late to extend a hand to someone in need.”
For their inspiration, members of the Class of 2020 chose Gilkes as their graduation speaker, a fitting follow-up to their selection of the revered educator as the recipient of the Charles Bassett Teaching Award in 2020. Gilkes, who is retiring this year, has taught at Colby since 1987, with expertise in African-American religious history, race, and ethnicity in the United States.
A gifted orator, she summoned the words, spirit, and courage of activist and writer W.E.B. DuBois, who, more than a century ago, wrote a prayer for women, children, and “the putting down of hate and murder and poverty.”
Repeating DuBois’s prayer and his call to action, Gilkes told the students, “Mighty causes are calling you. You have the gifts and the greatness to respond and be chosen to answer that call. … The horrors we must heal right now are not new. However, the healings of today require the new knowledge that you have acquired and that you are called to share. Mighty causes are calling for you to share your gifts.”
She quoted Ruby Bridges, who at age 6 became the first African-American student to integrate the public schools of New Orleans, and peppered her talk with the words of poets Howard Thurman, Elizabeth Alexander, and Amanda Gorman. Quoting the writer Danté Stewart, Gilkes called the students “the emergent who must replace those of us who are becoming emeriti. You are called to revive and renew and rebuild a world that needs the brave and beautiful to lift every one of their voices.”