Marlboro College

News Remarks by Ellen McCulloch-Lovell

Thank you, Dean for your warm welcome and your great service.

What a day for celebration: lilacs and apple blossoms; our musicians playing us in; parents, siblings, grandparents gathered to applaud you seniors! And you -- in your robes and best shoes or no shoes, and creative millinery; your high spirits, low spirits; can’t-wait-to-get your-diploma, or nostalgic-don’t-want-to-leave feelings.

Take a deep breath, look around you, and be present in this final ceremony. It is, most profoundly, a ceremony of gratitude.

We thank the families and friends who supported these graduates through the years.

We thank the board of trustees for their constant stewardship of this college – and ask them to stand and be recognized.

Each year when I listen to faculty talk about your work and read the Plan book, I realize this day celebrates them equally: those mentors who guided you to this hour. We thank the faculty of Marlboro College. 

I want to recognize one person who is retiring this year after 25 years of teaching, who during that time has taught us how to write, set high standards, to persevere: Laura Stevenson. 

This year we also say goodbye to visiting professor Michael Huffmaster and two Fellows who became part of our intellectual community: Mohammed Jalal, Fulbright Arabic Fellow and William Guast, Classics Fellow. 

We thank the staff who guided your Marlboro journey: advising, consoling, and encouraging.

2012 is Marlboro’s 65th anniversary. In 1947, no one was thinking about global warming, and a group of scholars and GIs were building a college out of two old farms, tenting under the apple trees while they renovated Mather House, and attending classes in the barn now our dining hall. Today, there are 70 of you graduates and Bill McKibben is our speaker.

Ever since you started your senior year, I’ve been wondering: what is it about you, class of 2012? Your freshman year brought the ice storm, when we evacuated after 56 hours with no power. Your last year started with the floods of Irene, when we were totally isolated for three days. Your answer? You told me: “we’re tough.” Yes, and I’d also say you are resilient, as resilient as Marlboro College.

After the storm, some here today slept in candle-lit houses or in their offices. One faculty member biked through the mud and ruts of Ames Hill when it was impassable. One community member escaped out the window of his truck after it was engulfed by water; another drove in 300 lbs of dry ice to keep the food fresh. We ate rice and beans and cold cuts. We took perverse Marlboro pride in being one of the most isolated communities in America after the storm.

Student leaders and nearby faculty invented activities to keep new students engaged. We were creative. We were resilient.

What is resilience, anyway? You might be amused by one definition: “The property of a material that enables it to resume its after shape being bent, stretched, or compressed – especially by stress.”

It’s that ability to bounce back after adversity, to see failure from a different perspective. Working on the electric light bulb, Thomas Edison said: “I haven't failed. I've identified 10,000 ways this doesn’t work.”

Author Ernest Hemingway put it more darkly: “The world breaks everyone, and afterward, some are strong at the broken places.”

But we weren’t broken and we didn’t stay isolated. We finally convened to do what we do here: study, talk, make things, test ideas, and participate. Students helped clean up stricken neighbors in Brattleboro and applied their design and communications skills to support nearby Wilmington.

It turns out that there are resilient communities --  you found that out when you delivered babies in Kenya, or lived in Japan during the tsunami -- and there is also the community that makes us resilient: the place that cushions your fall; the friends that hold you.

Our kind of resilience is not about learning to remain the same, but how to change; isn’t that why you went to college in the first place? We didn’t expect you, when stretched, to snap back into shape like rubber bands. Your teachers welcomed and waited for the new shapes you were forming.

The whole academic experience is designed to find out what new shape you will take! You wrote papers, got them back with teachers’ comments all over them; you revised. You carried out an experiment and didn’t get the results you expected. You analyzed; found a better question to test.

In the studio and at rehearsal? You painted over, you missed the notes; or you slipped: stood up and modified the movement. The hooks on the kinetic sculpture didn’t quite catch the rings that moved the needles so you rejiggered the disk. You didn’t just bounce back; you changed the shape.

College IS life, not different. What about emotional resilience? One metaphor might be the climbing wall. You climb, but there’s a spotter, maybe even a rope, and someone with more experience to help you.

You suffered loss and turned it into art. You came as a war veteran and are leaving a writer. You received the critique – you became your own critic. You revised your lives at Marlboro.

Why is Marlboro so resilient? Because here your Self took shape around others.

And here comes the really serious part -- why resilience is so important. You will leave here and have at least eight jobs in your future, some of which you won’t just take, you will create.

You are entering a difficult economy and you will make your way. Those skills of confidence, clear writing, supple thinking, will serve you well. When I see you at alumni reunions, you will tell me about what great NGO you are working for, what business you started, how you are making art, about your PhD program, and your children.

Author T.H. White, reflecting on the disappointments that life will bring, concluded: “There is only one thing for it then – to learn. Learn why the world wags and what wags it. That is the only thing which the mind can never exhaust, never alienate, never be tortured by, never fear or distrust, and never dream of regretting. Learning is the thing for you.”

That is the clue to why Marlboro is so resilient. Because we never stop learning. Here’s just some of what you taught me:

About classes, you said: You can explore the content but that’s not what you’ll remember.

It’s your responsibility to know what you need to know.

About Plan: the stress is due to an “exaggerated cultivated culture of stress.”

We talk about being a supportive community – but we don’t talk about solitude. Solitude is also instructive.

Keep the flexibility, the student-centeredness at the heart of Marlboro. Keep Bridges and Woods trips. Keep the level of student participation in governance; it’s as important as the academics. 

We should have more puppies and children on campus!

And finally: we are tough.

And you are. Here you are, about to leave. Remember how to bounce, how to revise, how to ask a better question, how to be a friend.

Now I leave you with this thought from transcendentalist Ralph Waldo Emerson:

What lies behind you and what lies in front of you,
pales in comparison to what lies inside of you.

 

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