POUGHKEEPSIE – Eleven years after receiving her own undergraduate diploma and launching an unexpected career as an innovator in energy technology, Jessica O. Matthews offered some profoundly unorthodox advice to Vassar College’s Class of 2021: You don’t need a plan to be successful. “The pandemic taught us a lot,” said Matthews, Founder and CEO of Uncharted Power, a New York-based company that harnesses the energy of anything that moves into a source of renewable power. “We all had plans in 2017 and 2018 and 2019, and then 2020 hit and here we are.”
Rather than making specific plans, Matthews encouraged the 547 graduates to create a rubric that encompasses their own values borne out of their life experiences. For Matthews, a Poughkeepsie native of Nigerian parents, that rubric was shaped by her family. She said the idea for the product that led to the creation of her company—a soccer ball that stores energy when it’s kicked around the field—was triggered by an all-too-common power outage during an aunt’s wedding in Nigeria. As she struggled to breathe among the fumes of a diesel generator, Matthews recalled that two of her cousins, both engineers, told her this was just the way things were, to “get used to it.”
“Get used to what?” Matthews had asked. “To something that’s horrible for the environment? You’re telling me you can’t imagine we can make any of this better?”
The desire to make things better now suffuses her company and diverse team of employees focused on energy infrastructure. Matthews, who had studied psychology and economics, concluded her address with this message: “No matter what you do, remember that just because it’s not your plan, that doesn’t mean it’s not your destiny.”
Unlike last year, when members of the Class of 2020 were scattered across the globe and were forced to view their graduation ceremony virtually due to the COVID-19 pandemic, this year’s Commencement was held on campus. However, lingering concerns about the spread of the virus prompted College officials to limit attendance to the graduates themselves, about 20 faculty members, and a handful of administrators.
In her remarks to the graduates, President Elizabeth Bradley said she’d always have a special relationship with their class, not only because it was the first that she had followed through all four years of their time at Vassar but also because of the challenges they faced together. “In four years, I feel like we have been through a lifetime!” Bradley said.
She lauded the graduates for how they had faced these challenges: “You have our profound admiration for enduring these challenging times together, for sharing yourselves and your joys with us, and for showing us resilience and courage in the face of the massive disruption faced over the last two years.”
The President recalled the uncertainty everyone at the College had faced 12 months earlier when a decision had to be made about returning students to campus for the 2020-21 academic year. “We had talked with experts, checked in with peers at other colleges, read the CDC guidelines, studied what Vassar did in the 1918 flu, and sought out trusted advisors. But really nobody knew what would be safe.
“Sometimes, when we face seemingly impossible tasks, we just have to make a decision,” she reflected. “Gather all the information possible, and after that, put a stake in the ground. Knowing the endgame focuses the attention. All the needed strategies and tactics can then follow.”
Board of Trustees Chair Anthony J. Friscia ’78, P’15 decided to toss his prepared speech and simply congratulate the graduates for their enduring achievement. “No class has ever overcome more to get to this stage and earn their degrees,” he told them. “I’m proud to call you my fellow alumnae/i.”
Members of the Class of ’21 were welcomed into the community of 40,000 Vassar alumnae/i by Trustees Sharon Davidson Chang ’84, P’19 and Brian Farkas ’10, vice presidents of the Alumnae/i Association of Vassar College (AAVC).
Chang told the graduating class that although Vassar alumnae/i are a “wildly diverse” group, “We all share a common spirit and spark that is uniquely Vassar.” Most importantly, she said, “Vassar alumnae/i take care of each other. We have each other’s backs and are deeply supportive. And, consequently, we support Vassar.”
Farkas assured graduates that their relationship with Vassar had only just begun and urged the graduates to take advantage of Vassar’s remarkable network. “Over the course of your lives, you’re going to make so many new Vassar friends. … Many of these people—people whose names you don’t even know right now—will become really, really important to you. That’s the magic of Vassar. It’s a special part of our collective DNA that allows us to connect across time and space.”
2021 Class President Mari Robles told her fellow graduates she was grateful for Vassar friends who had helped her cope with the challenges she faced during her four years at college. She confessed that one of her accomplishments was finally learning how to ride a bicycle, after somehow missing out on the rite of passage as a child. “Whether your ‘bike’ is learning a new language or breaking into a competitive industry, I hope you know that there is no shame in failing and it is never too late to learn something new.”
After the graduates had received their diplomas and tossed their caps into the air, others reflected on the experiences of the past four years. Eloudia Odamy said her Vassar career was marked by “a lot of work, with good times and bad times.” But she said it was the friendships she had made that she would cherish the most.
Nicholas Gorman said he was thankful for the experiences that had finally led to receiving his diploma. “The last few weeks seemed to be so hectic and so fast, but I just feel so grateful, so happy I made it,” Gorman said. “It’s a big day.”