By Larry Hertz
POUGHKEEPSIE – Three years after a global pandemic interrupted their normal college experience, members of Vassar’s Class of 2023 were lauded for their remarkable resiliency at the College’s 159th Commencement exercises on Sunday, May 21.
Commencement speaker Margaret “Peggy” Hamburg, whose mother, Beatrix McCleary, had experienced challenges of her own as Vassar’s first self-identified Black student in the 1940s, told the 621 members of Vassar’s graduating class they too had been tested by adversity. “In all your anxious thoughts about what could happen at college,” Hamburg said, “I assume that the emergence of an infectious disease threat that would kill millions and basically shut down the planet was not on your list. But [in 2020], the COVID pandemic abruptly sent you home and into a strange world of virtual classes.”
Hamburg, who served as New York City’s Health Commissioner during the HIV/AIDS epidemic and was Commissioner of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration under President Barack Obama, said she had learned to face life’s challenges by drawing on the strength she had witnessed in her mother, who was the first Black woman to graduate from Yale Medical School and went on to have a successful career as a psychiatrist. “My mother would have been so proud and excited to be here today,” she said. “I was thinking of her as I prepared this address—how her life experiences taught me about so many things: the power of perseverance; the surprising gifts that can be hidden in unexpected and unsettling events; [and] the importance of building communities like those that you have found here at Vassar.”
Hamburg noted that she could deliver this message to any graduating class. “But I know this class has been tested in ways few others have,” she said. “Many restrictions and changes altered life on campus, yet you powered through. You found purpose in adversity. You discovered your own resilience. And perhaps it made you think in new, important ways about community and connectedness.
“Never lose sight of the fact that you have already—in just two decades—been tested with once-in-a-generation challenges and emerged the stronger for them,” Hamburg told the graduates. “You are ready!”
In her remarks to the graduates, President Elizabeth Bradley said she was confident that Vassar had prepared them for the challenges ahead. “One of the many capacities that a Vassar degree confers is critical thinking,” Bradley said, “being a little suspicious about simple answers, asking incisive questions, and—let’s face it—never following instructions.”
The President warned the graduates that they are certain to encounter communities that do not embrace such ideas willingly. “These communities may not seem to be as free or as accepting of challenges as you may have experienced at Vassar,” she said. “You may become disappointed, enraged—or the opposite, withdrawn—because the vision of a just society seems simply too far away.”
Bradley advised them to draw on words of advice by the late University of California at Berkeley Professor of Anthropology Saba Mahmood in those moments: “Critique is most powerful when it leaves open the possibility that we might also be remade in the process of engaging another’s worldview, that we might learn things that we did not already know before we undertook the engagement.”
The President concluded by asking the more than 2,000 people gathered for the ceremony to reflect on their surroundings: “Pay attention to the littlest of items—the blades of grass, the slight breeze on your cheek, the smell of the moment,” she said. “We will not be all together in this place again. May we be mindful of the enormity of the moment.”
As the graduating seniors moved on to the next phase of their lives in the Vassar community, two notable alums, Anthony Friscia ’78 and Monica Vachher ’77, urged them to fully embrace the alum community.