On September 10, the Vassar community piled into the Chapel together for this year’s Fall Convocation, the formal beginning to the 2014-2015 academic year. Seniors and faculty members entered, dressed in their academic robes, to an organ processional: William Walton’s “Crown Imperial,” played by Gail Archer.
The idea for the first Vassar Convocation came in 1914, as a suggestion from Lucy Maynard Salmon, a history professor who wished to have a formal ceremony to welcome freshmen and to have seniors and faculty gather in their academic regalia. Before this, it was the role of the president of the College to give a sermon in honor of the school year’s opening, a tradition that first took place in 1865.
This year’s convocation began with the opening remarks of President Catharine Bond Hill, who spoke to the recent controversy involving free speech on campus by offering her thoughts on the qualities essential to maintaining a community that prides itself on free intellectual exchange without causing members within that community discomfort or offense. In speaking to both sides of the discussion, Hill made points about how the Vassar community should work towards striking a balance that benefits everyone.
Hill argued, “Together we create expectations for the community that can, but may not, influence individual’s decisions. The right to free speech is central, but a commitment to listening to others is also important if we are to benefit from the free exchange of ideas.”
She continued, “If we each speak to only those who hold the same views, not much learning will take place, and if we speak without listening to other views, including those in direct opposition to our own, we limit how much we can grow intellectually.”
Carolina Gustafson ’15, President of the Vassar Student Association (VSA), then addressed the freshmen, offering her sympathy for the incoming class’ transition to college life as someone for whom Vassar has been particularly impactful. Reflecting on her experience leaving home for the first time, Gustafson reassured the Class of 2018 that their concerns of fitting in, finding their path and being successful in college and in life is normal, but nothing to be panicked over.
She explained, “I came to Vassar with the misconception that life was like a staircase: I would ascend until I reached where I would want to be. Now I realize that life is like a walk in the woods. I am not continuing on a path to reach a certain goal, but instead to constantly appreciate not just what I have seen or what I will see, but what I am currently seeing.”
President Hill next introduced Director of Asian Studies and Professor of Chinese and Japanese Peipei Qiu to give the convocation address, entitled “Life’s Twists and Turns.” Qiu elaborated on her origins as a curious little girl during the Chinese Communist Revolution, and how her thirst for knowledge brought her to where she is today. “I was sent to a suburb of the Xi’an Mountain Range in northeastern China. There was no electricity, no running water when we arrived,” explained Qiu. This relocation was due to Mao Zedong launching the “Down to the Countryside Movement” in 1968, a policy that sent millions of students and children out of urban areas onto remote farms throughout rural China.
After working for five years in adverse conditions without much hope of pursuing her love of learning, Qiu was accepted by the University of Peking, upon the recommendation of the girls she worked with in her camp, and assigned to study Japanese. “When I was assigned the Japanese major, I had never had the chance to study any foreign language and had no idea whether I would like it. Nonetheless, I certainly had no complaint, but felt fortunate, as many of my peers on the farm did not have the opportunity to attend college. I spent my college years in the shadow of the Cultural Revolution,” remarked Qiu.
Qiu’s educational curiosity and prowess afforded her great opportunities during and after her undergraduate years, leading her to pursue her doctorate at Columbia University, after which her career as an educator in the United States began.
Qiu also spoke about the subject of her most recent book, Chinese “comfort women:” women who were forced into sexual slavery by the Imperial Japanese Army during World War II. Deeply affected by their stories, Qiu explained that she was inspired to write about this subject to give justice to the women who experienced such brutality, about which she first read in one of her former students’ senior theses. “These tragic stories remained untold to people outside China. I couldn’t stay indifferent,” said Qiu. “Their stories must be told.”
The events associated with Convocation that take place outside of the Chapel proved to be a mixture of modern and traditional. After being challenged, President Hill took on the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge before students, with Dean of Students D.B. Brown pouring the water.
More traditionally, faculty members sang the classic Vassar song to students. The freshman class photo, which will be used in a variety of capacities in the next four years, was taken.
Finally, in keeping with a longstanding tradition, those members of the Class of 2015 who were unable to ring the bell at the end of last year—because of their time studying abroad or because of other concerns—rung the bell, thus officially marking them as members of the senior class.