On Wednesday, Sept. 6, Vassar students, faculty and community members gathered in the Chapel to witness the academic circle of life. The annual Convocation ceremony recognizes the Vassar community in all stages of its academic careers: first-years, graduating seniors and alumnae/i. The theme of the evening was transition and reflection, resonating with students and alumnae/i as they take their next academic steps.
Associate Professor of Film Mia Mask delivered the Convocation address. Titled “Transformation and Renewal: Moving Beyond Existential Crisis,” Mask remarked on periods of life transitions and existentialism. Vassar College President Elizabeth Bradley and Vassar Student Association (VSA) President Anish Kanoria ’18, who gave remarks Wednesday afternoon as well, also touched on these themes.
Vassar’s senior class—the Class of 2018—marked the event as the beginning of their final days at Vassar. They began the evening by processing through the Chapel and taking the stage to stand before the audience.
The Convocation Choir, composed of Vassar students, performed Anton Bruckner’s “Os justi meditabitur.” Accompanied by the mighty Chapel organ, the students’ melody struck a solemn mood, reflecting the bittersweet atmosphere of the ceremony.
Next, President Bradley took to the lectern to welcome everyone to this year’s Fall Convocation ceremony, Bradley’s first at Vassar. She took the opportunity to reflect on a personal anecdote. Setting the tone for the two subsequent speakers, Bradley directly addressed the theme of the afternoon.
“You’re likely undergoing transformation,” Bradley said. “I’m going to talk about letting go of things that have been important to me.”
Bradley’s remarks harkened back to 1986, when she began a career in hospital administration. Back then, Bradley was working in the government programs office at Massachusetts General Hospital. She told of a time when she was forced to deny a woman life-saving care because the hospital’s budget did not allow free care for non-United States citizens. Bradley pushed other administrators at the hospital to give the woman care. Ultimately, she had to inform the woman that they’d be unable to help her.
“On that day, I knew that this job was not for me,” Bradley reflected. “I was no longer doing what I was inspired, called and meant to do.”
Subsequently, Bradley threw herself into public health, earning her Ph.D. in Health Policy and Health Economics from Yale University. She observed of this new chapter in her life, “Every day I was happy, doing things that mattered to me.”
Tying her story back to the evening’s theme, Bradley recalled, “I experienced transformation quietly … Life continues to unfold for each of us, even if there is work not yet done.”
Bradley’s message seemed to resonate with the two major groups at Fall Convocation: incoming first-years and graduating seniors.
After Bradley’s remarks, it was time to recognize the appointment of three professors to endowed chairs.
The first, the Mary Clark Rockefeller Chair, is awarded to pre-tenured professors who are involved in Environmental Studies at Vassar. Professor of Biology Justin C. Touchon was appointed to this chair. Professor of Music Michael Pisani was appointed to the Mary Conover Mellon Chair, and Professor of English Susan Zlotnik was appointed to the Mary Augustus Scott Chair.
Next, Missie Rennie Taylor ’68 took the stage to present two awards on behalf of the Alumnae and Alumni of Vassar College (AAVC).
The AAVC’s first ever Young Alumnae/i Achievement award was presented to Dr. Marguerite E. O’Haire ’08 for her recent work in animal-assisted therapy.
Next, Frances “Sissy” Tarlton Farenthold ’46, P’75, won the AAVC’s Distinguished Achievement award. A native of Texas, Farenthold was recognized for her notable work in public service, having served in the Texas House of Representatives (the only woman in the Texas House at the time) and coming in second for the 1972 DNC vice-presidential nomination. Farenthold later went on to serve as the first chair of the National Women’s Political Caucus.
After the awards, President Bradley invited VSA President Anish Kanoria ’18 to the lectern.
Kanoria began humbly. “Whatever I will say will be inadequate and incomplete to capture the depth and breadth of experiences in this room,” he stated, calling attention to previous VSA presidents’ words at other convocations. In preparation for his own, Kanoria read through 16 years of convocation speeches, reflecting on them: “The only common link in all these remarks is an underlying desire for urgent and rapid change.”
Kanoria sought to contrast the words of the past, however. He recommended patient reflection, rather than urgent action. “I urge you to identify and savor the moments and rhythms that make this place meaningful for you. Make it a community for you.”
“Just stop walking, look up and be,” Kanoria said.
He highlighted taking time to think—to think about Vassar, and to think about the world. He also remarked on taking time to imagine. He encouraged the audience to picture the world they wanted to create. “The power of imagination lies in its ability to see, hear, touch, feel and sense differently—to envision, and to enact.”
In his concluding remarks, Kanoria first addressed the incoming first-year class—the Class of 2021. “Make college what you want it to be and let it make you,” he said. Then he addressed his classmates in the Class of 2018. “This is it,” he told them. “Let’s make our final 264 days count!”
Following Kanoria’s turn on the stage, President Bradley introduced Professor Mask.
Mask’s address was at the center of the Convocation ceremony. In it, she reflected on transformation and existentialism, applying these ideas to activism and change.
This, for Mask, means finding oneself in the world around them, which she suggested in her speech is the utility of a liberal arts education. Calling to mind works of existential philosophy, she remarked, “One major theme in all of them is the emphasis on individual expression and freedom of choice.” This expression and choice, she added, are important steps on our quest as human beings to lead meaningful lives.
As a film scholar, Mask naturally incorporated movies into her address. She made a clear connection between the cultural power of cinema, the individual power of existentialism and the political power of civil rights.
Mask spoke at length of James Baldwin, author of such works as “Go Tell It on the Mountain.” Professor Mask sought to remember James Baldwin as a way of honoring activism. “To me,” Mask said, “James Baldwin is the father of modern Black film studies.”
Baldwin was writing during a time of transformation for Black Americans. In her address on Wednesday, Mask noted the transformation of Black actors in popular cinema, citing a contemporary example in the recent “Get Out.”
“‘Get Out,’” Mask observed, “is frighteningly accurate in presenting themes and ideas present in the zeitgeist. ‘Get Out’ is doing for cinema what James Baldwin did for literature.”
Though the role of Black filmmakers, actors and writers has changed over the last half-century, Mask noted, they are still not often allowed to reach their full potential. “Let me not be mistaken in saying that transformation is the same as progress,” she said.
She underscored, however, the importance of remembering that progress is possible. “The work of activists like Baldwin reminds us of the importance of doing what we can to improve society.”
Here Mask concluded, “American politics may not be healthy now, however we can strive to transform the world in our own ways, even in difficult times.”
Following Mask’s address, the Convocation Choir led the audience in the singing of “Gaudeamus Igitur.” Once the refrain was complete, the Class of 2018 left the hall, clad in their caps and gowns, off to start their final undergraduate year.