Students, faculty and other members of the Vassar community lined up outside the Vassar Chapel on Thursday, Oct. 13, as rain trickled down from a gray sky. For almost a month leading up to that day, the Vassar community had been eagerly anticipating the arrival of esteemed actress Meryl Streep ’71, P’08, ’13, a ray of sunshine on an otherwise gloomy day.
Streep had originally planned to visit the Vassar campus to receive the AAVC Distinguished Achievement Award back in Spring 2022. However, the College had to postpone the ceremony when a case of pneumonia prevented her from attending. This past September, the College finally announced the new date for the ceremony, inviting former ticket holders to reclaim their spots and later opening up remaining tickets to the rest of the community via lottery.
And on that Thursday, the time had finally come: a glass podium stood on a stage at the front of the Chapel. On the screen displayed to the right of the stage, a slideshow of pictures started to flicker by, showing stills from some of Streep’s most iconic movies, as well as photos highlighting some of her previous awards, including her numerous Oscars and the Presidential Medal of Freedom that she received from former President Barack Obama. At the beginning of the slideshow, audience members got a glimpse of Streep’s time at Vassar, with the inclusion of photographs from some of the college theatrical productions in which she performed.
“Sophie’s Choice.” “The Devil Wears Prada.” “Mamma Mia!” “Julie & Julia.” Claps, shouts and whoops greeted some of her well-known films, building up the excitement in the minutes leading up to Streep’s arrival. Shortly before 4 p.m., heads among the crowd bobbed up, and soon the entire space exploded in applause as Streep herself stepped into the Chapel.
Everyone rose to their feet, heads craning over the crowd to get a glimpse of Streep as she entered the building from the rear, moving to her seat.
The ceremony commenced with a song from the Vassar College Choir and Women’s Chorus; the voices of the student-musicians weaved together in a touching rendition of “Afternoon on a Hill,” arranged by Eric Barnum, who pulled the lyrics from the poem of the same name by Edna St. Vincent Millay, Class of 1917.
AAVC President Monica Vachher ’77 provided a short welcome for the audience before passing the stage to President of the College Elizabeth Bradley. Bradley highlighted Streep’s continuing engagement with the Vassar community, even as she moved forward to pursue a prolific acting career: her 10 years as a member of the Vassar Board of Trustees, her participation in several on-campus events and her donations to the College, which have resulted in the construction of various spaces on campus, such as the Meryl Streep Earth and Environmental Sciences Lab in the Bridge for Laboratory Sciences and the Streep Studio in the Vogelstein Center for Drama and Film.
Bradley concluded her speech with a quote from Streep’s Commencement address to the Class of 1983: “The choice between the devil and the dream comes up every day in different little disguises … If you can live with the devil, Vassar hasn’t sunk her teeth into your leg the way she did mine. But that conscience, that consciousness of quality and the need to demand it, can galvanize your energies, not just in your work, but in a rigorous exercise of the mind and heart in every aspect of your life … What you can take away from Vassar is a taste for excellence that needn’t diminish.”
Vachher afterwards returned to the stage to describe the AAVC Distinguished Achievement Award. She detailed the qualifications for receiving such an award, saying, “While demonstrating exceptional talent, application, creativity and skill within a career, this individual must at the same time exemplify the ideals of a liberal arts education, and have used her or his position of visibility, power or leadership to better the human community and serve the wider goals of society.”
To give members of the audience a sense of Streep’s time at Vassar, Professor Emerita of Drama Gabrielle Cody took the stage to read a letter from one of Streep’s former mentors, Professor Emeritus of Drama, Evert Sprinchorn, who passed away over the summer. In the letter, Sprinchorn captured the essence of Streep’s presence on campus and her work in the Department of Drama, having observed her talents firsthand when she roamed Vassar as a student. Reminiscing on a scene in which Streep flourished, Sprinchorn wrote, addressing Streep directly in his letter, “You were technically perfect, but also an actress with such a depth of soul. You were not a student. You were an artist.”
Cody presented a copy of the book “Ibsen’s Kingdom: The Man and His Works” to Streep as a gift from Sprinchorn, who earlier mentioned in his letter, “My only regret, Meryl, is that, as your professor, I never managed to make you appreciate Ibsen.” Streep carried Sprinchorn’s book with her for the rest of the evening.
Vachher echoed these sentiments that Sprinchorn wrote about in his letter, emphasizing the work that Streep has achieved in her career and in her films. “Her roles in film, on stage and on television have tackled critical issues, they have inspired us, they have made us laugh—and cry—and they have become a part of our cultural heritage,” Vachher expressed. “I know we each have our personal favorites, and if we just close our eyes, we can be immediately transported to one of Meryl’s dazzling characters.”
But Streep’s work and contributions extend far beyond the film industry. Vachher and Bradley both emphasized Streep’s humanitarian work as well, particularly her commitment to environmental activism, women’s rights and advocacy for social change.
“Meryl Streep has reached the highest level in her field, demonstrating exceptional talent, application, creativity and skill,” Vachher said. “She has also exemplified, and continues to exemplify, the ideals of a liberal arts education, and she certainly has used her position of visibility, power and leadership to better the human community and serve the wider goals of society.”
With that said, Vachher, alongside Chair of the Alumnae/i Recognition Committee Amy Pullman ’71, officially bestowed the award to Streep, who finally took to the stage, in tears after Sprinchorn’s letter, and gave her remarks.
“One value of a Vassar education is that it kind of dooms you to a life of awareness,” Streep said in her speech, eliciting a wave of laughter. “Once you know how to go to the source, once you know how to find out the facts and credit them around a certain problem, you are called on by your conscience to find solutions and act on them. The Vassar Conscience…it rings a bell in your head; it sounds a call to action in your heart.”
Streep devoted a portion of her time on stage to speak about her previous work with the environmental group Mothers & Others and her fight against the harmful effects of dangerous pesticides. She connected this activism to the current environmental crisis and the looming threat of climate change. She posed an overarching question to the audience: “How do we not lose heart?”
In a separate email correspondence with The Miscellany News, Streep reflected on the meaning of achievement to her and the impact that Vassar had on shaping her future. “[W]hile I was here, I was definitely not aiming at the life and career that I later, and largely unexpectedly, came to experience. I was not prepping to be in movies…that was maybe the last thing I ever would’ve imagined for myself.”
Streep further reminisced on her time at Vassar and the memories that she had from those influential four years of her life. “[E]very time I go through the Main Gate, I can summon up the sense memory of the first time I drove up from New Jersey with my parents and my stuff and they dropped me off at Davison and drove away,” Streep recalled. “And I was in this beautiful, impressive place that placed beautiful big expectations on me. And I was determined to live up to the legacy of the many formidable women that preceded me there.”
In the words of Streep herself, “Achievement is measured daily in deficits, when your head hits the pillow and you think of everything you didn’t achieve. You are never finished ‘til you can’t draw breath.” Without a doubt, Streep will continue to inspire the present and future generations of Vassar students to continue striving for achievement.