Academic Ceremonies - December Commencement
A. John Bramley
Professor of Animal Science and Microbiology and Molecular Genetics Emeritus and
President of the University of Vermont
Thank you, good morning, and welcome.
When we think of a college graduation, our first thought is often of a fixed point in time, a moment, a milestone—Saturday, December 17, 2011, the day you graduated from the University of Vermont. But as we gather this morning, I’d like to turn our thoughts, instead, to a word that is often paired with time. And that word is place.
My own college years were spent in a place far from here. (You might have guessed that from this British accent which twenty-one years in Vermont have yet to erase.) And perhaps I chose to dwell upon place today to distract myself from time’s harsh accounting—my own college graduation was forty years ago. Yes, I did the math. Time waits for no one.
So, long ago, far away, I spent my own college years at Newcastle University in the northeast of England. In that time and place, a “college search” was a very different process. We didn’t pore over college guides, sift through a deluge of recruiting flyers, or embark on a college tour with mom and dad. No, we were limited to list 6 universities and study areas and rank them. When I arrived to attend Newcastle University I had never been there before. 1968 was an era of great transition in the UK, just as it was here. The city of Newcastle and the surrounding area struggled economically as the coal-mining, ship building and steel industry that had long defined it was shutting down.
On campus, dorm space at the university in the heart of the city was limited and full to capacity when I arrived. It is certainly not a totally unfamiliar concept to those of you who might have spent freshman year living in a triple, but at Newcastle the space crunch was quite a bit more dire. The women got first priority in the residence halls and the men… well, that’s how I came to spend my freshman year living fifteen miles from campus in the small seaside village of Whitley Bay. (Any of you who think I was enjoying a sort of idyll at the seashore have clearly never experienced the wind off the North Sea on a January morning. No naked bike rides there!)
My landlady for that year, a coalminer’s widow renting out rooms to keep together body and soul, was not your conventional RA. And my public transit ride into the city was not a stroll to morning classes across a leafy quad. But my housing arrangements of that year came with their own kind of blessing. I was immersed in that community, in that place, and in that time in a way that provided invaluable lessons and opportunities for personal growth.
Enriching experiences and life lessons are not always where you expect to find them. But you will find them only with both an open heart and mind—allowing yourself to not merely be in a place, but to be of a place.
Seeing that you become of this place is something that we do particularly well at the University of Vermont, I believe. The ways our graduates today have become a part of the Burlington and Vermont communities are many. You’ve volunteered your time at the food shelf, worked with kids at the King Street Center, joined with your neighbors in the Vermont tradition of Green Up Day, followed the call of Professor Frank Bryan and ventured out to Starksboro or Huntington or Underhill the first Tuesday of March to see for yourself that Town Meeting is alive and well and a vital cog in citizen democracy the way we do it here in the Green Mountains.
We are the University of Vermont. You are the University of Vermont. Those who study and write about food cite the concept of terroir, a French word meaning the distinct sense of the land, of a particular place that is embodied in the food a region produces. Well, I would assert that there is a sort of educational terroir going on here at the University of Vermont. Though we are an institution with national and international reach in the students and scholars we draw and in the impact of our research endeavors, the educational experience we share with our undergraduates is very much intertwined with this Green Mountain landscape and its people.
This truth has been particularly vivid over the past several months. As the rains of Tropical Storm Irene pounded Vermont on August 28, we postponed the first day of classes and closed the university. Burlington was ultimately spared the brunt of the storm’s full force, but as we all know many communities in Vermont would not be so fortunate.
While the devastation of raging rivers was breathtakingly swift, just minutes in some cases, the after effects have been felt for months, and will be with us for years perhaps. Irene has tested the values of Vermont and it has done the same for the state’s university. Indeed, it is the test of such times that brings our values to the fore.
Throughout Vermont, neighbor has helped neighbor as the many whose homes, businesses, and farms were ravaged begin to put their lives back together. And at UVM, the response has been just as heartening—from the student and alumnus who had put together a website to coordinate volunteers just hours after Irene cleared Vermont’s borders to the teams of UVM varsity athletes helping with clean-up along the White River to the countless hours our Extension faculty and staff have given in support of the myriad issues faced by Vermont farmers. I could go on and on… In all of my years here, I don’t think I’ve ever been so proud to be part of the University of Vermont.
It is the values of this place that has driven and continues to drive those efforts—bedrock Vermont values of independence and self-reliance that stand on equal footing with compassion and caring, the belief in putting others before self. These are core values of this place, this state, and this university.
It is our hope that these values have become a part of you during your time here as a student, and that you will carry them with you through both the good times and the times when you will need them most. Carry them to New York and Chicago and Los Angeles; to Berlin and New Delhi and Shanghai; to Winooski and Grafton and Derby Line… down all of the roads to all of the places where good work and lives well lived will take you.
Last modified January 22 2012 10:24 AM