The day was gray, the sky threatening and heavy with storm clouds. The patter of rain could be heard falling on the courtyard outside of Cook Commons, across from Ira Allen Chapel. But inside the spacious commons, nothing about the weather could dampen the spirits or stifle the 'we did it' smiles on the faces of the 112 graduating Honors College students, who dressed in their black, bright green banner draped robes, waited for the 2nd Honors College Commencement ceremony to begin. As she did last year, Patty Redmond roamed the room with graduation list in hand doing her best balancing act between den mother and chief of staff, making sure every student lined up in their proper place. When satisfied with her efforts, she stood waiting to give the signal to lead the students and dais guests across the courtyard to the front of the Chapel where they would line up before marching inside.
Inside the Chapel, several hundred family members and friends crowded into every available seat, waiting expectantly for their 'graduate' to enter. Hushed murmurs pervaded the room, the sounds of the many voices absorbed by the high arched ceiling of the Chapel, where suspended from the highest point floated a magnificent many lighted chandelier, the sweep of its light casting a soft glow over those waiting below. In front of the stage, row upon row of white chairs stood ready for the graduates to take their places when they marched in.
Rain had now threatened the red patio stones of the courtyard as Patty Redmond led the students across to the front of the Chapel, where they quickly assembled in the foyer. At 3:30 sharp, when the Chapel organist struck the first familiar chords of Elgar's Graduation March, the procession began, led by student marshal Barbara Dewey Abbott, carrying aloft the College purple banner. After her entered President Daniel Fogel, Provost John Hughes, Dean Abu Rizvi, Associate Dean Lisa Schnell, Commencement speaker, Professor Jan Carney, and Honors College faculty. As parents and friends stood with cameras poised, ready to fix the moment for all time, craning their necks to get a glimpse of their child, the Honors College graduates followed two by two marching proudly down the aisle to their seats.
When in their places, Dean Abu Rizvi, at the podium, invited everyone to be seated. Welcoming all to the ceremony, he began his remarks taking a moment to speak on behalf of the students, thanking all the "teachers, mentors, family members, and friends who helped them reach the point at which they are today." Introduction of the honored guests on stage followed. He then signaled out for special recognition the Honors College banner bearer, Barbara Dewey Abbott. Asking her to stand, Dean Rizvi said, "Barbara is an outstanding student from an outstanding class, a mathematics major in the College of Engineering and Mathematics, she has maintained a perfect 4.0 GPA during her four years at UVM, a remarkable achievement."
For the remainder of his remarks, Dean Rizvi related Barbara Dewey Abbott's accomplishment with that of another illustrious graduate of UVM, the preeminent American Philosopher John Dewey, whose commencement Rizvi noted took place 130 years ago, in 1879. Born in Burlington in 1859, this year would also mark the 150th anniversary of his birth. Summarizing Dewey's remarkable career, in particular his many and influential contributions to education, Dean Rizvi weaved Dewey's story back to the UVM Honors College. His "incessant campaign for educational reform," Rizvi said, led Dewey to "found or inspire a number of new and influential educational institutions. We cherish this impulse," Rizvi continued, "because the Honors College itself is a young institution at this venerable University."
As Dean Rizvi would soon point out, however, the web of confluences on this day between John Dewey and UVM reached further than the anniversaries of his birth and graduation. The Honors College, he said, was about to accept "a very generous gift from another illustrious graduate of the University, J. Brooks Buxton, class of 1956." Dean Rizvi announced that Brooks Buxton would in a moment give to the University a ceremonial mace that notes on it both the Dewey anniversaries and the founding of the Honors College. This mace, he went on to say, would be used in all future Honors College commencement ceremonies, beginning with today's recessional, and would be known as the Dewey-Buxton mace.*
Dean Rizvi continued to weave the web between Dewey and the University, pointing out that the mace now being held by Brooks Buxton, would first be accepted by Barbara Dewey Abbott, who would then present it to President Fogel. "It is completely fortuitous but wonderful," Dean Rizvi announced, "that your graduating class's banner-bearer, Barbara Dewey Abbott, is John Dewey's relation, namely his eighth cousin, twice removed, but a relation nonetheless," he said smiling. "She's a math major," he said, smiling even more broadly, "So I trust her to be accurate about something like that." With the web now complete, Barbara Dewey Abbott stood, accepted the mace from Brooks Buxton, walked up onto the stage and presented it to the waiting President Fogel, who accepted it on behalf of the University.
Dean Rizvi then introduced Provost John Hughes, who in introducing President Fogel, praised him for his vision in establishing the Honors College. President Fogel in his remarks expressed gratitude to Brooks Buxton for his generous gift, commending him for the "rich element that has just been added to the Honors College."
At the conclusion of President Fogel's remarks, the time had come for the presentation of the special Honors College medallions to the students in recognition of their graduating as Honors College Scholars. As Patty Redmond read the names of each graduate alphabetically, each received a medallion and walked across the stage to be congratulated by Dean Rizvi. When the last graduate, Justin Zinck, had returned to his seat, Dean Rizvi called on Jan Carney, the Associate Dean for Public Health and Research Professor of Medicine at UVM College of Medicine, to present the farewell address. Professor Carney, Dean Rizvi noted in his introduction of her, has for several years also taught two popular courses in the Honors College sophomore seminar program, and so her presence on stage for this important event had special relevance for those graduating students who were fortunate to have her as a teacher.
In her address, Professor Carney made a strong appeal to the students to care about 'Health.' And not only to care about health with a small 'h,' as a personal concern: but, as importantly, to care enough to get involved in the "national debate on health care and its access" that she saw "beginning again" with renewed interest and vigor, where, she argued, they could bring their considerable skills, talents, energy, and intelligence to bear on its outcome. Her question to them for the future: will we as a nation achieve a "societal culture that supports health," as a given of our national identity. Her answer, looking out at the students in front of her: it depends upon you. Her message, drawing upon her experience as a physician: "There is no greater satisfaction in life than helping someone else."
And as with the web of confluences marking the day, Professor Carney brought her personal message back to the Honors College. "I have been teaching in the Honors College for several years, and strongly support courses that are academically challenging, multidisciplinary, and require understanding relationships among both related and unrelated fields of knowledge, and require intellectual creativity and independence. The skills you have learned in the Honors College are key to making our world healthier. Problems cross boundaries, and so do the solutions." Her words certainly would have brought a smile to the face of John Dewey, now resting just outside the doors of Ira Allen Chapel.
The ceremony concluded, with the rain outside now in full downpour mode, all dashed and darted to the waiting shuttle buses to take them to the Davis Center for a reception and chance to share food and drink with family, friends, and classmates, bringing happily to a close a day of confluences not to be repeated again.
* "Education is not a preparation for life; education is life itself" (John Dewey). Inscription on the Dewey-Buxton Mace presented to and accepted by President Daniel Fogel on behalf of the University at the Honors College 2nd graduating class commencement ceremony on Saturday, May 16, 2009.