University of Vermont

University Communications

2012 Class of 'Authenticity' and 'Heart' Honored at UVM's 209th Commencement

Alumna Cyma Zarghami, president of the Nickelodeon television network, delivers UVM's 209th commencement address. (Photo: Sally McCay)

Distant drums signaled the opening procession of soon-to-be graduates onto the University of Vermont’s historic green on a flawlessly beautiful day that would be marked by academic ceremony, nostalgia, parting wisdom and a musical number by SpongeBob SquarePants and Patrick Star. “I really wanted to celebrate by sliming you all, but the grownups said no,” alumna Cyma Zarghami, president of Nickelodeon, told the class of 2012 at the end of her commencement speech.

But she did the next best thing, saving their mortarboards from the network’s trademark green goo. Tom Kenny and Bill Fagerbakke, the voices who have defined these two characters for graduating seniors, “the first generation of the SpongeBob audience,” went into character for a dialogue and song referencing Mr. Mike’s and Phish, rapping lyrics like “I won’t forget life on Lake Champlain, Burlington weather -- snow, ice and rain.”

Zarghami’s surprise entertainment followed a speech in which she said, “You guys need jobs, not advice!” Yet, having studied the millennial generation as the network’s longtime prime demographic, she described the traits that define them, ones she says will serve them well. “You are a generation well positioned for what’s ahead,” Zarghami said. “Authenticity is your trademark. You are a generation with a lot of heart.” She said they were tech-savvy, self-respecting and hardworking even as they value happiness over wealth. She credited them as a socially and environmentally conscious generation, noting that it was because of the way they embraced diversity that a show featuring the young Latina Dora the Explorer, teaching kids problem-solving skills and Spanish, could soar in popularity.

Sharing her own simple checklist for life -- one that took her from an entry level position to heading the most popular cable network on television, generating 40 percent of annual revenue for Nickelodeon’s parent company, Viacom -- includes trusting yourself, having the heart and passion that makes good work better, keeping it real and accepting that sometimes the stars align and you just get lucky.

In his remarks, Board Chairman Robert Cioffi ’90, inspired by lines from the poet Shel Silverstein, told the graduating class that they are at a place where the sidewalk ends and the street begins. “You’re next step may be a job, a backpack, maybe more classrooms, perhaps a couch (sorry parents…),” he said. “But whatever is ahead, your university is behind you every step of the way.” When they’re ready to make the move, he said, “step boldly and with purpose… your UVM experience will enable you to travel roads truly unimaginable.”

“Suspect the conventional wisdom,” was the advice of Governor Shumlin, speaking of news of economic gloom that will keep grads out of the job market. Focusing his remarks on climate change, he noted “some pretty unusual climate conditions -- today being one of them.” (It was generally impossible not to note the warm, sunny day, given the damp and dismal tradition that seems to come with commencement.) Speaking of his own generation, Shumlin said they never recognized how their decisions would forever affect the livability of the planet, but in that he sees the promise for enormous innovation. “Thousands and thousands of jobs are going to be created and huge economic opportunities are before you,” he said. “So keep the lessons of Irene, take the lessons of our storms, take the lessons of this sunny day... We’re counting on you more than ever in the history of mankind to get this right and when you do, you will prosper and we will prosper with you.”

Interim President John Bramley spoke to graduates of his pride in them, particularly in this year when so many students volunteered their time and energies to serve during the devastation following Tropical Storm Irene, displaying “bedrock Vermont values.” Speaking of the physical beauty and the academic history surrounding the green, Bramley said, “How can you be here without sensing a strong sense of place? Looking back over your years at the University of Vermont, it is one of my greatest hopes that you’ve not merely been in this place but of this place.”

At this year’s ceremonies, approximately 3,202 graduates received diplomas, including 2,552 bachelor's, 429 master's, 94 doctoral and 114 M.D. degree recipients, in addition to 13 post-baccalaureate certificates. Among expected degree recipients are students from 39 states, as well as 60 international students from 22 countries. Approximately 1,230 graduates are from Vermont. The graduating class includes an expected 287 African, Latino/a, Asian and Native American (ALANA) students and students identifying with two or more races.

In addition to Zarghami, the university conferred honorary degrees on four individuals, recognizing their invaluable impact on the state, on UVM, on the nation and the world, over the course of their distinguished careers: Robert De Cormier, John Hennessey, Denise Shekerjian and Ann Swanson. Read full bios of each of the degree recipients.

During the ceremony, the UVM Alumni Association presented the annual George V. Kidder Outstanding Faculty Award for excellence in teaching to Luis Vivanco, associate professor of anthropology and director of global and regional studies. Vivanco’s scholarship, based in Costa Rica, Mexico and the U.S., focuses on understanding the cultural and political aspects of environmental change through social movements.

Nine students were honored with four university awards. Molly Campbell won the Mary Jean Simpson Award, honoring the senior woman who exhibits the highest qualities of leadership, academic competence and character; Caitlin Patterson and Will Vitagliano won the Class of 1967 Award, presented to seniors who best exhibit leadership, academic competence and character, and who have earned the respect of faculty and fellow students; Katie Rifken, Shiren Chan, Bladwin Delgado and Dylan Bellevance won the Keith M. Miser Leadership Award, recognizing outstanding service to the university; and Bijoux Bahati and Jeffrey Eng won the Elmer Nicholson Achievement Prize, recognizing the greatness of the students' UVM experiences and the expectation that they will make major contributions in their fields of interest.