Cristle Collins Judd: President of the College

Welcome and greetings to you all, where ever you may be. Like most of you, I am joining this event from home—in my case, on campus in the living room of the President’s House. Since we often host college functions here, it does mean, conveniently, that there was a podium handy and that my regalia was right upstairs.

I want to begin today with a big shout-out to the dedicated faculty and staff, seen (and mostly unseen right now), from the College’s offices of events, communications, IT, A/V, campus operations, student life, alumni relations, registrar, provost, film, and more who have worked tirelessly and creatively to make this event possible in this way.

A virtual ceremony can’t replace the in-person festivities that we were all looking forward to, but I strongly believe that we cannot and indeed we must not put our lives on hold, despite the extraordinary disruption through which we are all living. At this time, as we acknowledge and grieve our collective and personal sorrows and disappointments, and as we mourn deeply the losses touching so many, we also need to allow ourselves to celebrate that which merits celebration—and today that is you, the graduating class of 2020!

Even though we are not physically together, you share this moment with people whose lives have shaped yours and with whom you have shared a very special experience, place, and philosophy of education. Some of these people will be your friends for the rest of your life; others will turn out to be future colleagues or collaborators. These include not only your classmates, but also the faculty, staff, and even the president of this College! What all of us share with you is the special privilege associated with a Sarah Lawrence education. I want to reiterate that we will gather the Class of 2020 back on campus when we can safely do so. So: consider this your commencement, Part One.

And now, to our ceremony proper… 

Welcome as we gather virtually to celebrate the 92nd Commencement of Sarah Lawrence College and the Class of 2020!

I have a tradition of opening our commencement ceremony by recognizing those who have helped guide our graduates to this moment. And I want to continue that tradition today. So I would like to ask the members of the graduating class of 2020 to please stand, wherever you are in the world, and face in person or virtually those who have supported and nurtured you—your parents, friends, and family —and thank them with a hearty and heart-felt round of applause.

And graduates, please continue to stand and take a moment to offer a second round of applause and appreciation for the Sarah Lawrence faculty and staff who have been committed to your pursuit of learning and to your success for these past four years and to whom you will continue to be connected long into the future. Many of you have already been expressing that gratitude on social media and I encourage you to continue to do so during this ceremony and beyond with your hashtag: #SLC2020.

(Thank you, graduates. If you actually stood up, you may be seated.)

I want to add my recognition and thanks to the parents and families of our graduating seniors. We are grateful for your commitment to Sarah Lawrence and for your support of our students, and especially the ways that you have supported us during these last weeks. Today we mark a rite of passage not only for our students, but for you, their dedicated families. Please know that we consider you, too, to be a part of the Sarah Lawrence community not only now, but into the future, and we hope that you will stay connected with the College.

I think at this time it’s critical for us to make one more pause, because at this moment, as much as we would like this to be all about “us,” the Sarah Lawrence Community, and “you,” the graduates we celebrate, as we reflect with gratitude for those who support us, I’d like to acknowledge the health care workers, the first responders, and the essential employees all around our nation and the world who continue to put their lives at risk and to work so tirelessly to see us through this ongoing crisis.

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Commencement provides an opportunity for me to not only offer these words of welcome and thanks, but also to offer some thoughts and a challenge to our graduating seniors. We are all at a moment of reflection, and as we are, I want to turn to something that most of you probably haven’t thought about very much, but which I can tell you I have been thinking about a great deal these last few months, and that is the College’s mission.

Our mission statement begins:

To graduate world citizens

And it concludes …

...[who will] “thrive in a complex and rapidly evolving world.”  

And, of course, it says a lot in between because as you all know we are a place that loves words, but I want to take a moment to focus on that mission in capsule: To graduate world citizens … [who will] thrive in a complex and rapidly evolving world.

First, our responsibility to graduate world citizens. That has never been more timely nor more apparent, nor more necessary than in the midst of this global pandemic. And it resounded for us directly, as we were reminded that viruses don’t observe national or political borders as we supported returns for so many of you—for students studying around the world to get back to their homes in the US, and for students at Sarah Lawrence to return to homes around the world. Your experiences of studying and working with, knowing and living among, students from every continent (with the exception of Antarctica) are a strength of your education as you join an alumni base living around the globe in 83 countries. And for the last seven weeks, you have worked together around the world and across time zones.

Will you use that foundation to move forward in the world with a respect for difference and an empathetic outlook predisposed to collaboration for the common good of humanity? 

Will you strive to be the world citizen our mission promises? 

I urge you to do so.

And then, that ending of our mission statement—“thriving in a complex and rapidly evolving world.” I am sure that right now some of you are ruefully shaking your head as you think about the last seven weeks, unsure whether you are “thriving,” and newly appreciating just how complex and rapidly evolving our world can be. 

I want to remind you, with a little humor, that until seven weeks ago, you often thought of your four years at Sarah Lawrence as a microcosm of a complex and rapidly evolving world. You arrived in the fall of 2016 in the midst of one of the most fractious presidential campaigns in recent US history. At the same time, you were also the class that seemed to pull in the big-name alumni visitors:  Jordan Peele, Noah Hawley, and Julianna Margulies were just three SLC celebs who graced campus in your first year. 

And then, your sophomore year, there was another presidential inauguration, this time at Sarah Lawrence, as I had the privilege of joining this community and beginning to get to know all of you.  That spring had plenty of disruption—in January we started digging a very BIG hole for the Barbara Walters Campus Center and making everybody in Andrews miserable with construction work that sent vibrations throughout campus. And then in March, we lost power and heat on much of the campus in an extraordinary storm. And your junior year… sports teams advancing to playoffs and a full gym at homecoming, all in a so Sarah Lawrence way…. the occupation of Westlands, when you clearly no longer thought of me as a new president and brought forward passionately concerns for our campus and our world… the construction of the Remy theatre, a once-in-a-lifetime addition to our campus, literally block by block. And then this fall, many of you back from study away, excited to be together again as the Class of 2020, stepping into leadership in so many ways, helping us to open and live into the Barbara Walters Campus Center, inaugurating the first fall formal not in a tent and with a level dance floor, setting a record with over 50% of your class participating in your senior class gift by giving day in March, and so much more.

I have shared only three of your four years at Sarah Lawrence, but in that time, you, the Class of 2020, have shared with me passing “hellos” around the campus (some of you might say my relentless “hellos”!), and along the way you taught me how to use Boomerang, and humored my requests for selfies, as my Instagram captured just a hint of the richness of your work, your performances, your art, your clubs, your writing, your science posters, your sports, your activism … the richness of you, our students. I have seen you engage so deeply on this campus, and continue to do so over these last seven weeks we’ve been apart. I have been and remain so impressed, but not at all surprised. And I commend you and, more than that, I thank you for the ways in which you have found, created, and shared moments of joy and laughter, of caring and compassion, ever more essential in the midst of such a challenged world.

So here I stand, representing your College—our College—sporting Sarah Lawrence green, and wearing this presidential medallion bearing the seal of the College: a portrait of Sarah Lawrence, along with the year of the College’s founding and the motto “Wisdom with understanding.” I quite literally “put on” Sarah Lawrence College every time I don this regalia. But you, class of 2020, as you have already gone forth from this place, you are and you will continue to be Sarah Lawrence College in the world.

Your Sarah Lawrence education allowed you to connect your passions as you created your path over these last four years; not only did the College allow it, but we required it as you navigated your way toward the degree we confer today. Sarah Lawrence challenged you to invent yourself over these last four years, and you did so in partnership with not only a don, but with other supportive faculty members, and internship sponsors, and community partners, and librarians, and coaches, and deans, and so many others who came alongside and mentored you and supported you and believed in you and challenged you. And through force of circumstances, you took that to a whole new level these last two months. That ability to make a path, to connect your passions to create your future, is an extraordinary opportunity, experience, and accomplishment that very few college students are privileged to have. Here’s what I hope you will hold on to from that: inventing yourself over these last four years with the assistance of your don and other partners has given you the foundation and the ability to continue to adapt and reinvent yourself in this complex and rapidly evolving world, indeed to thrive in it, even if it doesn’t quite feel like it right now for many of you. That’s what Sarah Lawrence has prepared you to do, that’s what Sarah Lawrence graduates do.

Let me go one step further and connect that mission to the motto of the College embossed on the diplomas you will soon receive, because “thriving” is not just about you individually. Our motto, “Wisdom with understanding,” points to the essence of a Sarah Lawrence education: discovering which questions to ask and how to follow them relentlessly, digging deep to pursue a possibility, bringing all of one’s creative energies to bear.... But it also signals a way of proceedingwith understanding—that reminds us of the necessity for empathy, for generosity and grace when encountering competing views, for an inclusivity, that is itself deeply and openly inclusive. These traits have never been more important than they are right now.

So, Class of 2020, this is my hope, my challenge, and my charge to you:

Live into the promise of your Sarah Lawrence education: continue to embrace intellectual and creative risks, to cross disciplinary boundaries with curiosity, nimbleness, and confidence, but also with humility, with humanity, with concern and compassion for others.

Use your Sarah Lawrence education as global citizens to not only thrive yourself, but to lead the way so that all can thrive in this complex and rapidly evolving world that needs everything you are so uniquely prepared to bring to it.

And while you’re at it... Stay connected to this, your, College. Very (very!) shortly, you will officially be alumni of Sarah Lawrence College. And we can’t wait to see what you are going to do and to welcome you back to campus as the newest members of the Sarah Lawrence alumni community.

Congratulations, Sarah Lawrence College Class of 2020!

Be safe.  Stay Strong.  Be well. We are #SarahLawrenceTogether.

Remarks as prepared for delivery