President Valerie Smith
I’d like to begin by thanking all who have helped the members of the Classes of 2022 and 2020 along their dizzying and dazzling journey: faculty members who have dedicated their energy, talent, and compassion to your intellectual and personal development, and staff members who have cared for you and for our beautiful campus.
On this Commencement morning, we extend our deepest appreciation to our dining staff who worked tirelessly to nourish our students and guests — not to mention their steady support over your years here. We thank the Grounds and Maintenance crews who set up more than four thousand five hundred chairs, as well as countless other setups and breakdowns over the course of this weekend. We appreciate the staff in environmental services who keep our campus spaces clean and well supplied and Public Safety for their careful preparation and planning.
We thank the staff of the Lang Performing Arts Center for supporting so many aspects of producing this event, and the Communications Office who ensure we document the ceremony and make it available so that a wide audience may celebrate with us. And finally, thank you to the staff members who are volunteering as ushers and assisting our guests.
To our graduating seniors and young alumni — I’m sure you appreciate that you didn’t arrive at this moment on your own. I invite you to pause with me to recognize all those who’ve helped you along the way: our Faculty members, who, through their scholarly work and mentorship have nurtured your intellectual and personal development; our Staff members, whose care for your physical, mental, and spiritual wellbeing has been a constant presence, and to the many friends from the Swarthmore community and beyond, who have been there to comfort you, confide in you, and celebrate with you throughout your college years. All played a pivotal role in your Swarthmore experience.
Most importantly, let us say thank you to parents, family members, and caregivers who supported your education, who cheered your triumphs, who helped you learn from the problems you confronted, and who today are filled with pride. Your graduation represents a moment of joy, accomplishment, and celebration for all of your loved ones. Members of the Classes of 2022 and 2020, please rise as you are able, turn, and thank your loved ones.
Each year at Commencement, we honor our retiring faculty and long-serving staff members. I ask our entire community to join in recognizing them, with profound acknowledgement of their many decades of service.
Faculty members retiring from the College include: Syd Carpenter, Professor of Art and the Peggy Chan Professor in Black Studies; Erik A. Cheever ’82, the Edward Hicks Magill Professor of Engineering; Allison Dorsey, Professor of History; Amy Graves, the Walter Kemp Professor in the Natural Sciences and Professor of Physics;
James Heller, Head Golf Coach; Allen Kuharski, Professor of Theater; Robert Paley, the Edmund Allen Professor of Chemistry; Rick Valelly ‘75, the Claude C. Smith ’14 Professor of Political Science; and Amy Cheng Vollmer, the Isaac H. Clothier Jr. Professor of Biology.
We also recognize the following retiring staff members who have served the College for 18 years or longer: Kathy Agostinelli, Public Safety; Paula Dale, Campus and Community Store; Gwendolyn Kannapel, Biology Department; Ruthanne Krauss, Educational Studies Department; Frank Milewski, Information Technology Services; Michael Patterson, Information Technology Services; Jay Prettyman, Facilities; David Ramirez, Counseling and Psychological Services; and Peggy Ann Seiden, College Libraries.
Please join me in thanking and commemorating these long-serving members of our community who, by their wisdom, service, and allegiance, have played an important role in shaping Swarthmore's excellence and your experience here.
I also want to pause for a moment to honor Bunn Buraparat [Bun ∙ Boo-ra-PAH-raht], a member of the Class of 2020, who passed away tragically in July 2017. Please join me in a moment of silence in honor of Bunn.
As I thought about what I would say here today — during this extraordinary event — celebrating two remarkable classes of Swatties — I couldn’t stop reflecting on time. Think about it — how often since March 2020 have you lost track of time? By losing track of time I don’t mean how frequently have you forgotten what day of the week it is, or what month it is. I for one can’t blame that on the pandemic!
I mean how many times have you forgotten how long ago something happened, or when it happened during the past two years. Was the Class of 2022 really in their first year the last time we held an official in-person Commencement ceremony? Was it two years ago that we gathered around a screen to celebrate the Class of 2020?
A few weeks ago I mentioned to a recently retired colleague that this year we would be celebrating Commencement for the classes of 2020 and 2022. My colleague replied “I think you mean 2021 and 2022.” I said “No, 2020 and 2022; you remember the 2021 ceremony – you were there.” To which this person replied, “Oh, you’re right. I completely forgot – the last 2 years have run together – like a soup.”
How many times during the past two years have you used or heard an image like that? First it was “The last six months feel like a blur.” Then, “The last nine months have run together.” And now, the last “two years feel like soup.”
I’ve heard people describe this period of time that feels undifferentiated as COVID time; you’ve probably heard that too. But recently I have been thinking about the idea of liquid time, and how that idea pertains to the way we have come to think about our experience of temporality since March 2020.
I first came across this idea of liquid time in a book by Marianne Hirsch and Leo Spitzer called School Photos in Liquid Time: Reframing Difference. In their book, Hirsch and Spitzer argue that we typically understand school pictures as images that “measure time dryly, picturing linear progress from one school year to the next.” But in periods of extremity, they write, “photographs keep developing in unforeseen directions when they are viewed and re-viewed by different people in different presents. In “liquid time” they are not fixed into static permanence; rather, they remain dynamic, unfixed, as they acquire new meanings in new circumstances.
I’ve been intrigued by the contrast they draw between the dry, linear progress of ordinary time, and the liquidity of times of extremity and distress. Their argument has gotten me thinking about our use of metaphors of liquidity – soup, things running together – to describe the period of the past couple of years.
We are all aware that even though we might count or mark time in linear, numerical terms – 24 hours in a day, 7 days in a week, 52 weeks in a year, and so on – we live in time much more subjectively. A long-awaited week’s vacation will fly by; a week waiting for a medical diagnosis or the outcome of a job interview can feel like an eternity. And when we have to come to terms with the loss of a loved one, a natural disaster, an act of terrorism, a crisis or tragedy that hits close to home, we understand the feeling that time as we know it has stopped and we are plunged into a different reality altogether. So the idea of the fluidity of time isn’t unfamiliar to us, and it certainly isn’t unique to this period. This is one of those concepts that has always defined the human experience, but is perhaps more visible to us in times of crisis.
During the past couple of years, we’ve noticed the way our sense of time and the illusion of its linearity depend upon rituals, whether personal, familial, or institutional.
When those are suddenly snatched away from us, they upend our sense of temporality and plunge us into ‘liquid time.” Likewise, our sense of community is upended when the rituals that organize our lives are suddenly ripped away.
Prior to March 2020, when we talked about community in our own lives, we generally took for granted the rituals and practices that created and secured it. And then the rituals and practices that connected us to friends, family, colleagues, acquaintances, neighbors, even strangers, were — in almost an instant — gone. Taken from us. During the early months of the pandemic, when we knew very little about COVID, and many of us were still wiping down our groceries, some of us had pods of people with whom we interacted, albeit cautiously, fearful of the disease we might contract if someone dropped their guard or violated our carefully developed protocols.
But for much of that time, gone were opportunities for shared meals, birthday celebrations, live performances, spontaneous interactions, religious services …. commencements. And gone were the opportunities to visit those in declining health and to gather in person to mourn those we lost.
This period of extraordinary disruption heightened our awareness of the fragility of life, the ways we mark time, and the many ways we make and sustain community. Everyday practices became lost rituals and took on heightened significance. How do we connect when we are fearful of each others’ presence, physically distanced when we are together, masked, unable to embrace or break bread, afraid of sites and practices of interaction? The absence of so much upon which we had depended required us to discover or rediscover new rituals to slake our thirst for connection, new practices for marking time. Those with internet access could count on regular group calls with family and friends; “zoomtail” parties; virtual games and book clubs; online memorial services.
But our gratitude for access to these rituals was tempered by the awareness of neighbors who lacked shelter and the benefit of internet access; who suffered food insecurity; who did not have a room of their own or a space to which they could escape. The extremity of the pandemic underscored how differently we are situated, even when we are proximate.
I appreciate that the idea of community is fraught. It can be used to impose a false homogeneity of identities, norms and values. Moreover, we understand the idea of community in many ways – this campus; the neighborhood in which we live or the place where we grew up; identities or positionalities where we locate ourselves; our networks of professional colleagues; our closest friends; our extended families. As we strive to build communities where our differences can flourish, we must continually ask ourselves how we locate and preserve what we treasure while seeking common purpose that leads to a more just future.
I know that this period has been extremely difficult for so many people, in many different ways. As we celebrate the classes of 2020 and 2022 today, I want to commend you for making it through this period. You faced the fragility of the familiar, of our system of government, of our infrastructure, and of human existence all too soon. And yet you drew on your resilience, critical sensibility, compassion and good humor to make new rituals for marking time and for building community.
Some of you have shared with me that you learned to play a new game or sport, you explored volunteer opportunities, you grew closer to family and friends, you read more.
Some of you invented new ways to navigate the limits placed on you by the pandemic. Take, for instance, the winners of this year’s SwatTank innovation competition. Swat Tank is a competition held by our Center for Innovation and Leadership that provides students with the opportunity to develop an idea or product from conception to reality.
Frustrated by the absence of a team environment and a regular training regimen during a year when varsity sports were suspended, the students developed an app called “Forge.” It’s a fitness app that connects users into teams, tracks their goals and performance, and helps them motivate one another.
We all hope that the uncertain conditions under which we live will stabilize before long. We look forward to the day when the pandemic is behind us. We look forward to a day when we will no longer live in fear of gun violence, injustice and hate. And we look forward to a day that our democratic institutions will flourish again and we need not fear that they will be undermined. But we also recognize that the volatility of this moment will likely be with us for the foreseeable future.
However long it takes for us to that day, I wish for all of you a life in which you will be able to use the skills, knowledge and capacities you developed here — your creativity, compassion, intellectual curiosity and ethical values — to develop new, principled ways of building communities and marking time.
May you find a renewed sense of joy in the company of others. In the midst of the rancor and mean-spiritedness that characterize so much public discourse; and despite the many threats we face at home and abroad, the power of community will enable us to extend more grace to one other and to ourselves.
For now — embrace this moment. However you experience time, this period of your lives is fleeting. A quotation often attributed to Dr. Seuss puts it well: “How did it get so late so soon. It’s night before it’s afternoon. December before it’s June. My goodness, how the time has flewn. How did it get so late so soon?”
My warmest congratulations to you and your families — we are proud to have you as members of the Swarthmore community now and forever.