Simon's Rock grads told to 'nurture empathy'

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GREAT BARRINGTON — The cheering and clapping began well before the degrees were delivered during the 50th commencement exercises held Saturday at Bard College at Simon's Rock.

The occasion continued campus traditions: a bagpipe processional to Blodgett Lawn led by alumnus Blake Hopewell, a charge to graduates and Latin presentation of bachelor of arts degrees by college President Leon Botstein, and Provost and Vice President Ian Bickford emceeing student and faculty awards with various presenters.

But a few days earlier, on Thursday, some students ushered in a new rite of passage, the first Simon's Rock Affinity Graduation.

"It's to recognize the additional struggles students from marginalized backgrounds face to come here to get a degree," explained bachelor of arts degree candidate Stone Erickson Mims of Atlanta, while waiting in the processional line on Saturday. The fact became re-emphasized throughout the day.

During the Thursday event and again on Saturday, some students wore different color stoles to indicate their respective affinities: purple with a rainbow rectangle to indicate coming from an LGBTQ+ background, orange for being a first-generation graduate, yellow or home country flag colors to indicate being an international student.

Mims himself proudly wore a kente cloth stole with green, yellow and red stripes over a black background to honor his African heritage.

"For me, the first year I came here there were five black students in my class, and all of them are graduating today," he said. "I'm just so proud of each of them and how they all became activists on campus."

Mims said he feels his whole class is one of the most diverse and outspoken groups of graduates he's seen go through campus.

Three students from Berkshire County — Hannah Barth, Margot Douillet and Sophia Zah-Greenspan — were among the 100 associate of arts degree recipients, and Olivia Lee Davis was among the 66 bachelor of arts degree recipients celebrated on Saturday. Their classmates came from as close as Ghent, N.Y., and are rooted from a range of countries like Liberia, the Republic of Korea, India and China among others.

Both of this year's guest speakers related navigating different societies and cultural norms.

Honorary degree recipient Edward "Ted" Siedle was living in Uganda before arriving as a student at Simon's Rock in the 1970s "in the worst of circumstances." He had just been orphaned at age 17, but found support at the college and his own sense of resilience. He later investigated his own father's murder and went on to take on financial institutions like JPMorgan Chase as an independent financial investigator.

Keynote speaker Jamaica Kincaid grew up on the Caribbean island of Antigua before coming the United States and becoming an award-winning author, columnist for "The New Yorker" and a professor at Harvard University.

"We all come from somewhere else. None of us spring up here like the grass. We're all in some kind of motion," she said.

Things, she said, can move us for the better or for the harder.

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"We are not blood and soil. We are this delicate, fragile, ridiculous thing called a human being" Kincaid said.

She then offered this observation and advice: "Among the many things that seem natural in our constitutions, the one thing we seem not to have in excessive amount is empathy. It is my hope that by nature or nurture, it's possible that we naturally have a tiny, some germ of empathy in us, and, um, maybe we can nurture it ... There are other things I have to tell you about do's and don't's, but do nurture empathy."

During her speech, Associate of Arts Degree candidate Fanta Ballo, who was welcomed to the podium with huge applause from her peers, invited her classmates to "snap, clap and throw your hands in the air" during her spoken word-flavored speech for their accomplishments, from academic achievement to overcoming adversities.

"Today is your day," Ballo said.

Like a significant group of Simon's Rock students, Ballo arrived on the woodland campus from the New York City neighborhood of Harlem. Not seeing many students or teachers who looked like her, she feared she would not fit in.

"I watched kids write me off because of my African American vernacular," she said, so she initially kept quiet in class.

"I thought to myself, since I was already the elephant in the room, what good would it do if I lifted my trunk? But what I didn't think about was how great of a disservice I was doing myself by staying quiet," said Ballo.

Invoking the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and the fight for the rights of African Americans to be able to access classrooms, Ballo said, "I couldn't let his activism die in vain, which is why I started taking up space in the classroom. For far too long, we weren't granted a seat at the table and it was time we started making some room."

Mims and his co-speaker for bachelor of arts degree candidates, Divya Dinraj of Mumbai, India, echoed Ballo's sentiments and struggles.

"As a brown woman in STEM [studying science, technology, engineering, mathematics], I navigated through a field which many, to this day, believe to be reserved for the white man."

Not naming names, she called out a white professor who told her she wouldn't have a chance of getting into graduate school, much less medical school.

"Today I stand before you proudly accepted into Oxford University," said Dinraj to a roar of applause.

For some students, like associate's degree recipient Ali Levinson of New York City, commencement felt cathartic.

"I think it's about, really, that we did it. I remember coming here with my brother and watching graduation and how it seemed impossible to me. It was nice to finally be able to sit together and hold hands and laugh, and shed tears and breathe and celebrate something good," she said.

Said Mims, as he proudly looked out upon a tenacious group of future scientists, poets, psychologists and teachers, "I am not afraid of the future because you are the future, and I expect great things."


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