Williams College Class of 2016 told to 'get uncomfortable'


Photo Gallery | 227th Williams College Commencement

WILLIAMSTOWN — Threatening gray skies and persistent brisk breezes did nothing to diminish hopes, dreams, and spirits during Williams College's 227th graduation Sunday.

College President Adam F. Falk presented 538 bachelor's degrees and 38 Masters degrees during the more than two-hour ceremony. The procession was led by Berkshire County Sheriff Thomas N. Bowler and the Berkshire Highlanders bagpipe band. Graduating class members passed by 42 national flags representing student home nations.

Commencement address speaker and renowned civil rights attorney Bryan A. Stevenson urged the 666 degree recipients to deliver more to the world than a prestigious sheepskin.

"I'm asking you to do something greater, we need you to do something greater than finishing your college," Stevenson said.

His ancestry includes an enslaved great-grandfather and a grandfather who was murdered, Stevenson said. Williams students are prepared to change the world, he said, and he outlined five components to deliver meaningful differences.

He encouraged graduates to craft powerful identities, not by becoming teachers or doctors but "compassionate teachers, dedicated doctors."

"Get proximate," Stevenson said. "Get proximate to the people and the places where there is there is poverty and suffering. We have to get closer to the places and spaces where there is suffering. In proximity there is a power."

Power generated by personal experience is deeper and stronger, and has led to great change, he noted. "Proximate" lawyers are among those whose actions opened public high school and college doors to Stevenson, he said. Change takes time, he noted, adding that differences brought about by people such as Rosa parks and Martin Luther King Jr. required commitment, struggle, and time.

Politicians "are practicing the politics of fear and anger," he said, and illustrated his belief with an observation that alcohol addiction is viewed as a medical condition while drug addiction is viewed mainly as a criminal action.

Slavery did not end in 1865, he said.

"It just evolved," Stevenson said and noted that racially-motivated lynchings, beatings, bombings, and other violent acts have continued throughout the 151 years since slavery was outlawed in the United States.

Stevenson spoke about family members who dealt with segregation. Designation signs such "White" and "Colored" were much more than painted words, he said.

"These were not directions, they were assaults," he said.

Black and Latino students will likely find they face negative situations despite the Williams diploma, he said, because there are places where they will be viewed as dangerous because of their skin color.

"We have to change the narrative to make real progress," he said.

Maintaining hope is essential.

"Hope will get you to stand up when people say sit down," he said.

Finally, getting uncomfortable is necessary for change, he said.

Stevenson recalled being at an event and meeting a wheelchair-bound elderly man whose countenance bore signs of struggle, marked with scars. The injuries were sustained during the early to mid -1960s, when the gentleman worked to register voters in Alabama and Mississippi. The man kept asking Stevenson "what are you doing?"

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"He said to me, 'I'll tell you what you are doing,' " Stevenson said. "You are beating the drum for justice. Keep beating the drum for justice."

"I believe simple things," Stevenson said. "I believe people are more than the worst thing they have ever done. I don't believe the opposite of poverty is wealth, I believe the opposite of poverty is justice."

Stevenson received a long and loud standing ovation.

Class valedictorian Lucy Page, of Winchester, shared inspiration from the children's books "The Rainbow Fish" by Marcus Pfister and "The Little Engine That Could" by Watty Piper.

"Each of us is leaving Williams a rainbow fish," she said. "We have many sparkling scales, we are smart and talented, we have friends and family supporting us. We have the privilege of this institution at our backs."

"We are heading out into a world with many deep needs," Page continued. "We must use our gifts to meet those needs, to serve and make the world a little bit more beautiful."

The efforts may require a bit of uphill chugging, she said.

"Once there was a train that was carrying toys to children on the other side of a mountain," she said. "But the train got stuck and needed help. A few big and fancy trains came by but they thought they were far too important to be bothered."

The familiar story showcases how a small but determined train engine offered help; pushing and believing until the larger train crested the hill and successfully delivered its cargo.

"We have a lot of work ahead of us," Page said. "But we are talented, we are capable, and we are brave. Just keep chugging and we will get there."

Class-selected speaker Justin Jones of New York City spoke about looming adulthood.

"College life has become second nature to us but adulthood is going to take some getting used to," he said. "Even the most mundane and practical things will be a big adjustment. We'll have to sign leases, take trips to the grocery store that aren't fun excursions."

Jones said that there was no limit to the positives changes this class could initiate.

"Life may make us lose trust at times but let's promise each other today that if that happens, we'll always try and find it again," he said.

Phi Beta Kappa speaker Todd Hall, of Jersey City N.J., offered a phrase, "don't mess up," and a word, "seamless," as parting wisdoms to the class. Hall recalled two occasions when enthusiastic dancing cause his pants seams to tear. The first incident produced little visible consequence but the second circumstance created a vast visible hole from knee to hip.

"I had messed up, I had literally unseamed myself," he said. "I had become my own adversary and exposed myself, I thought, to embarrassment."

But his "unseaming" was truly a lesson in humility and humor and the take-away can benefit the Class of 2016, he said.

"As you climb high in your field or drop low on the dance floor, you are bound to rip a seam," he said. "You may be self-critical but don't become your own enemy. When you feel exposed, know that you are yourself and not a sham."

Hall drew laughter and applause with his closing rhyme:

"Take a chance and do your dance, even if you rip your pants. It'll be okay."


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