(Host) Middlebury College Administrators say typically about 5,000 people attend their spring commencement ceremonies. This year, however, with former president Bill Clinton giving the keynote address, they set out 7,500 wooden folding chairs.
And, as VPR’s Nina Keck reports – they were all filled and then some.
(Keck) Rain fell steadily as the graduating seniors marched to their seats. But by the time former President Bill Clinton took the stage, the weather had begun to clear. Clinton said he was first introduced to Middlebury College by the late Ron Brown.
Brown was an alumni of Middlebury and close friend of the President’s who served as his Secretary of Commerce.
(Clinton) “Because I could see that he found here what I want for everyone in the world. A kid who grew up in a hotel in Harlem, found a home here because there’s a community here – in the best sense – and that’s really what we have to build in the world.”
(Keck) Clinton told the graduates that to be successful a community needs three things: Everyone needs to be able to participate – everyone needs to feel responsible for the community’s success and everyone needs to feel a genuine sense of belonging.
(Clinton) “That’s what Ron Brown felt at Middlebury. When he became the first African American member of his fraternity and his fraternity had to choose between kicking him out or being kicked out of the national fraternity, they chose him. Good for you by the way.”
(Keck) Looking out across the graduates, the former president marveled that there were students from 74 different countries. Our differences as human beings he said are what make life interesting – and aid in the search for truth.
(Clinton) “But our common humanity matters more.”
(Keck) Work to find that common ground, he said and build communities. To do that, however, Clinton warned graduates would have to break down some of the walls that exist between those who have opportunities and privilege and those who don’t.
Clinton) “So the bigotry you will have to work hard to avoid is not seeing everyone else. When we leave here today someone is going to have to come in and fold up all these chairs and clean this place up. And a lot of people who do that work think no one ever sees them.”
(Keck) Near the end of this 20 minute speech, Clinton told the graduates that if they took the time to really see and appreciate others – then their grandchildren would be able to enjoy an even better world.
(Clinton) “Thank you and God bless you.”
(Keck) Graduating senior Samantha Rivera of Wilmington, Delaware said having President Clinton part of the commencement ceremony was a thrill.
(Rivera) “To be graduating from a college where we’ve learned so much – and just had to put so many different ideas together and really struggle to form our identities and political views and to have someone come to speak at my commencement whom I really respect just means so much.”
(Keck) Rivera was one of 608 students who graduated Sunday from Middlebury College.
For VPR News, I’m Nina Keck in Middlebury.