Spring Celebration of Graduating Students, 2020

Welcome to our annual Spring Celebration! I’m Dr. Howe, chair of the Department of Literature & Languages, and I’m really proud to be hosting this unconventional celebration of you, your accomplishments, and your bright futures. In normal years—whatever that means… we’re currently recognizing the contingency of “normal”—we do this in person, and we have food, free books, flowers, awards, personalized gifts, and lots of great conversation, including the opportunity to grill an alum who has returned from the field filled with experience and advice. This year, we’re going online (and we’re supporting the US Postal System while we do—so expect happy things in the mail, chosen especially for each of you by your faculty)!

I know this isn’t a great substitute for walking across the stage in your cap and gown, but I hope you find it meaningful. When I put out the call for celebratory videos to our alumni, I was deeply moved to see the results. It reminds me that we are a community, even in—maybe especially in—times of crisis. Several of your faculty have put together congratulatory videos for you, too, and our featured alumni speaker, Ashley Tucker (class of 2016) is here in electronic form to share her wisdom about life after graduation.

It feels like you’re alone on this journey now, but you really do have a network of support in us. I hope you’ll follow the department on social media, where you can find images and snippets from other alums and grads, and generally keep in touch with us.

It has been an interesting year, to say the least. In the fall, we couldn’t have imagined what was in store for us this term. We welcomed spoken word artist and public storyteller Regie Cabico to campus as our Bisson Lecturer in the Humanities; faculty took students to a number of plays and other events; we had two students—including one of our 2020 grads!—attend the inaugural Women’s Leadership Summit in Richmond; former creative writing faculty Katherine Zlabek returned for a reading from her new book of short stories; and so much more. Dr. K live recorded a talk on poetry of witness for the DelMarVa Public Radio; Dr. Rippy was honored with a research stipend for her work on Orson Welles; and Caren Colley-Trowbridge, who teaches French for us, earned an excellence in teaching award from the School of Design, Arts, and Humanities.

Since the COVID-19 lockdown, we’ve all learned a ton about time management, digital literacy, remote teamwork, and those key skills and attitudes about grit and persistence. We’ve also learned so much about the value of creativity and communication—in isolation, we come face to face with the work that art does. I hope you all continue to read, write, and explore, this summer and beyond. This is a challenging time to graduate, and it’s not what you expected; our economy today makes the prospect of entering the workforce even more daunting.

But, you have everything you need to flourish in the new world we’re entering. You’re curious, and you don’t take the party line at face value. You can write, you can research and distinguish good information from bad, you see the need we have for thoughtful, empathetic communication, you’re flexible and critical, and you can look at the world in creative, unconventional ways.

I won’t go into that all, though, because I really can’t do it any better than the alumni you’ll see tonight. So instead, I’ll get our unconventional Spring Celebration started with a poem, an example of the value of looking closely and finding just the right words to untangle the complexities of human experience.

This is a poem by Mary Oliver, an American poet who died in January of 2019, called “Starlings in Winter.” I chose it because it speaks to our reality now. We are individuals on our own, but also essential parts of a larger whole—the poem has a message of deep hope and resilience and taking inspiration from dark things into an unknown future.

Starlings in Winter

Chunky and noisy,
but with stars in their black feathers,
they spring from the telephone wire
and instantly

they are acrobats
in the freezing wind.
And now, in the theater of air,
they swing over buildings,

dipping and rising;
they float like one stippled star
that opens,
becomes for a moment fragmented,

then closes again;
and you watch
and you try
but you simply can’t imagine

how they do it
with no articulated instruction, no pause,
only the silent confirmation
that they are this notable thing,

this wheel of many parts, that can rise and spin
over and over again,
full of gorgeous life.

Ah, world, what lessons you prepare for us,
even in the leafless winter,
even in the ashy city.
I am thinking now
of grief, and of getting past it;

I feel my boots
trying to leave the ground,
I feel my heart
pumping hard. I want

to think again of dangerous and noble things.
I want to be light and frolicsome.
I want to be improbable beautiful and afraid of nothing,
as though I had wings.

Congratulations, Class of 2020. May you be improbable, beautiful, and afraid of nothing—may you go forth and think of dangerous and noble things.

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