Class of 2020 commencement recognizes resilience in adversity after a delay in ceremony schedule

By Victoria Gill-Gomez

News Editor

After months of delay, Washington College’s 237th Commencement Ceremony was streamed to the students of the Class of 2020 on Saturday, Oct. 17. The ceremony was a pre-recorded video that premiered on YouTube at 10:30 a.m. 

In the time of COVID-19, the clips prior to the introductions of the ceremony showed drone footage of familiar spots around Chestertown. Commencement speakers were placed in various frames of the WC campus, including Decker Theatre in the Daniel Z. Gibson Center for the Arts, the Cater Walk, and Bunting Hall. 

Interim President of the College Dr. Wayne Powell virtually greeted students, faculty, staff, and families watching the event. 

In his short time at WC, Dr. Powell said he has learned “great things about this graduating class, and I look forward to the day where we can all be here together in person.”

Following introductions, the Invocations was offered by Chestertown Pastor Leon Frison, and the national anthem sung was by Megan Deitrich ‘20.

Normally, according to Dr. Powell, the ceremony would include loved ones of the graduates standing for collective applause, but due to the format, he invited students to turn and show appreciation for their family’s support, as now they look to them “for newfound wisdom in all they say and do,” as this price is both a privilege and a responsibility.

“You are entering a world today that is like none any of us has ever seen before,” Dr. Powell said. This “nasty little thing called COVID” is an issue that will be with the nation for some time, causing more unrest than before the outbreak. He added that the virus has changed the way individuals interact with each other. “I have met none of you in person, and that is a minor example of what I miss.”

“These are times that test our resolve, our resilience, and yes, our patience. As difficult as it may seem, this is your moment. The world is waiting for your leadership, and you are ready,” Dr. Powell said.

Among this “smart group,” according to Powell, four are first honor graduates, nearly a quarter of the class earned departmental honors, 22% are double majors, 21% earned Latin honors, 16% are first-generation college students, and half have completed at least one internship.

As a student’s interdisciplinary experience within a Liberal Arts setting prepares them with the knowledge, curiosity, and inquiry for everyday injustices, Dr. Powell said he has hope for the future.

“You are willing to fight for social justice…concerned students have inspired the College to acknowledge and uncover the institution’s authentic past; and showing true leadership by building a truly inclusive community,” he said.

The ceremony then moved onto the senior class speaker, Ryan Zweir ‘20. A double major in computer science and mathematics, with a minor in Asian studies, he is now working as a system engineer in Virginia.

Quoting the Dali Lama, Zweir mentioned the anxiety clouding the current state of the world and the necessity to stay present as “Man sacrifices his health to make money. Then he sacrifices his money to recuperate his health…The result being that he does not live in the present or the future: he lives as if he is never going to die, and then dies as if he never really lived.”

Zweir reminded students about how much they have adapted and overcome in these last few months.

“What can happen in the future might scare you, but it’s only a thought. There is no guarantee that tomorrow will arrive, so seize the moment,” Zweir said.

Following Zweir’s speech was a message from Stephen Golding ’72, chair of the Board of Visitors and Governors.

Golding expressed his congratulations and appreciation from the Board to all of those who were watching the event, saying that their “tenacity and experience” is being tested as the pandemic rages on, a new civil rights movement gains momentum alongside the political climate, and climate change.

“We are finding ways to connect with one another and to perform the work necessary to ensure the health and human dignity and economic welfare of every one of us,” he said.

Legacy, according to Golding, will not be defined by the abrupt changes of last spring but how graduates decide to imprint the world going forward as it is experiencing its own social disruption.

“Being a citizen leader is not easy. And as we too strive to harness the forces of social, economic, and political change, we too in this modern age were reminded of our own imperfections. That realizing can be both empowering and humbling,” Golding said.

Suzanne Hewes ’91, chair of the Alumni Board, presented the Alumni Citation award to John Dimsdale ’73 and Judy Brucker ’86.

The Alumni Citation was created in 1952 to recognize outstanding alumni. It is the highest honor the Alumni Board can bestow on its members, according to Hewes, and is presented to alumni who make significant contributions to or accomplishments in their career or in their field of study, community, or public service.

Dimsdale, a previous international studies major, was recognized for his work in radio and journalism, specifically his experience on National Public Radio, covering multiple White House-related stories about policy and the state of the civil rights movement.

Not having been introduced to the Eastern Shore or WC when applying from overseas, Dimsdale said this recognition “just serves to reinforce what I already knew, that picking WC was one of the best decisions I ever made.”

Professor Emeritus George Spilich of the Psychology Department nominated Brucker because of how she exemplifies “our ideal of living a life of purpose.”

During her time as an attorney in Illinois, Brucker primarily focused on prosecuting individuals who committed sex crimes against children. 

A “relentless and fearless prosecutor,” according to Spilich, Brucker made a huge difference for thousands of children, many of whom had cases spanning several years.

Hewes added that Brucker’s career included many tenants of WC: leadership, civic responsibility, lifelong learning, and moral courage.

Brucker said that her time at the College enlightened her that making a difference in the world is what she needed to do.

She recited Ina Hughe’s poem, “We Pray for Children.”

“What I ask of you today is that you go into the world today and do well, and more importantly, you go into the world and do good,” Brucher said.

Last spring, WC started an initiative to celebrate the College’s history and pay tribute to the class of 2020 by renaming Hartford Hall.

Nominations by the student body spanned over three centuries, including various alumni, faculty, and leaders. After narrowing down three possible names, the graduating class honored the late Thomas E. Morris 62, the first Black graduate of WC.

After his graduation, he served others by working for the Peace Corps, then teaching mathematics in secondary and higher education institutions.

Morris’s wife, Dr. Mellasenah Morris, accepted the award on his behalf.

“Our children and I recognize the significance of engraving Thomas’s name on a Washington College hall. For us, it reflects on the last impact of Thomas’s legacy as WC’s first Black student and graduate. Thomas accepted the challenge of being the first with serious purpose and dedicated himself to creating paths for others to follow,” Dr. Morris said.

According to his wife, Morris was a man who never self-pitied or complained and would have encouraged others to be patient and strong if he was going through a similar situation like the pandemic during his time at the College.

For 27 years, Morris, through tutoring and mentoring Baltimore-area students about the wonders of mathematics, showed his genuine care about the outcome of his students outside of academia.

These previous students continue to talk to Dr. Morris to this day about her late husband’s excellence, compassion, and expectations of their best work. His lasting impacts are his love for his family, which were influenced by his education and personal experiences at the College.

“Class of 2020, the education that you and my late husband received is a privilege that cannot be taken from you…[Morris] would have confidence in the contributions that you will make in moving this institution and this country toward more inclusivity, a healthier environment, and a more just society,” Dr. Morris said.

Former Black Student Union President Jocelyn Elmore ’20 followed Dr. Morris, saying that when the option to rename Harford Hall arose, “this was an opportunity to make history.”

Elmore and her friend, former Student Government Association Secretary of Diversity and Inclusion Felicia Attor ’20 presented Morris’s nomination to fellow senior BSU members for their support.

Elmore said that renaming the dormitory after the first Black student of WC has immense significance as it not only “acknowledges the existence of Black students on the College’s campus, but it also honors the legacy of his legacy and endurance as the first and the trials and tribulations of being the first.”

It also represents the change that BSU and student allies have been fighting for, as well as hope for future Black students.

Attor added her thanks, also taking the moment to reflect on an old Ghanian under crest symbol called Sankofa — a bird with its feet pointed forward and beak pointed to its back — translating as “to go back and take it; never forgetting one’s history and always be deliberate and purposeful in allowing the past to shape the future.”

As this match is now lit, according to Attor in this metaphor, “we now move forward in dialogue and diligent actions to bring forth a future of integrity…and hope for a future devoid of hate.”

The deep respect the College has towards the integrity of an individual and a desire for significant advances in society was also recognized as this year’s honorary degree, a doctorate of public service, was presented to Dr. Sylvia Acevedo, chief executive officer of the Girl Scouts of America.

An individual who has “always dreamed big. Literally reaching for the stars,” Dr. Powell said, Dr. Acevedo has spent her career empowering girls with the skills to have a bigger hand within STEM education and careers after facing much discrimination in higher education and the field as a Hispanic woman.

Dr. Acevedo shared anecdotal advice from her own experiences as a student and a once up-and-coming scientist. To overcome life challenges, both expected and unexpected, as one of the few women in her field, hiring her was “risky,” she said.

But those possible employers, Dr. Acevedo said, were not ready for her yet. Even though it is not what she planned, she spent the time doing more research and focusing on herself and her ideals.  

“Being rejected is not a failure that could not be overcome…those failures strengthened my resolve, my resilience, [and] persistence, and fostered this undaunted mindset that propelled my career,” Dr. Acevedo said. “I chose to get involved and make a difference in public service.”

According to her, just like now, there are a lot of challenges and an opportunity to try things to make a difference in the lives of others.

These skills are timeless, Dr. Acevedo said, relating this necessity of persistence to the establishment of the 19th Amendment for a woman’s right to vote. Originally, Dr. Acevedo was planning to give this piece shortly after the centennial anniversary of this historic event.

“And, yes, being a graduate at this time is tough. The specific job you want may not be available. You may have to take an alternate path. Use the opportunity to reset, get back up, and try again. It may not match your exact dreams or your timelines but, like my journey, it could even be better,” Dr. Acevedo said.

Afterwards, Interim Dean and Provost of the College Dr. Michael Harvery announced, each student of the Class of 2020 in order of class rank.

After each student and their accomplishments were acknowledged, Dr. Harvey announced the highest honors and prizes that are awarded by the WC faculty. These were originally announced in May but it felt necessary, according to Dr. Harvey, to announce them on this occasion.

The first awards were outstanding scholarship in particular fields of study and recognition of personal excellence.

The Jane Houston Goodfellow Memorial Prize is awarded to a graduating senior who majors in science, shows abiding appreciation for the arts and humanities, and demonstrates scholastic excellence. 

The award was given to Despina Thomas ’20.

The Gold Pentagon Awards were given to former Vice President of SGA Caitlin Creasey ’20 and former President of SGA Nicholas Gottimoller ’20. It was also awarded to alumna and friend of the College Barbara Townsend Cromwell ’55.

The six Sophie Kerr Finalists were Kailani Clarke ’20, Gabrielle Rente ’20, Heber Guerra-Recinos ’20, Saoirse ’20, Mary Sprague ’20, and Abby Wargo ’20. Sprague was the recipient of the Sophie Kerr award.

The Louis L. Goldstein ’35 Award went to Jacob Vassalotti ’20 who, in the opinion of the faculty, demonstrated unusual interest, enthusiasm, and potential in the field of public affairs.

The Eugene B. Casey Medal is given to a senior woman voted by the faculty to be outstanding in the qualities of scholarship, character, leadership, and campus citizenship. This was awarded to Sophia Grabiec ’20.

The Henry WC Catlin 1894 Medal is given to a male senior of the same qualities. It was awarded to Gottimoller.

The Clark-Porter Medal was awarded to Elmore, whose character and personal integrity, in the opinion of the faculty, have most clearly enhanced the quality of campus life. This award was presented by Charles B. Clark ’34 in memory of Harry B. Porter, class of 1905.

The George Washington Medal and Award, given to the senior with the greatest promise, understanding, and realizing of the ideals of a liberal arts education in their life and work, was awarded to Lauren Frick ’20.

In his closing remarks, Dr. Powell encouraged these “new best ambassadors…for the value of the liberal arts” to continue to stay connected with the College as they hope to properly celebrate as soon as it is safe to do so.

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