BENNINGTON — Darren Walker, president of the Ford Foundation, a $14 billion international social justice philanthropy, will deliver the commencement address to graduating Bennington College seniors tonight, the start of a weekend of celebrations that bring a close to an academic year like no other.
Walker will deliver his remarks at the traditional senior formal dinner. His address will be streamed live at 7 p.m. through a link on the college’s website at https://www. bennington.edu/events/bennington-college- commencement. Students will also hear from Laura R. Walker, who is completing her first academic year as president of Bennington, and senior speaker Soumya Rachel Shailendra.
On Saturday morning, the seniors will gather on the Commons lawn on campus to receive their degrees, in ceremonies that begin at 10. This event will also be livestreamed for public viewing. The college expects to award 124 bachelor’s degrees, as well as three master of fine arts degrees and six post-baccalaureate certificates.
With precautions to prevent the spread of COVID-19 restricting the number of people who can be on campus, the college has taken steps to make sure that those who are watching from a distance will have a rewarding experience, too.
“This is a hybrid year, so there’ll be things happening live for the students on campus, but there will also be a lot more happening online than in previous years,” said Alexandra Dery Snider, director of communications for the college.
“The big thing about commencement was to find a way that really, really celebrated our students’ achievements, and mark that for family and friends and everyone who cares about them ... while keeping everyone safe,” Dery Snider said.
The changes include some subtractions, and some new additions. For instance, in past years, the formal Friday night dinner has been open to students’ guests and faculty members. This year, only the graduating seniors will attend. But they will have the chance to walk on the red carpet, broadcast on YouTube beginning at 5:30 p.m., and send messages home in real time via “Fam Cam.”
The seniors will each be allowed to have two guests at commencement exercises on Saturday morning, with all guests required to provide proof of vaccination and wearing masks. As in past years, the college’s trustees and faculty members will be in attendance.
According to Dery Snider, about 20 percent of the graduating seniors will be attending virtually. Arrangements have been made for them to appear in the livestreamed video as their names are called. “They’ll be on screen, the way they would be if they were here in person,” she said.
The college has relied on comprehensive testing throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, and as of Friday has no active cases. A total of 19,052 tests have been conducted, and 19 people have recovered from the disease.
“I think this community has done really well under President Walker’s leadership and Oceana Wilson’s, who’s the chair of the COVID task force, and partnerships in all different departments,” Dery Snider said. The question from the beginning, she said, was, “How can we provide the Bennington education in a safe way?”
“We’re so proud of how the community has gotten through all this, and we just want to end strong,” she said.
ABOUT THE SPEAKERS
The 2021 commencement speaker this year will be Darren Walker, president of the Ford Foundation. He is a member of New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s Reimagining New York Commission and co-chair of NYC Census 2020. He chaired the philanthropy committee that brought a resolution to the city of Detroit’s historic bankruptcy. Under his leadership, the Ford Foundation became the first non-profit in U.S. history to issue a $1 billion designated social bond in U.S. capital markets for proceeds to strengthen and stabilize non-profit organizations in the wake of COVID-19.
The 2021 senior speaker will be Soumya Rachel Shailendra ‘21. Soumya, who studied drama and literature during her time at Bennington, has not only focused on social movements and politics while in the classroom, but also helped create inclusive communities outside of the classroom. She was a founding student of the Consortium of Forced Migration, Displacement, and Education, and she encouraged meaningful conversations by starting an interfaith club for her peers. “Soumya’s passion and fierce dedication to equity and freedom — particularly in today’s challenging climate — will continue to shape the College and community for years to come,” the college said.
Music faculty member Michael Wimberly will be this year’s faculty speaker at commencement. He will address Bennington’s class of 2021 during the conferring of degrees on Saturday at 10 a.m. Wimberly is a celebrated and prolific composer/sound designer, and percussionist who has scored films such as “As An Act of Protest” and “Atlantic City Lights” for HBO. Wimberly has performed with funk legends Parliament Funkadelic, Brit songstress Joss Stone, and Steve Coleman’s 5 Elements. He received his MA in percussion from the Manhattan School of Music in New York, and his BA in percussion from Baldwin Wallace University/Conservatory in Berea, Ohio. Music of the African Diaspora and improvisation has become key components of Wimberly’s musical excavations and explorations. He released his latest album, “Afrofuturism,” on the Temple Mountain Record (TMR) in 2021.