112 beginnings, 1 ending: SVC holds last graduation
Students, faculty and staff say goodbye to campus, don't forget the place
BENNINGTON — It was, by all appearances, a perfect Saturday at Southern Vermont College.
Cars streamed into campus and filled up the lots. A cloudless sky blazed behind the brilliant green of the mountains. Sunshine warmed the air to that ever-so-delicate not-too-hot, not-too-cold temperature.
Young women and men donned black gowns and accessorized with silky green sashes. On their heads, they wore caps with handmade slogans like "She Believed She Could, and She Did" and "Game of Loans: Interest is Coming."
Everyone milled around the stone walls of Everett Mansion, waiting for 1 p.m. to arrive. Students lined up, chatting and hugging passing professors. The rest of the faculty, staff and administrators stood nearby, some remaining stoic while others danced and belted out songs like Eurythmics' "Sweet Dreams (Are Made of This)."
Two members of the Taconic Pipe Band took their places and, with the call of the bagpipe and the rat-a-tat-tat of the Scottish tenor drum, signaled the start of SVC's 92nd commencement ceremony. The procession marched down the mansion steps, across the rolling lawn and through a tunnel of cheering family and friends before assembling beneath a large white tent.
It wasn't until people sat down, until board of trustees chair David Newell took the podium, until he asked the crowd to applaud SVC's trustees, its president and its faculty, and until everyone gave the last group a standing ovation that brought tears to professors' eyes, that it became clear: this wasn't just another graduation at SVC. It was the last.
SVC announced on March 4 that it would close at the end of its spring semester due to financial difficulties. In the couple months since, the SVC community has faced one uncertainty after another: whether the institution might be saved, whether faculty would be paid their final checks, whether the ceremony for 112 graduates and certificate recipients might be canceled.
Mia Prouty, who graduated with an associate's degree in psychology on Saturday, and who plans to continue her education at Northern Vermont University, said that she couldn't engage in that uncertainty or think about her time at SVC ending until very recently.
"It was the only way I could make it," she said. "Then the last week, I broke down."
On graduation day, though, Prouty was looking to her future, and to what she hoped to find there: kind professors like at SVC, and a similar opportunity to mentor young adults with learning and social challenges like she did for SVC's College Steps program.
College Steps students Isabel Mazzola and Alyvia Metcalfe said they would attend nearby schools like Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts or the Community College of Vermont after this year. But on Saturday, they were focused on enjoying the day.
"It's a day of celebration," Mazzola said.
Metcalfe said she was happy to have her father, Geoff, there to cheer her on.
Claude Payne, who graduated with a bachelor's degree in business administration, similarly expressed his gratitude.
"It's meaningful to be the last class," he said.
These kinds of attitudes were what president David Evans called "the SVC way" in an emotional speech during the commencement ceremony.
"You've faced huge challenges this spring," Evans said. "But you've kept fighting, kept going, kept trying. I thank you for that."
Keynote speaker Reverend Dr. Thomas Redden noted that SVC would not die even if its doors were closing.
"Southern Vermont College lives on," he said. "It lives on in all of us. It also lives on in the world, in the work we are doing."
Hunter Division of Humanities Chair Dr. Daisy Levy noted how places like SVC can't be defined solely by campus property boundaries.
"It can be tempting to think of place as something concrete, something unmovable, something that can be priced, bought and sold on a market," she said. "While it certainly can be assessed for financial value, place is much larger and more complicated than that."
Levy acknowledged that the 371 acres belonging to SVC were — and still are — a valuable place for the Western Abenaki of the Wabanaki confederacy, the people indigenous to N'dakina, also known as Vermont, Maine, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, New York and Quebec.
"It's more accurate to understand place by seeing the people and the relationships that have accumulated there, all of them, in all of the daily and yearly paths they have walked, the conversations they have shared with each other, the labor and sweat they have poured into those relationships," Levy said.
She added, "Our place lives in the wide and varied imaginations of all who have moved through it. Bring it with you everywhere you go."
Student speaker and creative writing bachelor's degree recipient Alena Hunt said she planned to do just that.
"No matter where I go from here, this will always be my home and my second family," she said. "People do not need a house to be a family. They do not need a campus or a mansion, as pretty as they are. We are a family because of each other."
Following Saturday's commencement ceremony, members of the SVC family trickled out of the white tent and towards that pretty, Everett Mansion. There they gathered, enjoyed refreshments, and walked in the path of their place, one last time.
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