Bennington College awards 186 degrees in virtual commencement

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BENNINGTON — Saturday marked the 85th commencement for Bennington College, and it was unlike any other. For the first time in the college's history, all graduation festivities were held online.

The coronavirus forced the college to end in-person instruction on March 13. On March 30, classes resumed online for the remainder of the spring semester.

There were 182 students recognized as graduates during the ceremony. Each name was read by a staff or faculty member who was instrumental during their time at Bennington College, accompanied by a photo of the graduate.

More than 80 Bennington faculty members nominated the graduates for their degrees through virtual applause when asked by interim President Isabel Roche for their approval. The chairman of the board of trustees, Nick Stephens, then officially granted the 182 students their degrees.

Besides not gathering for in-person celebrations, the format of the commencement remained consistent with prior years. Commencement eve, featuring speeches from senior speaker Deja' Haley '20 and commencement speaker Nigel Poor '86, took place Friday at 7 p.m. The conferring of degrees took place at noon on Saturday, with faculty speaker Phillip B. Williams addressing students.

Poor shared the excitement she felt when she was asked to be this year's commencement speaker, and was ready to come back to Vermont from her California home. The coronavirus changed those plans, and Poor's message to the 2020 graduates was one of perseverance.

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"I get that you are graduating into a world that feels unwelcoming," Poor said. "You have to dig deep, see the person that you are, and make a list of the talents you have, and the things that you care about, and put them to use."

Williams echoed that sentiment during his speech, and urges graduates to not let fear stop them.

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"We can say now, with honesty, that we have lost the school we were promised because of a pandemic," Williams said. "When does change promise to comfort us as it conforms us?"

Haley shared her experience of coming from Philadelphia to Bennington. She challenged her classmates to be present in the moment.

"Cherish the people that come into your life, even if it is for a short period of time," Haley said.

Planning a virtual graduation is not a normal thing to do. Events manager Nicole Arrington wanted to ensure the ceremony was more than just a video.

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"We wanted to transcend this physical distance by creating for students something that was deeply personal, distinctive, and communal," Arrington said. "We wanted them to know that we are holding them in our hearts. We're deeply grateful to the students, faculty, staff, and especially the speakers Deja' Haley, Nigel Poor, and Phillip B. Williams for all the creativity and thoughtfulness they brought, which helped make this a celebratory community event."

A video collage of students experiences during their time at Bennington College was also a part of the 53-minute graduation ceremony.

Bennington College also shared a congratulatory video featuring faculty and staff. They also surprised graduates with keepsake boxes filled with mementos from Bennington. Graduates were also given the option to download printable graduation announcements, digital photo frames, and congratulatory posters for free from the college's website.

Senior week, which gives students the opportunity to share their capstone projects, also went digital this year. The college felt it was important to find a way to share the students hard work with the community.

The 2020 graduates have been invited by Bennington College to attend the 2021 commencement ceremonies for a traditional in-person celebration.


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