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‘Make a mark for yourself’: Bard College at Simon’s Rock celebrates graduates

“I used to think a Simon’s Rock education was about going fast, college early, big ideas,” commencement speaker Michael Lawrence told graduates. “Now I think it’s about slowing down a little, making time and space to doubt, to dialogue, to discover, and to see these as actions, not ideas, that are crucial even and perhaps, especially when the world pushes you to speed up, get in line, and have it all figured out."

Great Barrington — Bard College at Simon’s Rock held its 55th commencement on Saturday, May 18, during which 106 students received their diplomas, including 77 Associate of Arts degrees and 29 Bachelor of Arts degrees.

A total of 106 students received their diplomas in Saturday’s commencement ceremony. Photo by Shaw Israel Izikson.
Diplomas included 77 Associate of Arts degrees, and 29 Bachelor of Arts degrees. Photo by Shaw Israel Izikson.

“Every year is remarkable, but some years are more remarkable than others,” Bard College at Simon’s Rock Provost and Vice President John Weinstein said in his opening remarks. “This year, those getting their bachelor’s degrees mostly came in the lovely time of August 2020 [during the pandemic]. They did things like get on a plane to a school they’d never seen before that their parents put them on. Or perhaps their parents dropped them off in a car that they were not permitted to get out of. I might have tapped on the window to say hello while I was wearing a mask. They all went through a variety of stages and phases that I hope will be detailed by archivists because they are forgotten quickly.”

Some of the 106 students who received their degrees on Saturday, May 18. Photo by Shaw Israel Izikson.
The audience was filled with families and friends of the students. Photo by Shaw Israel Izikson.
Some of the graduates looked back to catch a glimpse of their friends and families in the audience before taking their seats. Photo by Shaw Israel Izikson.

Weinstein added, “[g]enerally, the world was not to anyone’s liking” back in 2020 during the pandemic. “[The students in 2020] wanted in-person learning, they wanted close engagement, and they wanted the community doing things that many people thought would be impossible to have at that time,” he said. “This generation of students were dedicated to making that happen, and they did.”

Provost and Vice President of the college John Weinstein. Photo by Shaw Israel Izikson.

There were several references to the pandemic during the ceremony, including in the commencement address made by Michael Lawrence, who earned his Bachelor of Arts from Simon’s Rock in 2002. After he graduated, he worked for several internet companies as a self-described “professional word nerd.” He has worked at Meta, Indeed, and eBay working on content design and UX writing.

“Despite the disruption of a global pandemic, you’ve earned these degrees, demonstrating a depth and fluency and integrity of thought that is very difficult and very rare,” Lawrence said. “That you could get here, that you could thrive here, that we could gather here together today, none of this was guaranteed. There is so much to celebrate. And now we’re sending you forth into a world that badly needs your contributions, which is a nice way of saying: They’re kicking you out.”

Bard College at Simon’s Rock graduate Michael Lawrence ’22 delivering this year’s commencement address. Photo by Shaw Israel Izikson.

In his speech, Lawrence spoke about figuring out his educational path while attending Simon’s Rock, as well as his career path following graduation. “When I was a student here, I avoided the ‘figure it out’ question whenever possible,” Lawrence said. “I barely managed to pick a concentration. I just took whatever classes sounded interesting from whichever professors I wanted to learn from. Linguistics, law, design, critical theory, queer theory, film theory. When they finally made me pick something, I argued that all of these could count toward the ‘Cultural Studies’ concentration, and they let me keep going.”

After graduation, Lawrence worked at a New York City high school started by fellow Simon’s Rock administrators. “I continued to avoid figuring it out by going to grad school, where I earned my PhD and then did the next obvious thing, which was teaching at a liberal arts college,” he said. “And then, everything fell apart. A round of cuts eliminated my department and my faculty position. Like it or not, a decade after my graduation, I was again right where [you, the graduates,] are, being told I’d have to leave college. Then I picked six new words: ‘Okay fine. I’ll figure it out.’ And you know what I figured out? I figured out that figuring it out can be a miserable waste of time. During all the years I had avoided the question, I was doing a lot of things right. I was doing work I enjoyed, making an impact I was proud of. Without knowing it, I’d been doing the things the career books recommend. I had made moves that resonated with my values, that piqued my curiosity, that took advantage of my skills, that sounded fun, that paid enough to meet my needs. I had reached out for help, and let people I trusted point me toward interesting opportunities. I explored with an open mind, and rather than worry too much about perfection or passion, I went where I could learn something new and be helpful. I think that’s how you do it, that’s how you keep going.”

“I used to think a Simon’s Rock education was about going fast, college early, big ideas,” Lawrence continued. “Now I think it’s about slowing down a little, making time and space to doubt, to dialogue, to discover, and to see these as actions, not ideas, that are crucial even and perhaps, especially when the world pushes you to speed up, get in line, and have it all figured out. As a fellow alum, as someone who has spent many years in many classrooms, I know there is nothing quite like the intellectual experience you have had here. As someone who now works in an industry where little decisions can have enormous consequences, I know how desperately the world needs you to put that education to work.
Beyond that, I can’t know what you will do with these degrees, and neither can you. That’s more than okay, it’s the whole point.”

Class of 2024 speaker Heloisa Stepan, who graduated with an Associate of Arts degree. Photo by Shaw Israel Izikson.
Class of 2024 speaker Jake Vero Aloia, who graduated with a Bachelor of Arts degree. Photo by Shaw Israel Izikson.
College President Leon Botstein. Photo by Shaw Israel Izikson.

“I’m supposed to leave you with some lasting piece of advice, but my capacity to do so does not exist,” College President Leon Botstein told graduates. “But rather than give up, I have just very few small points for you to think about. This has been a very difficult year for American academic life. I can’t remember any more of a difficult year, and it isn’t quite over. So what did we learn? First of all, we’ve learned from Simon’s Rock in particular that being big is not a virtue, and being big doesn’t ensure that you can cultivate the qualities of mind that university and college are supposed to do. What we prove at the end of the day, despite A.I., is that the process of learning is a human process in real time between people. Being small is a virtue. That’s not what big business thinks, and that’s not what Meta thinks, and that’s not [the mindset of] all those other lovely large, multinational, repressive corporations we have to deal with that controls and invade our private lives.”

“We need more respect for the intimate, small, and unique that Simon’s Rock represents,” Botstein continued. “The second [point] is that [the college] is poor, unbelievably poor. We have no money. When you recover from the laughter, you will discover that is a virtue. We have nothing to divest. Our vision is not to be an investment bank. With whatever money we have, we spend it on teaching and learning, and not in the stock market.”

Botstein added, “I know you haven’t used every moment efficiently, but efficiency is not about learning. It is those downtimes that lead to those times of insight. We’re not machines. The reality is that in terms of learning, if you take what you are learning seriously, the work that you will do will be outstanding. We’ve provided you the freedom and the opportunity to make a mark, for yourself and by yourself through the use of your mind and your imagination. And that requires freedom. The virtue of being small and cool means that you will never have an occasion to invite law enforcement to keep order on campus.” He added, “but that requires, on your part, the ability to listen to somebody you don’t agree with.”

“Those diplomas have only one thing on them: your name,” Botstein told the graduates. “Not your race, not your religion, not your nationality, not your sexual preference, and not your gender. [Your diploma has] your name, and that represents the uniqueness of who you are.”

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