Acting President Jonathan Chenette presided over Vassar’s 149th Commencement ceremony on May 26, conferring Bachelor of Arts degrees to 612 graduating students in the college’s Outdoor Amphitheater. United States Senator for New York Kirsten Gillibrand delivered the Commencement Address.
Gillibrand began her remarks by pointing to what she called Vassar’s “strong sense of justice, community, and bold activism.” Those words might as well have been chosen to describe the senator herself.
She told the audience that she was inspired by the example of her grandmother to enter public service. Her elder never went to college and worked as a secretary in the state legislature in Albany, but she had been determined to give women a voice in politics. She rallied women in the legislature and female voters in Upstate New York to get involved in politics, and the activist organization she helped to found ran political campaigns for nearly 50 years.
Gillibrand said she was further encouraged by First Lady Hillary Rodham Clinton’s historic speech on women’s rights during her trip to Beijing. “I was incredibly inspired by her at that moment,” said Gillibrand, who had spent time in Beijing and even learned Mandarin. “I knew how powerful it was for her as the First Lady to be giving that speech at that time in that place to that audience.” Gillibrand was working as an attorney in a large law firm in New York City at the time, but she said, “That’s what spurred me to get off the sidelines and focus on making a difference.”
Prior to the Senate, Gillibrand served in the U.S. House of Representatives, representing New York’s 20th Congressional District, which spanned 10 counties in Upstate New York.
Gillibrand was appointed United States Senator in January 2009, after President Obama appointed Hillary Clinton, then a U.S. Senator from New York, as U.S. Secretary of State. In November 2012, Gillibrand was elected to her first six-year Senate term with 72 percent of the vote, winning in 60 of New York’s 62 counties—the largest statewide electoral margin of victory in the state’s history.
During her time in the Senate, Gillibrand was among the key leaders who helped to repeal the “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy that banned gay people from serving openly in the military. She also led the effort to gain special healthcare and compensation to the 9/11 first responders and community survivors. And her work to bring Democrats and Republicans together on such legislative victories led Newsweek/The Daily Beast to name her one of “150 Women Who Shake the World.”
The message to graduates was that they could make a difference, too. “You have a history of saying ‘why not!’ here at Vassar,” she told the audience. “Why not” social justice and equality, she asked.
The Alumnae and Alumni of Vassar College (AAVC) president and media innovator Geraldine Bond Laybourne ’69 welcomed graduating seniors into the fold, assuring them that Vassar and their fellow alumnae/i would be there for them long after they left through Main Gate. “I got my job at Nickelodeon because a Vassar grad 20 years older than I opened a door,” she told the graduates, adding, “You think your Vassar time is ending. But, for me, Vassar never gets ‘stale dated.’ It has always been defining and lifelong. And I hope the same for you.”
In the days preceding graduation, the Vassar community participated in a variety of intimate rituals honoring graduating seniors. Students of Asian and Pacific Island descent were feted during the traditional Lei Ceremony, while black students were presented with African kente cloths to honor their heritage and achievements. A Lavender Reception was held for LGBTQI students, their families, and their allies.
At the annual Baccalaureate Service, presented by the Council of Black Seniors (CBS), Pastor Joseph Tolton ’89, national minister of global justice for The Fellowship of Affirming Ministries and associate pastor for social justice at Rehoboth Church in Harlem, served as the keynote speaker. During the ceremony, CBS honored civil rights lawyer and University of Maryland law professor Sherrilyn Ifill ’84, recently named president and director-counsel of the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, with its Class of 1991 Alumnae/i Award. It also presented the J-Task Award to Nicole Savage ’08, assistant director of admissions—the honor is annually bestowed upon an administrator or staff member who has contributed significant support to students of color during their four years at the college.