Rainy day turns sunny for College’s outdoor 115th Commencement
Nearly 480 Saint Michael’s graduates in Class of 2022 hear Catholic environmentalist Dan Misleh exhort them to make climate change action a priority, but in a spirit of joy, gratitude
COLCHESTER, VT – A spirit of deep gratitude and joy should animate each person joining the overwhelming but urgent work of tackling climate change, a leading Catholic environmentalist told nearly 480 Saint Michael’s College 2022 graduates on a rainy Sunday morning for the College’s outdoor 115th Commencement on May 15.
“We must all do our part to save the earth from our own selfishness and our own foolishness,” said Dan Misleh, founder of Catholic Climate Covenant and longtime activist to address global warming.
He reminded graduates and their families, mostly soaked or under College-provided waterproof ponchos on the lawn in front of Durick Library for the 10 a.m. Commencement, that they already had come unexpectedly through two years of pandemic and even a rainy march to this ceremony — “no small matter” in either case– demonstrating true grit and promise for future perseverance.
Marnie Owen, registrar & assistant dean for Academic Affairs, said earlier in the week that 409 undergraduates and 73 graduate students expected to participate as “walkers” in Sunday’s ceremony. Receiving an honorary doctorate along with the speaker Misleh was Mary-Kate McKenna ’80, a highly successful professional in the finance field and a dedicated volunteer for the College, including three terms on the Saint Michael’s Board of Trustees, two as chair. She was Alumna of the Year in 2005.
While rain was steady-to-heavy prior to and during the procession from Alliot Student Center to the ceremony — led by bagpipers through a gauntlet of cheering faculty by the chapel and then family members and staff — thunderstorms happily stayed away, allowing a full program to proceed. Colorful umbrellas could be seen everywhere during the procession, but were not allowed at the ceremony in order to preserve sightlines for all attendees.
Saint Michael’s President Lorraine Sterritt said near the start of the ceremony that the environment needs some rain anyhow — and since the day’s speaker was an environmentalist, “we arranged to have some today.” Sterritt said she had a message for that rain: “You can rain all you want but you will never dampen the spirit of the Class of 2022!” By the time the last graduate strode across the Durick Library steps serving as the dais about two and a half hours later, the sun was shining, observed the president.
President Sterritt told the graduates that by persevering through all they have come through, they are well prepared by Saint Michael’s to take on the world: prepared to think, to think for themselves, to think of new solutions, to think of others, to think about the environment, to think about faith. She went on to say they also are prepared to learn from others, from new experiences, and to care about outcomes, others and for and about themselves. “Continue to think, to learn, and to care,” Sterritt said.
As ever, academic achievement was front and center. As the day’s top prizes, the Katherine Fairbanks Memorial Award and the Father Prevel Memorial Award annually go to students “who demonstrate commitment and achievement related to the intellectual, spiritual, moral and social values of Saint Michael’s College.” The Fairbanks winner this year was Alexyah Dethvongsa, a first-generation student form Laconia, NH, majoring in international relations and public health with a peace and justice minor. She studied abroad in Nepal to examine health care inequities, did a virtual internship in Vietnam advocating for developmentally disabled children, and was active in many clubs, organizations and internships. The Prevel Award went to James Downs, a triple major in English, history and religious studies from Winchester, MA, who carried a 3.99 GPA and was inducted into Phi Beta Kappa. He was a cross-country varsity captain, very active in campus ministry and admissions, and a writing and math tutor. He has a job as a copy editor with National Journal in DC starting soon.
The day’s Master of Ceremonies Jeffrey Trumbower, vice president for academic affairs, also commended those 64 seniors completing the College Honors program, along with the 4.0 valedictory group who at the end led the class from the commencement site. This year’s 4.0 GPA students were: Alexia Marie Amaio, Emma Frances Bisaillon, Benoit Fumeaux, Celeste Lianne Matte, Ciarra Nichole McConnell, Elizabeth Anne Pedley. Reading graduates’ names as they received diplomas were Political Science/International Studies Professor Jeffrey Ayres for bachelor of arts, and Associate Dean Tim Mackin for bachelor of science.
Speaker keys on gratitude, climate
Catholic Climate Covenant that the Commencement Speaker Dan Misleh founded is a partnership of 20 national Catholic organizations engaged in a serious and sustained conversation about climate change, focused on promotion of the common good, protection of the poor, and the exercise of prudence. The Covenant’s outreach, organizing, and advocacy efforts have attracted more than 30,000 Catholic groups and individuals to support and carry out its mission. The group also provides educational materials to youth, young adults, parishes, and other Catholic organizations.
Misleh started by recalling his own graduation 40 years ago from Xavier University in Ohio and shortly after heading to Alaska with the Jesuit Volunteer Corps. He met his wife there and now is father to three kids. He shared about suffering the “unspeakable tragedy” five years ago of the death of his youngest, dramatizing for him “tragic failures of our disjointed health care system” that stigmatizes mental illness for both victims and loved ones. The point, he said, is that “so much can happen in 40 years.”
He transitioned to his central topic by recalling a niece at a family dinner telling him once as he groused about his mission’s immense challenges that “nobody said saving the Earth was going to be easy.”
”Every decision we make about what we buy, how we move, how we keep ourselves cool or warm or make a living impacts the future of our planet and its people,” he said, adding that we must “fully embrace the scientific fact that we are a part of creation, not apart from creation.” He quoted naturalist John Muir on how all things in the universe are connected. He told the class they have a lot of tools from their education, but he stressed the importance of the attitude that they bring to their climate change work or other enterprises, quoting Pope Francis from his environmental encyclical Laudato si’ that we must “sing as we go.”
“May our struggles and concerns for this planet never take away the joy of our hope,” he said, adding, “nobody likes a grim do-gooder.” He said without joy, which to him is a by-product of gratitude, “we will quickly flame out and become desperate and paralyzed.” He recalled a visit to an orphanage in Africa in his work once, describing how moved he was to receive gifts from children there who had nothing, but gave with such joy and generosity. He said he was “overwhelmed with gratitude for such honest and beautiful gifts, for kindness and joy.”
“The more you appreciate life and family, and especially this vulnerable earth,” he said, “the easier it is to be grateful” — for flowers, gentle rain, children’s laughter. He told them to thank people, from their parents to those cleaning their vacated rooms or feeding them, and “be kind” since we never know others’ stories. “Thank you to the graduates for who you are, who you will become, and thank you for the hope you bring all of us as you venture forth – now go get ’em” he concluded.
Other ceremony highlights in brief: Elizabeth Vallatini ’22 led singing of the National Anthem; Fr. Brian Cummings, SSE ’86, director of Edmundite Campus Ministry, offered the Invocation, while Campus Minister Anna Lester ’98 gave the Benediction. The ceremony was dedicated to retiring or departing faculty: Mary Beth Doyle (education), Tara Natarajan (economics), Robert Niemi, (English), Reza Ramazani (economics), Alayne Schroll (chemistry), Joan Wry (English); it also was dedicated to those important community figures who died in the past year: the late Rev. Raymond Doherty, SSE ’51 (campus ministry), Stephan Kellner (chemistry) and Carole Parker (business).
Late Saturday afternoon in the Chapel of Saint Michael the Archangel was the well-attended Baccalaureate Mass at 4 p.m., with alumnus Fr. Patrick Forman ’85 from Barre’s St. Monica parish presiding, joined by most of the resident Edmundites on the altar. Also present was President Sterritt and many trustees, plus graduates and their families filling the main nave. Music was from Jerome Monachino ‘91 and his liturgical ensemble/choir.
The graduate address during the Sunday Commencement was from Malcom Hutt, receiving his clinical psychology master’s degree. He said perspective was everything, and that each person could be the light in another’s life even if that is not always immediately apparent. “No matter how small we might feel, to someone else, you are more important than they could ever express,” he reminded graduates.
The undergraduate speaker, Gabriella Dicomitis, spoke of the support she valued from her “Saint Michael’s family” when hard times hit in her life in her college years. She thanked a host of faculty and staff personally, and challenged classmates to make a genuine effort to stay in touch and continue a relationship with at least one classmate.
Patrick Fitzgibbons ‘89, vice president of the College Alumni Association Board, welcomed the new graduates to the alumni ranks and urged them to use the resources of the alumni network. An outdoor reception for graduates, families and faculty/staff followed the ceremony. The rain had stopped and the sun was out.