LEWISTON — On what Bates College President Clayton Spencer called “a perfect day,” 498 members of the Class of 2022 graduated after one of the most unusual academic journeys in the liberal arts college’s long history.
“Look at us! We did it!” said Teresa Chico, a senior selected to speak at the 2 1/2 hour opening ceremony.
The day began with faculty members and students in their caps and gowns lining up along the Alumni Walk to take part in a procession that would take them to the ceremony at the Historic Quad in front of the old Coram Library building.
The bell on Hathorn Hall rang repeatedly just before 9:20 am. A bagpiper then began playing, and within minutes the soon-to-be graduate students were on their way to their seats, their degrees, and their futures beyond Bates.
The keynote speaker, Dr. Nirav Shah, director of the Maine Center for Disease Control & Prevention since 2019, urged them to “go out there and ‘be someone’.”
While stuck in traffic with his ailing father a few years ago, Shah said he saw the two-word slogan painted on a rusting railroad bridge in Houston and it struck him as a bit of poetry and a worthy suggestion.
Shah, who is leading Maine through his surprisingly successful efforts to limit the toll of COVID-19, told the graduates that after 9/11 they grew up in a time of parade of afflictions, from terrorism to recession to the pandemic.
“The world has given you more than your share,” he said. “Your generation has seen so much and responded with wit, creativity, righteous anger, and a determination to take the reality you’ve been given and improve on it.
“Even during COVID you have managed to thrive in absurd conditions, some of which I have imposed.”
Spencer told the graduates that after experiencing the pandemic, it was “blindly obvious” that their lives are connected to many forces far beyond Bates, including racism, war and climate change.
Shah said “humility, humanity and humor” – traits he learned from his father – “helped you be someone who graduates from Bates College” and are also tools for what comes next.
Chico, a New Yorker who is the first in her family to graduate from college, said it took a while, but with some help from a film class taught by Professor Charles Nero, she learned that she wasn’t just Lucky to be with Bates. She realized that she belonged there too.
“We’ve all grown in the last four years,” she said. “It’s almost impossible to have such an experience and leave the other side completely unimpressed.”
Before they even completed their sophomore year at the Lewiston campus, this year’s graduates were sent home at short notice as the COVID-19 pandemic began to run amok.
Students reverted to a set of ever-changing rules the following semester, mandating regular testing, masks, takeout, restrictions on where they were allowed to be and more.
Spencer said Sunday’s graduation ceremony, traditionally the first since 2019, was “a triumph over the last 2 1/2 years” of the difficulties caused by COVID. She said the senior class experienced normal college life for three semesters and then had to go into “pandemic mode” until recent weeks, during the short-term session in May, when things seemed almost normal.
Spencer said students and faculty members had to deal with “constant changes and adjustments” as pathogens stalked the community.
In the end, however, one of the largest graduating classes in the college, with students from 39 states and 40 countries, made it to 156th degree at the liberal arts institution, which recently completed its most successful fundraiser, raising $336 million.
Four people received honorary degrees at the ceremony: Shah; poet Nikki Giovanni; biotech leader Michael Bonney; and Rev. Becca Stevens, who is widely acclaimed for her work helping women who have experienced domestic violence and other hardships.
The graduates of what Spencer called “the amazing class of 2022” included some from the Twin Cities.
Lauren Berube, from Auburn, attended Edward Little High School before crossing the river to attend college.
For her seniors project, Berube created lesson plans for middle school students that include social media, video games, and movement-based activities.
“I’ve noticed a lot of classrooms with students who are quite unmotivated, and I think that’s because a lot of math classrooms are taught with ‘chalk and talk,'” she said in April.
Abdulwahab Mohamed, a graduate of Lewiston High School, worked with Tree Street Youth and Seeds of Peace while at Bates. He also served as President of the Black Student Union and organized the 2020 Sankofa celebration of Martin Luther King Jr. Day at the college, which explored the experiences of the African diaspora through theater, music and dance.
At the time, Mohamed said he wanted to “build that bridge between the Lewiston and Bates communities, see the stories of each other and debunk all the misperceptions of each community.”
Spencer said Sunday’s graduates did a lot of work in the community during their time at Bates, from providing public art to mentoring and tutoring at Lewiston’s schools. She said they also helped make the successful case of snagging millions in aid for new affordable housing in the area.
Despite what happened at Bates over the weekend, college isn’t done with degrees this week.
It’s hosting what it calls a “graduation ceremony” at 11 a.m. Saturday for the Class of 2020, who never had the opportunity to hold any sort of in-person graduation.
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