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Williams College Awards 547 Degrees at 2009 Commencement

By Tammy DanielsiBerkshires Staff
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Jenna Taft of North Adams and Christopher St. Cyr of Adams. More photos can be seen here.
WILLIAMSTOWN, Mass. — Williams College awarded 547 degrees to on Sunday during the storied liberal arts college's 220th commencement to seniors and postgraduates from across the nation, 46 countries and Berkshire County.

"It hasn't really hit yet," said Jenna Taft of North Adams, who received her bachelor of science degree in chemistry, at the reception afterward. "It feels like I'm just watching it. I think it will sink in later."

Taft was one of 18 local students among the 512 seniors receiving bachelor's degrees. Eleven students in the History of Art graduate program and 24 fellows from the Center for Development Economics received master's degrees or certificates.

Not a few in the sea of black mortarboards and gowns on West College Lawn were probably a bit foggy-brained from the tradition of staying up the night before graduation, but they were still exuberant over the culmination of their studies at Williams. They dutifully applauded their guests and cheered their classmates.

Commencement speaker Clarence Otis, a 1977 graduate of the college and chief executive officer of Darden Restaurants, urged the graduates to engage with their communities and said the investment made in them obligated them to become leaders.

"Whether the community we choose to make the focal point of our life is academic, corporate, social, artistic or political, we can repay the investment the college, the nation and, indeed the world, have made in us — the privilege we've enjoyed — by providing our chosen communities with leadership."

Top, Dinah Seiver, left, and children Hannah and Isaac Seiver Foster, await graduate Miriam 'Babe' Seiver Foster. Right,  2nd Lt. Trevor D. Powers of Danvers gets his degree. Below, Sheriff Carmen C. Massimiano leads the procession.
Otis described two categories of people: those who are "opportunity creators" and those who prepare you take advantage of those opportunities.

The Stanford Law School graduate reflected on those opportunity creators who had the greatest affect on his life — people like Martin Luther King Jr., Thurgood Marshall and the Berkshires' own W.E.B. Dubois.

"There are many, many other unsung heroes who where there for me and who were there for the youngsters I grew up with in the largely African-American community of Watts, in Los Angeles. And I think about them as well," he said. It was their passion and commitment that envisioned those like himself in positions of power and influence in business and government — including serving as president of the United States.

"But their pioneering work was not enough; it was not enough if their dreams were to be fulfilled," continued Otis. It would "the preparers," in his case from the great literary and cultural thinkers like Alain Locke and Zora Neale Hurston to the teachers and advisers, who helped build self-esteem along with skills.

Both groups may have provided the vision and knowledge, but the graduates must continue the hard work of "honestly and intimately engaging people who are different." It's too easy, said Otis, to slip into the safe confines of the familiar.

The imperatives of leadership, he said, are that lifelong curiosity about others, the ability to dream big dreams and to bring a set of skills or expertise to a problem.

"You must be able to envision, and communicate, a fundamentally new and better reality for your community — inspiring people to work on new things or to work in different ways. In doing that you enable them to fully realize the community potential."

Even more importantly, said Otis, is to enjoy what you are doing.

"That's because, no matter how disciplined you are, no matter how noble your purpose, if your chosen work is not fun — at least some of the time — you'll never persevere."

Otis was awarded an honorary doctor of laws degree from the college; also receiving honorary degrees were Anne L. Garrels, who gave the baccalaureate address; retired U.S. Sen. John Glenn, who participated in a public discussion with astronomy professor Karen Kwitter on Saturday; author and Western Massachusetts resident Tracy Kidder; singer/songwriter and South County resident James Taylor, who spoke and performed for the senior class on Saturday evening, and Pulitzer Prize-winning historian James M. McPherson.

College President Morton Owen Schapiro, overseeing his last commencement at Williams, asked friends and family of the graduates to stand and be applauded for their loving support. He also listed the Olmsted Award recipients and read citations for two retiring faculty members, Phebe K. Cramer and Mark C. Taylor, declaring them professor of psychology, emerita and Cluett Professor of Humanities, emeritus, respectively.

After the last degree had been awarded, the graduates tossed their caps into the air and were welcomed into the 26,500-strong Williams College Alumni Society. Then the new alumni and their families gathered for a reception on the lawn in front of Chapin Hall.

Taft, daughter of North Adams School Committee member Lawrence Taft and Lynn Taft, wasn't thinking too much yet about what's next other than focusing on chemistry.

"I loved being here," she said, her arms full of roses and friends and family trying to get her attention.

The Seiver-Foster family of New York City was ready to greet their new graduate on Main Street with a purple banner declaring "Babe." That's the name Miriam Seiver Foster, class of 2009, has gone by since childhood, said sister Hannah Seiver Foster.

She's joining dad Thomas Foster, class of 1969, and brother Isaac Seiver Foster, class of 2005, as part of the growing alumni membership.

"We're so proud of her," said mom Dinah Foster. What will she be doing with that degree? Working in the Berkshires at a gelato shop for now and looking at career in the bakery business, with a headstart from operating her own little bake shop from her room, said Hannah, who eschewed the Purple Valley to follow in mom's steps to Princeton.  

Considering Babe Seiver Foster's degree is in art, she appears to be following another Williams tradition — changing direction. Indeed, two of the class speakers touched on the topic of how a liberal arts education offers a solid base for, well, pretty much anything.

And true to tradition, the student speakers took the opportunity to poke some fun at their soon-to-be alma mater and slip in some inside jokes as well.

Class speaker Aroop Mukharji said despite giving them few practical skills, the graduates' Williams education made them jacks-of-all-trades — able to try anything from rock stardom to being pastry shop apprentices in France (was he referring to Babe?).

He encouraged his classmates to chase something they love and see if it works out — even if it means working at a pizza parlor like his brother or hanging around making Web sites for school clubs like his friend, both class of 2005, as they pursue a career in music. "My mom certainly doesn't think so, but she's an adult, so we can't take her seriously."

Jeff Kaplan, the Phi Beta Kappa speaker, suggested that the class apply for positions en masse, allowing themselves to become a "subprime, job-application-backed security" that could be bundled, sold, sliced and diced.

But that won't work, he said, because the graduates aren't like Swiss Army knives, prepared to do an anticipated job. Rather, Williams has prepared them with "fundamental problem solving skills from which you can build a wholly novel solution right on the spot."

Taking a bit more serious tone, valedictorian Peter Nurnberg reflected on the "tremendous amount of help" they'd received to get to this day — from their families, tutors, professors, advisers, coaches and all the Williams staff that has watched over them, fed them and cleaned up after them.

"As we reflect on what led up to this day and what we have been through over the past four years, we are certainly justified in taking this occasion to celebrate ourselves and our accomplishments," he said. "However, we should also use this celebration to think about and thank everyone who helped us along the way."

The full speeches and citations can be found here.

Clarence Otis Anne Garrels James McPherson James Taylor
John Glenn Tracy Kidder
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