Colby College celebrated the accomplishments of the Class of 2020 in a series of virtual events May 22-24 that upheld College traditions and united seniors, their families, and the entire Colby community scattered across the globe during the COVID-19 pandemic.
“This was to be the day that we would gather on Miller lawn for your formal commencement exercises and all that they represented in terms of your learning, accomplishments, and growth,” said President David A. Greene, speaking live from Lorimer Chapel.
“At Colby,” he said, “you lived in a community where relationships are central to everything we do. … The irony that we all recognize is that learning and living through deep, meaningful relationships—the most fulfilling, enlightening way to live—is threatened when this pandemic limits close personal interaction. But this threat will not last.
“The knowledge that we are better together, that human connection and the bonds of community are essential to humanity will drive us to eradicate the damaging impact of this virus.”
President Greene also highlighted the class’s scholarly and creative talents, its courage in challenging community norms, its athletic championships, and its engagement with the city of Waterville.
QuestBridge Scholar Bethashley Cajuste ’20, who exemplifies many of these qualities, was voted by the senior class and faculty to receive the College’s prestigious Condon Medal. Cajuste was notified of the honor earlier in the week via a surprise Zoom call with President Greene, who said she was “deeply committed to community, connecting her academic and civic engagement work through her research projects.”
Cajuste, a global health major and anthropology minor from Wesley Chapel, Fla., is the first QuestBridge liaison, a sexual violence prevention peer, executive chair of the Pugh Community Board, and a co-creator of Colby’s FLIPS program.
“You’ve made such a difference here,” President Greene told Cajuste while her father stood nearby. “You have just set the tone for what we can be at Colby. And all these QuestBridge Scholars who are going to follow you know that you can come here and you can lead and you can make a difference.”
Class speaker Kabir Singh ’20 spoke on Sunday from his home in Cambridge, Mass., cutting right to the surrealness of the moment. “This is weird,” he said. “How are we supposed to celebrate our years of hard work and our communities that have worked so hard to push us here when everything is also kind of strange?”
After listing “weird things” related to the Colby student experience, Singh reflected on how those experiences made Colby unique to each student in different ways. “And those weird things also illuminate the frictions and the contradictions in our world and our daily lives. The same ones that have made too many believe that the pandemic, and the damage from it, is an issue caused by a pathogen, even when the unequal impacts of it are clearly a consequence of what is already wrong with our world,” said Singh, an anthropology and environmental policy double major.
“Interrogating the peculiar things can empower us with transformational connections and push us to really be uncomfortable in a way that I think a lot of us need to do more of,” he said. “You’re weird, and I’m weird too. Let’s celebrate the weird.”
Also on Sunday, Class Marshal Xiaoyue “Mike” Zheng ’20 read from the book Being Mortal by Atul Gawande, a writer, surgeon, and public health researcher based in Boston. Zheng, a Presidential Scholar and a computer science and biology double major, earned class marshal honors as the senior with the highest G.P.A.
Cajuste and Singh are both members of Colby’s first group of QuestBridge Scholars, making history as the first cohort to graduate from the College, and Zheng hails from Dalian, China. They represent a new generation of Colby graduates joining “a mighty procession of alumni, of Colby ancestors,” as Cheryl Townsend Gilkes, the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Professor of Sociology and African-American Studies, called graduates in the Last Lecture, which she delivered Friday as the winner of the Charles Bassett Teaching Award.
“I am speaking to you who are pioneers, shapers, potential prophets of the 21st century,” she told the senior class. “You have done great work getting to this point, and you need to keep doing it. You must reckon with your prophetic potential, your power to ask mighty questions that can have consequences for a better world. Consequences of consciousness, consequences for community empowerment.”
Gilkes, an ordained Baptist minister, encouraged students to lift up their voices, especially at this particular time. “Don’t get discouraged, don’t get weary,” she said. “Keep marching for justice.”
President Greene echoed the need for persistence, especially when we inevitably stumble. “I hope one lesson you will take from Colby,” he said, “is that failures open the door to learning, change, and betterment.
“Don’t seek and don’t expect perfection in yourself or others. Doing so will constrain your personal potential. You’ll be afraid to take risks. It will hold you back from being and benefiting from the most powerful and transformative relationships, the ones that require you to fully open your heart and mind.”