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Tuesday, May 28, 2024

Midd administration: Give seniors an acceptable goodbye

<span class="photocreditinline"><a href="">Sabrina Templeton</a></span>

Dear Middlebury College Administration,

This year has been marked by tragedy, sacrifice and loss for the Middlebury community. We seniors are also mourning the loss of the normal, triumphant ending to our time here, which we and our families have anticipated for the last four years. Senior week, baccalaureate and graduation typically offer students a meaningful way to celebrate their accomplishments and say goodbye to their Middlebury community.

We understand that graduation will look different this year, and we are grateful that Middlebury is pursuing an in-person ceremony. However, recent decisions about the nature of graduation and our final days on campus and the poor communication about these decisions left many of us feeling disappointed, frustrated and hurt. 

Neither families nor our Feb ’21.5 classmates will be allowed to attend commencement as they typically do. In addition to cancelling senior week, Middlebury recently announced that graduation would be moved forward to 2 p.m. on May 29; seniors will only have until 11 p.m. that same day to leave campus. 

We recently conducted an informal social media survey of some of our senior and senior Feb classmates to gauge how they are feeling about the commencement plans and recent changes. While the 64 responses gathered do not represent the perspectives of the entire graduating class, we hope to voice some of our peers’ concerns about graduation plans and open communication with the administration to address them.

We ask the administration to extend the move-out date to at least Sunday May 30, improve communication with the senior class about recent changes, and welcome the senior Febs to attend the ceremony. Please consider signing our petition here if you agree. 

  1. Students will only have one day after finishing final exams to pack, graduate and say goodbye to friends. 

The original graduation plan — with commencement and move-out on Sunday, May 30 — allowed students one day after finals (which end on Friday, May 28) to be with their classmates without worrying about schoolwork. This new, rushed timeline means that students’ final days and goodbyes will be characterized not by celebration and joy, but by stress and sleep deprivation. 

As one student wrote in the survey, “eliminating any sort of time off between finals and commencement has the potential to cause much more harm than benefit because this creates a lot of stress for students who want to focus on doing well on their finals as well as say goodbye to friends ... and pack up all their belongings too. I don't feel as though the college is looking out for seniors' mental health during this time.” 

Another student wrote, “With finals right before graduation, it will not feel like a celebration because there is zero time to digest and reflect (however briefly) on my Middlebury experience, or say goodbye to friends here.” 

Rather than depriving seniors of this final opportunity to celebrate with friends without the logistical stress of packing and schoolwork, we ask that the administration extend the move-out date to at least Sunday, May 30. 

  1. The change in move-out date from the 30th to the 29th is problematic for many students’ travel plans.  

As one of our peers wrote, “My mother's saying that I might have to miss commencement, as there are no flights leaving that day at a time that would allow me to both assist commencement and get off campus that same day.” Other students are facing non-refundable or changeable plane tickets or will be forced to get a hotel room Saturday night. 

Another student noted, “It’s incredibly unsafe to ask people to drive home the night of graduation. I have a 12-hour drive and likely will stay up the night before to pack.” 

While we understand that students typically leave the day of graduation, this is usually after having days of break to get packed and say goodbye. 

  1. Many families face logistical challenges to watching the virtual ceremony, as they must travel to pick up their students on the same day.

One student wrote: “Both myself and my parents are really upset that the move-out date has not at least been extended to the day after graduation. Given the new timing, my mom will have to watch graduation from a hotel room after driving up to Midd.”

Another student reported that their family will miss the entire ceremony while in transit. Furthermore, for parents who must travel longer distances, picking up students on Saturday versus Sunday or Memorial Day means they are more likely to have to miss work. 

  1. The date change and compressed timeline disproportionately impact less-privileged students and families.

The FAQ page suggests that families “think about staying closer to campus the night before graduation,” and states that individuals must reschedule flights based on the new date. Lower income students and families will feel the financial impact of paying for hotel rooms, purchasing new flights and taking off work more harshly. 

Additionally, for first-generation students’ families — for whom graduation may be particularly meaningful — the losses of attending an in-person ceremony or comfortably watching a remote ceremony may be espeically impactful. One student wrote, “This is a huge moment for some families especially for first-gen students, making small changes to allow families to recognize this moment is literally the least you could do.” 

Also, as one student pointed out: “The lack of senior week is going to create incredible inequality because wealthy students will rent Airbnbs the week after graduation and some students won’t be able to do that financially.” Forcing students to vacate campus immediately after finals limits celebrations to those who can pay for private accommodations. 

  1. Rushing students off campus redistributes risk to less structured contexts, rather than reducing it. 

Making students leave campus so quickly will not prevent them from gathering, but will simply move gatherings earlier or off-campus. One student wrote: “I understand their concern about large gatherings on campus, but do they really think moving it one day soon[er] changes anything? They are essentially just pushing off any partying/mass gatherings into the Middlebury community where they have no control.” 

Instead of relocating these celebrations to the broader community, Middlebury should utilize the capacity of the institution to facilitate safe modes of celebration. 

  1. The exclusion of Febs is deeply upsetting to many while providing little-to-no benefit in terms of safety. 

As one student wrote, Febs “were admitted to Middlebury as members of the class of 2021 and should be treated as such.” Senior Febs are typically considered part of the senior class. 

These restrictions are particularly distressing to seniors who Febbed themselves due to the pandemic. One student shared: "I’m a Reg who is now a Feb and by these rules, I can’t see my best friends graduate—the very people I was supposed to walk with at graduation."

Risk of outdoor transmission is low, so Feb attendance is not likely to increase risk of Covid-19 spread. Since they will already be on campus, excluding Febs feels both unnecessary and harsh.

  1. Communication regarding recent commencement changes has been unclear and insufficient. 

The change in move-out date was not clearly communicated, and the student body has not had the chance to give feedback on or otherwise contribute to commencement planning. Many students have felt unheard in this process. One student noted: “When the school tells us it’s trying its best to make this a time we still can feel celebrated, it’s hard to believe them when they haven’t asked us how they can best do that.”

  1. Despite the possibility that conditions may improve, the college has stated that it will not consider changing plans in the future. 

We are encouraged by vaccination rates, and the fact that Vermont’s gathering restrictions are due to relax considerably over the next several weeks. Furthermore, several other NESCAC schools plan to provide more traditional ceremonies; Bates, Bowdoin, Williams and Trinity, for example, are allowing graduating students up to two guests at their Commencement ceremonies. UVM will also be allowing two fully-vaccinated guests per student. With this in mind, we are frustrated by the college's unwillingness to remain flexible in light of changing conditions.

While safety is paramount, we ask that the administration embrace a more optimistic plan for commencement that includes Febs and a delayed departure, while preparing to adjust to a more restrictive model only if conditions were to change. 

  1. Students have demonstrated their commitment to community wellbeing; the commencement plan feels disconnected from our current context. 

Over this past school year, Middlebury students have consistently demonstrated a commitment to public health and safety. The decision to rush students off campus demonstrates a lack of trust in our ability and willingness to gather and celebrate safely. 

As one student wrote, “Seniors have spent all year ... making sure that this year was safe and successful. The school owes seniors the same amount of care and respect.” After all of our sacrifice, the lack of trust seems callous. 

Wrote another student, “We have proven time and time again that we are able to spend time on campus without causing a mass-outbreak. Be reasonable, let alone kind, and give us a few days to breathe (and pack) between exams and graduation. If this was your kid, you would do your absolute best to provide that.” 

In conclusion

We have collected our peers’ responses and encourage you to read them. We have also created a petition outlining some of the changes we believe should be enacted, where we encourage students and families to share their thoughts and sign if they agree. 

Ultimately, we recognize that the college cannot control the pandemic, and we respect the administration’s right to respond to new conditions as they arise. However, we ask the administration to grant us more time to depart campus, allow Febs to celebrate alongside us, and communicate commencement plans and the reasoning behind them with clarity in order to facilitate a meaningful experience in our final days on campus. We ask that you work with your senior class to promote a positive graduation experience in a year that has already been marked by so much loss. 

Editor’s Note: Hannah Bensen is the senior data editor and an editor at large. 

Kayla Lichtman and Hannah Bensen are members of the class of 2021. Grace Metzler and Tia Pogue are members of the class of 2021.5.