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Saturday, Dec 2, 2023

On living consequentially

If I am being entirely transparent, I’m not sure that I remember anything from my own convocation. After the most exhausting week of my life, I feel quite certain I slept through some of it or, at the very least, was too worried about my first day of classes for anything to register. So when I was given the chance to attend convocation two weeks ago — three years after my own — I was excited for what I hoped would be a moving, full-circle experience. 

It was all going quite well until a member of the administration told the first years that, at Middlebury, they would be taught to lead “consequential lives.” It immediately rubbed me the wrong way, but I hoped it was just an isolated poor choice of words. And then someone else got up to speak and it happened again. And then again. Every time those words echoed through Middlebury Chapel, I became angrier and angrier. In an effort to calm down, I tried to tell myself that perhaps it was just an odd theme the administration had agreed upon. Sadly, as often happens, the internet proved me wrong. 

And there was Middlebury’s mission — staring me down in bright, bold blue letters — “... we prepare students to lead engaged, consequential and creative lives …” It hadn’t been an isolated incident or a slip of the tongue, it was a carefully crafted, Board-of-Trustees-approved message.

On the surface, I can understand wanting to present your institution as one that will help prepare students to change the world. Yet, to tell someone that you will teach them to live a life of consequence is to imply that their current lives are inconsequential. It’s to imply that one needs to spend four years and a quarter of a million dollars to be taught to live a worthy life — a life that means something. 

As I see it, there are three main issues with this proposition. First, it is incredibly privileged. It implies that people who never went to college lead inherently less consequential lives given that they were never taught to be consequential. It suggests that many of the individuals who cook our food, clean buildings and serve other roles on our campus are less capable of making a difference. A notion that I believe could not be further from the truth.

Second, it puts an unhealthy amount of pressure on first year students to excel because their success is directly tied to their worth. Imagine feeling like every assignment or deadline you miss subtracts from your worth as a person. It implies that if you woke up tomorrow and decided Middlebury was not for you, suddenly you would be less capable of creating a consequential life. This is a dangerous notion that adds additional stress to a school that already suffers from a toxic busyness culture. 

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, it implies that students do not arrive at Middlebury living lives of consequence and that only through a Middlebury education can one create a meaningful life. This is extremely insensitive, specifically for those that struggle with mental health and impostor syndrome. To have someone in a position of power tell you that your life is not currently “consequential,” and only through a Middlebury degree might it become so, can be debilitating. 

While I fear that the damage of spewing this message to 700+ first years (and the entire internet) perhaps cannot be undone, I will end with this. As so many members of the administration spent so long telling you, you were chosen to come to Middlebury for a reason. The reason, I posit, is because you were already living consequentially. It’s because you showed up and you made a difference. Middlebury may want to take credit for making your life consequential — and while I concede that the skills you learn here can help you imagine more ways to build a consequential life — your life is already consequential. You change the world with your smiles, your acts of kindness and your patience. Whether you drop out tomorrow or become a Middlebury professor, your life is important. You don’t need Middlebury to teach you to lead a “consequential life” because I guarantee you already are.

Gwen Orme is a member of the class of 2023.