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Monday, Mar 4, 2024

Uncertain location of Feb graduation sparks outrage at lost tradition

Middlebury College is set to witness history on Saturday, Feb. 3, when the largest Feb class ever will graduate. While the class of 2023.5 will still ski down in one form or another during their graduation, as is tradition, the location for the annual Ski Down remains uncertain. The college plans to make the final decision on its location by Jan. 25, stating that if there is enough snow at the Middlebury Chapel Hill to ski down, the event will be held there.

In a graduation invitation letter sent to families of graduates in December, the college listed the location for the celebration as the Chapel hill. Students were unaware of such a change from the traditional Ski Down at the Snow Bowl until their families informed them. 

The Ski Down portion of Feb graduation at the Snow Bowl, where graduates ski down the mountain in their caps and gowns, has been a revered Middlebury rite since 1987. However, this year, due to weather considerations and problems of inclusivity and accessibility, the event may be moved to the Chapel hill on campus — a location that was utilized in last year's Feb Celebration for the class of 2022.5 when sub-zero temperatures passed through Middlebury.

The Feb classes of 2022.5 and 2023.5, consisting of 200 and 233 students respectively, stand out as the two largest graduating Feb classes in history. These numbers are mostly due to a higher number of students that took leaves of absence during the Covid-19 pandemic. Bussing larger class sizes and their families to the Snow Bowl presented logistical challenges during previous graduations, and positive feedback from last year's venue switch supported the decision to potentially change the location for this year’s celebration.

“We received a lot of positive feedback from graduates and their families after last year’s Ski Down, which was moved to campus because of historically low temperatures,” Jon Reidel, the director of media relations for Middlebury College, wrote in an email to The Campus. “The various campus departments held a debrief afterward to evaluate the pivot to the campus and determined that the Chapel Hill provided a more inclusive, more welcoming experience for students and guests.”

The college emphasized that the on-campus location promotes inclusivity, particularly for students with mobility challenges. 

“The move to campus creates a convenient experience for families and friends who can move easily from the ceremony in Virtue Fieldhouse to McCullough Student Center where they can wait for the Ski Down to start,” Reidel wrote. “The viewing area at Chapel hill is much larger than at the Snow Bowl, so everyone has a good view of the action and can participate in the tradition.”

Kate Sadoff, a member of the class of 2023.5, supported the potential relocation to the Chapel Hill site.

“I think having the Ski Down at The Chapel just makes sense. It makes the ceremony more accessible to non-skiers and more accessible to family members,” Sadoff said.

The location change left some students who were expecting the traditional Snow Bowl Ski Down disappointed.

“I was frustrated that the administration decided to change locations without considering student input,” said Lucas Tomas ’23.5. “It’s a long-standing tradition for a reason and I think a lot of students feel an attachment to that sense of heritage.”

Daphne West ’23.5, described her disappointment about the location change and how it disrupts important Feb traditions.

“It’s an emotionally charged decision for a lot of us, especially given how little say we seem to have in the matter. The Snow Bowl Ski Down has been a promised tradition to generations of Febs. As a class of students who have been here since before the pandemic, it is sad to be robbed of a memory so unique to the Middlebury Feb experience,” West said. 

The administrative committee responsible for the switch said that they considered opinions from current and past Febs, aiming for a positive and inclusive experience for all.

“We looked carefully at both options and discussed how best to ensure a positive, inclusive experience for all. We heard from Febs and Feb graduates with differing perspectives, some advocating for the Snowbowl and others for Chapel Hill. The ultimate goal is to provide a great experience for 233 students and the 1,000-plus family members and friends,” Reidel wrote. 

The unexpected venue change has sparked students to mobilize and call for a reversal of the decision. A petition, signed by 568 individuals — including students, parents and alumni — expressed widespread frustration with the decision and called for a reconsideration by the administration.

The surge of discontent, along with weather considerations regarding amounts of snow in the days leading up to Feb. 3, has impacted the administration's decision to delay the final decision until Jan. 25, highlighting the significant weight of student concerns on the decision-making process. 

“I did sign the petition and I’m not an original Feb, so the location doesn’t matter as much to me, but it was cool to see how the community came together for a cause they found important,” Mira Irfan ’23.5 said. “I do also like the idea of Chapel hill because it allows parents to visibly see the faces of those skiing down, so I can see the benefits of either location.”

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Piper Ackermann ’23.5, spearheaded the student petition calling for the college to move the location of the Ski Down back to the Snow Bowl. She highlighted the Snow Bowl’s sentimental and cultural importance to Feb Celebration.

“I think graduating mid-year in a small class is really hard in the first place. The quintessential Vermont–Middlebury experience that’s so advertised to students and people beyond the college includes the Feb ski down,” Ackermann said. “The event has become a pinnacle point of Middlebury and is deeply intertwined with its culture — it has become synonymous with the Middlebury experience itself. The ski down is not a separate and expendable tradition — rather, it has become an integral part of Middlebury's identity.” 

Feb graduation will begin with a morning ceremony in Virtue Field House, followed by the Ski Down celebration. The precise location for the Ski Down will be decided based on weather conditions, according to the Feb Celebration website.

“The plan is to make the call on January 25. If there is enough snow on campus, the Ski Down will be held on the Chapel Hill. If there is no snow on campus, the Ski Down will be held at the Snowbowl,” Reidel wrote.

A committee with students, staff and members of the administration will meet in the fall to decide the best venue for future Feb Celebrations, according to Reidel.

William Reed

William Reed '23.5 (he/him) is a News Editor.   

He previously served as a Layout Editor and a Staff Writer. Will spent this past summer in Boston, covering news for NBC Boston. He also interned as a reporter with the Addison County Independent in Middlebury during the summer of 2022.  

Will is studying English with a minor in studio art. He also writes for Clover Fashion Magazine and is a member Middlebury's ceramics club.