Convocation kicks off academic year

With rain clouds threatening the Class of 2009, President Schapiro officially rang in the new academic year at the Convocation ceremony Saturday morning.

The weather’s variability fit the occasion, as seniors, whose futures seem as uncertain as ever, were exhorted to pursue new endeavors during their final year at the College, as well as to continually challenge themselves beyond Commencement. In the spirit of extemporization, Convocation speaker Mayda A. Del Valle ’00, a slam poetry writer and performer, eschewed her nine-page speech and instead spoke dynamically to the audience, sharing her personal experiences, advising seniors to follow their passions and performing two of her poems.

During his introductory address, President Schapiro commended the Class of 2009 and encouraged its members to make the most of the wide range of opportunities available to them.

As part of the Convocation ceremony, Schapiro awarded six Bicentennial Medals to College alumni in honor of their distinguished achievement in their respective fields.

Established in 1993 on the occasion of the College’s 200th anniversary, the Bicentennial Medal is the highest award Williams bestows upon members of its community. This year’s awardees were Del Valle, Dickinson R. Debevoise ’46, Eugene C. Latham ’55, Dean Cycon ’75, Ambassador Susan C. Schwab ’76 and Michael J. Govan ’85.

Del Valle’s speech reflected the levels of passion and honesty that make her a powerful and relatable performer. In 2001, Del Valle won the National Poetry Slam Title, becoming the youngest poet ever and the first Latino to do so. She has appeared on six episodes of Russell Simmons Presents Def Poetry and was an original cast member and writer for the Tony award winning production of Russell Simmons Def Poetry Jam.

“The way I ended up here was pretty non-traditional and what I’m doing now is pretty non-traditional,” Del Valle said. As she does with her poetry, Del Valle gave voice to life’s struggles as she described the adversity she faced as a student here. Del Valle’s poems are also inspirational, however, as was her personal story about how she fought to find her way back to her love of performing poetry, in the form of a one-woman multimedia senior thesis presentation. “Fighting to do what you love is the best fighting you can do,” she said.

Del Valle encouraged seniors to take risks and follow their passions. “There’s no such thing as security – the only thing that’s secure is your sense of self and being true to yourself.”

Del Valle’s co-recipients of the Bicentennial Medal represent a diverse group of disciplines, but share a commitment and passion for positively affecting the world.
Debevoise is a senior judge for the U.S. District Court of New Jersey and received a medal in recognition of his distinguished achievement in law. He also served as a sergeant in the U.S. Army during the Second World War, and after graduating from Columbia Law School, served as a lieutenant in the Korean War. Debevoise is renowned for his involvement in the Civil Rights movement and respected for his passion for equality and justice.

Latham, president of the world’s largest organization of orphanages, received a medal for distinguished achievement in serving in-need children. He has acted for over four decades as president of “Our Little Brothers and Sisters,” an organization which has been called “the largest family in the world” for providing care and support for more than 25,000 orphans throughout Latin America.

Cycon, founder of the fair trade coffee company Dean’s Beans, was awarded a medal for distinguished achievement in socially conscious business development. Cycon’s vision for forging a new business model has helped shape the capabilities of fair trade and his commitment to working with coffee growers through Fair Trade purchases as well as with local grassroots development has benefitted communities spanning 14 countries.

Schwab received a medal for distinguished achievement in public policy. Schwab has been the U.S. Trade Representative since her 2006 nomination. She has played a major role in the development of U.S. strategy in the Doha Round multilateral trade negotiations, and successfully concluded bilateral free trade agreements with Peru, Colombia, Panama and South Korea.

Govan is director of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, and is widely respected for working with artists to contextualize art spaces. Most notably, while directing the Dia Foundation, Govan turned an old factory in Beacon, N.Y. into a world-renowned contemporary exhibition space. Called “a visionary” and “a builder,” Govan was awarded a medal for helping the public to experience art in fantastic new ways.

During the ceremony, Dean Merrill announced 30 undergraduate members of Phi Beta Kappa, the national honor society. Election to Phi Beta Kappa is granted to the top five percent of each class at the end of their junior year.

In addition, the Grosvenor Cup, presented to a senior who has exhibited extreme dedication to the College community, was awarded to Rachel Ko ’09. Merrill remarked that Ko is “a rare visionary” among students at the College.

The ceremony also included remarks by College Council Co-Presidents Jeremy Goldstein ’09 and Peter Nurnberg ’09. Alicia Choi ’09 performed one movement of Bach’s Sonata No. 2 in A minor.

In tandem with Saturday’s events, the alumni office and the society of alumni organized a panel discussion with the Bicentennial Medalists in Brooks-Rogers Recital Hall on Friday afternoon.