Commencement at ECLA

Ambassador Murphy's address to the ECLA of Bard graduates
Ambassador Murphy’s address to the graduates (photo by Irina Stelea)

“Commencement”: though the word is rhetorically indicative of a beginning, it has trouble escaping its connotation––at least for students––as the official conclusion, the shake of the hand, and the goodbye to the thousands of pages and hours, myriad lunch debates, late-nights, page-tabbing, research forays, and all that comes along with the pursuit of a liberal arts diploma. After a year (or four) of all these activities and then a few final weeks of frenzied epiphanies, tapping through papers, and packing up boxes, the students at ECLA of Bard submitted their final essays, sighed a deep sigh, and welcomed their friends and family from far and wide to Berlin to celebrate the end of the year––and the commencement of what’s to come.

After a lovely lunch in the convivial intimacy of our small-school cafeteria, the assembling group rambled via bicycle and Straßenbahn down to the Rotes Rathaus (the Red City Hall)––a neo–Gothic /neo–Baroque /Jungendstil mashup success of a brick building in the northern Berlin neighborhood of Pankow that ECLAns call home. The Saal (main ceremonial hall) was decked out in a dignified palette of flowers and bunting. Students wore the contented smiles and placid brows of those who have no extant assignments. Professors and administration were looking sartorially sharp, satisfied that we had all submitted our papers, and pleased they had imparted their wisdom, given their grades, and that we had all learned quite a bit about learning itself.

Everyone sat in long rows across the wide, but not deep, floor of the Saal, comfily within a few rows of the stage––excellent positioning for the capture of expressions and gestures from the podium. Towering above the Saal, backing the Commencement speakers and filtering the light and sounds of the street, a stained-glass window glowed with motifs of labor and bounty. The finicky Berlin late–spring sun chose to shine in through the window upon the stage of graduates just as their diplomas were awarded. Flowers and leather-bound Bard-red diplomas, printed in the most graceful Latin, were distributed along with admonitions to excellence and advisor–selected, red–ribboned books for each of the graduates.

Opening the ceremony and punctuating the events was the ECLA of Bard vocal ensemble, comprised of three sopranos, two altos, a tenor, a bass, and a pianist. As the choir members are all from different countries, their voices in the opening a cappella song and the subsequent solos, duets, and ensemble pieces created a delightfully international harmony that filled out the rich oak paneling of the nearly–sunny Saal.

Thomas Rommel, the Rector and Provost of the University of ECLA of Bard, gave welcoming remarks. He was followed by none other than the Ambassador of the United States, Philip D. Murphy. Ambassador Murphy expressed his delight at the success and achievements of ECLA and exhorted the graduates to remember the importance of balance: balance between professional and personal life, as well as balance in regard to the frequency of action in the face of complex problems. He reminded us that there will always be pressing issues, but that it is wise to maintain a healthy balance of preparation and action––to strike when the iron is hot and the plan is in place, to choose one’s battles, and follow them to completion while maintaining a responsibility to just action.

Following Dr. Rommel’s and Ambassador Murphy’s addresses, students representing each graduating year rose to the podium to deliver reflections of their own. Marija Uzunova, a post–graduate student from Macedonia who completed a research project on diffraction and perception in anthropology and space telescopes, reminded us all to keep pursuing our passions and interests and to allow them to diversify spontaneously even after we have left the fertile ground of the liberal arts institution. Olga Nicolaeva, an Academy Year student from Transnistria (Moldova), expressed the experience of her year at ECLA via the metaphor of assembling a puzzle––a process in which one first assesses the mass of disjointed pieces, then identifies and sets in place the pieces of the boundaries, begins to fill in the open spaces with matching associations, and finally faces some elements that are bafflingly difficult to place. This, she said, was what the year was like: full of the satisfying progress of understanding, punctuated by just enough puzzlement to remind us why we love so much to learn.

Graduates from the BA program Emma Karolina Hovi (from Finland) and Anisa Shaikh (from Pakistan) chose to first thank the numerous members of the ECLA community that have supported, taught, mentored, and encouraged them over the past four years. They were thankful not only for the personal support and the extra hours of constructive critique, but also for the gift of an education that will allow them to apply the values and processes of interdisciplinary evaluation to whatever problems they may choose to tackle.

Leon Botstein, the President of Bard College, delivered the closing charge to the graduates. He spoke of the important project of the liberal arts education, of its relevance to our society, and of the commitment that has been made to nurture and grow the European College of Liberal Arts in Berlin. Citing the rise of technology-based education and the scaling of knowledge, Botstein put his finger on what makes a place like ECLA special enough to merit attention and support: the small-group seminars, the communal debate-friendly lunches, and the fact that only at a school like this does each member of the graduating class receive a hand-selected book to read “for pleasure” after graduation. The individual nature of education should mirror the individuality of the fabric making up the society of which we all hope to become an integral part.

As the ceremony hit its most poignant moments and finally the conclusion, there were a few tears, but mostly hugs, handshakes, proud showing of diplomas, waving of flowers, and arranging of photo poses. Then we all moved to the cafeteria for a splendid Commencement dinner. The palates were pleased by a wide array of savory and sweet, the tables were populated by a gregarious mix of professors, students, alumni, and parents––some getting a first peek into the collegiate social life of their children, just as that chapter was ending. Upstairs in a side room was the surprise photo booth with a specially-painted backdrop, complete with flash bulbs and props. This encouraged jovial cheesing and pondering poses to document all of those moments and constellations of friends and professors we wished we could distill into a compositional memory. The backdrop: a blank canvas with Raphael’s School of Athens in loose umber brush-strokes… minus the philosophers of course.

Photo gallery (photos by Irina Stelea):