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Williams Grads Reminded of Community that Got Them to Graduation
By Stephen Dravis, iBerkshires Staff
05:14PM / Sunday, June 02, 2024
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Graduates toss caps at Williams College's 235th commencement exercises on Sunday morning.

The graduates heard from two speakers  Phi Betta Kappa speaker Milo Chang and class speaker Jahnavi Nayar Kirtane. The keynote speaker, Lonnie Bunch, the secretary of the Smithsonian Institution, was unable to attend and recorded his speech for playback. See more photos here.
WILLIAMSTOWN, Mass. — Williams College said goodbye Sunday to its graduating seniors.
And a representative of the class of 2024 took the time to say goodbye to everyone in the community who made students' journey possible.
Milo Chang, the Phi Beta Kappa speaker for the class and one of two students to speak at Sunday's 235th commencement exercises, explained that the term "Williams community" applies to more than those who get to list the school on their resumes.
"It includes everyone who has shaped our experiences here, from loved ones back home to the dedicated staff members who make campus their second home," Chang told his classmates. "During our time at Williams, we've seen this community step up in remarkable ways to support us."
Chang talked about the faculty and staff who gave their time to operate the COVID-19 testing centers and who greeted students before they could take their first classroom tests in the fall of 2020, and the dining services personnel who kept the students fed and somehow understood their orders through the masks everyone was wearing when this class arrived on campus.
And he shared a personal story that brought the message home.
"We often underestimate the power of community until we experience a taste of its absence," Chang said. "I remember staying on campus after our first Thanksgiving at Williams, after most students went home to finish the semester remotely. I remember the long hours sitting in empty common rooms. I remember the days you could walk through campus without seeing another student.
"But I also remember the daily interactions with custodial and dining staff. I remember [custodian] Dave Chapman going out of his way to grab a measuring tape so I could brag to my friends in California about surviving a snowstorm."
And among the many lessons that the class of '24 learned at Williams, the lessons taught in moments like that are the ones Chang encouraged the grads to remember.
"Each of us has our own path, our own dreams to chase, yet as we branch off into new communities, remember the spirit of service we've seen modeled over the past four years," he said. "Staff and faculty members stepped up when our community needed them, shouldering additional responsibilities during the pandemic that upended all of our lives. 
"Even when we leave campus, we will remain part of this community. We will have countless opportunities to pay forward the support we received during our time here. No matter where you end up, ask yourself, 'How will I contribute to my communities, especially when it isn't easy?' "
The other student on the dais Sunday, class speaker Jahnavi Nayar Kirtane, also referenced the good that Williams students found during their time in Williamstown and referenced it in the context of a world filled both with horror and light.
"How do we reconcile this desire for accountability with the goodness and gratitude we have experienced in our community here?" Kirtane said. "Because we have experienced intense moments of joy: Watching the kids from the Children's Center holding onto the rope and walking through Frosh Quad or swimming in the river, despite your enviro major friend telling you it's contaminated.
"Rather than only fixating on only the good things or all the awful things that could and should be so much better, let's embrace this complexity — that we must hold ourselves and our communities to the highest standards, while, at the same time, feeling profound gratitude within these communities."
Williams graduated more than 550 undergraduates, acknowledged three students who started their college career at Williams in fall 2020 but died during the past four years. Among the graduates who walked across the stage on Sunday were six Berkshire County residents: Adams' Daniel Pompi, North Adams' Darlie Kerns, Pittsfield's Rie Kedia and Brian Lavinio Jr., and Williamstown's Jakin Miller and Luke Swann.
Unlike in some recent commencement exercises, all of the class members were seated on folding chairs on the Williams Quad. None were relegated to the balcony of the nearby library due to COVID-19 protocols.
But Chang's anecdote about the pandemic was not the only reminder of the events that defined the class of '24's arrival in the Purple Valley.
Historian Lonnie Bunch, the secretary of the Smithsonian Institution and the principal speaker at the event, was unable to attend because of a recent COVID diagnosis, Williams President Maud Mandel told the crowd.
Instead, Bunch's address was pre-recorded and played for the crowd just before degrees were conferred.
Like Kirtane, Bunch had thoughts on holding communities to a higher standard, and shared a poignant story from his childhood to make the point.
"In the New Jersey town where I grew up, I was one of only a few African Americans," Bunch said. "One day I was in a familiar part of town playing baseball, a game that I loved, when the neighborhood game unexpectedly turned to violence. For reasons I didn't understand, a mob of white teenagers attacked me. They chased me with baseball bats and rocks. I can still remember the terror I felt all these years later."
Bunch said he ran until his legs gave out and found himself on a driveway of a nearby home.
"And just as the mob came up the driveway toward me with bad intentions, a little girl, a little blonde girl, came out of the house and said, 'This is my house, this is my property, get off this land.' But not to me — to them. She fearlessly stood between us. She rescued me."
The unnamed girl in that painful incident showed how the graduates could, in Chang's words, pay forward the graces they have received.
"That fierce little girl was an example I'm still inspired by," Bunch said. "She showed the power of standing up for what is right. Do not be afraid to reach out and reflect on your time here. Because the experiences you had here will help you navigate the most difficult times in your life.
"Let me end as I began by congratulating the wonderful class of 2024, but let me urge you to use this education, use these skills, this opportunity you've been afforded, a chance to do good for others, to contribute to making America a better, kinder place, one that embodies its loftiest principles and lives up to its most cherished ideals."
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