GAMBIER — Kenyon College’s alumni became 410 persons richer on Saturday as the venerable institution held commencement ceremonies for its class of 2012. Against the backdrop of its picturesque hilltop campus and under brilliant sunny skies, the liberal arts college’s commencement was the 184th since its founding in 1824.
As has been traditional since 1950, the ceremonies were held outdoors on the lawn of Samuel Mather Hall, just yards from the Kenyon Middle Path, along which the graduates had strolled countless times. After an invocation by the Rev. Helen Svoboda-Barber, Kenyon President S. Georgia Nugent welcomed the senior class and their hundreds of friends, family members and guests.
First on the agenda was awarding of three Honorary Doctorates, to retiring faculty members Jean Blacker and Michael Peter Levine and to commencement speaker Aileen Hefferren. Blacker, a respected author and popular professor of French at Kenyon, received a Doctor of Humane Letters degree. Levine is closing out a 33-year stay at Kenyon as a professor of Psychology and has distinguished himself in the area of eating disorders. He received a Doctor of Science degree. Hefferren, a 1988 Kenyon graduate and a member of its board of trustees, took on the issue of race in America head-on in her speech. She received a degree as Doctor of Humane Letters.
Chosen to introduce Hefferren was Class of 2012 President Christian Alejandra Martinez-Canchola. Dean of Students Henry Toutain called Martinez-Canchola to the lectern and said the young Mexican-American “is one of the most caring and compassionate people any of us have ever met. She is a consummate bridge builder.” Toutain added, “and even as she became immersed in life at Kenyon, she remained grounded in her native culture. She has paid it forward, and will continue to do so as a bilingual instructor with the Teach for America Corps.”
Martinez-Canchola was recognized as the recipient of the Martin Luther King Jr. Humanitarian Award and is one of seven 2012 graduates who participated in the Kenyon Educational Enrichment Program.
Before introducing commencement speaker Hefferren, Martinez-Canchola reflected on the past four years as “a time we don’t want to let go.” She said that Kenyon has “helped us to become the people we want to be, and prepared us for the future. It’s been a privilege to spend the past four years with all of you on the hill.”
When Hefferren was called to the microphone, she reflected on her years at Kenyon, saying “there have been many changes, but its essence remains the same. I arrived on campus with a typewriter, at a time the only computing was done by geeks in a basement. I never could have imagined all of the changes and improvements that have taken place.”
For the main thrust of her address, Hefferren chose the topic of race, and she identified it as “one of our most pressing problems.” She challenged the graduates to “help lead America into a post-racial era,” one where “a person’s ZIP code doesn’t determine their future.”
Hefferren is chief executive of Prep for Prep, a New York City nonprofit organization that prepares young people of color for higher education and leadership roles. Talented children begin their tutelage under Prep for Prep with an academic “boot camp,” and more than 2,000 kids from the program have become graduates of every Ivy League school and of Kenyon, among others.
Hefferren acknowledged that the question of race “makes people uncomfortable, but talk about it we must,” she said. She referred to two faulty assumptions that need to be overcome before society can fully “value difference rather than try to look past it.” Those assumptions: That all blacks are inferior and that all whites are racist.
On one hand, Hefferren said that “our leadership remains remarkably white, and there is a systemic lack of representative leadership.” On the other hand, she said she is encouraged by evolving attitudes among young people and by the fact they are growing up in a country with a black president.
“We are changing,” she said. “Race still matters, but it matters less to young people. One-third of people say they have a family member married to a person of a different race, and sooner than people realize there will be no pure white or pure black. In your lifetime, America will become brown. What will you do to open up the bastions of exclusion?”