Class of 2017 told 'Act III is everything'

Keynote Speaker Colson Whitehead

The New York Times

Messages to Graduates: Stand Up, Fight Back, Speak Out

The New York Times highlights 2017 Commencement speeches, featuring Colson Whitehead along with Hillary Clinton, The Dalai Lama, Bernie Sanders and more. 

Any good story has three parts, Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist Colson Whitehead told the 442 members of Connecticut College's Class of 2017: Act I introduces the protagonist and sets the foundation for the narrative, Act II sees unexpected and unforeseen events undermine that foundation and test the assumptions of the protagonist, and Act III brings the chaos of Act II to some kind of resolution.

"Thesis. Antithesis. Synthesis," Whitehead said. "It's the narrative arc of a story, a night, a life.

"You've just finished Act I."

Addressing age-old commencement clichés like "find your soul mate" and "follow your star," Whitehead gave the graduates a humorously blunt indication of the complications that await them in Act II. (Your soul mate could be one of the 100 billion people who've already died, Whitehead mused, "like Napoleon or Harriet Tubman. Which would have sucked, because Napoleon and Harriet Tubman had to travel a lot for work and you wouldn't see them that much, what with the whole world conquest thing and the Underground Railroad thing ... ")

"But Act III is everything," Whitehead said, "to make sense of the chaos, to gather all the plot strands into dramatic unity, to figure out the ending no matter what the plot throws at you."

The universe can seem lonely sometimes, Whitehead concluded, "but there are as many 'yous' as there are stars in the sky. And maybe one of them will step up at the right time and tell you what to make of it all."

Watch Colson Whitehead deliver the Keynote Address . See a full transcript of his remarks on

Prior to his keynote address at the College's 99th Commencement ceremony Sunday, Whitehead was awarded an honorary doctor of humane letters by Connecticut College President Katherine Bergeron.

During her remarks, Bergeron said she is grateful for the many ways in which the members of the Class of 2017 made a impact on the College, and challenged them to "make it last."

"You have made a difference; you have renewed our community; you have strengthened our future," she said. "And now you sit here, with all of this and more behind you—with the competitions done, the medals won, the papers published, the finals finished, the theses defended, the research presented, the shows mounted. … What will you do with all this experience? How will you take it into your lives beyond Connecticut College? How, simply put, will you make it last?"

Bergeron then gave the graduates what she deemed the "very last history lesson" of their Connecticut College career, about activist and social pioneer Jane Addams, for whom one the College’s residence houses is named. Addams, she said, was a young woman in her 20s when she founded Hull House to help underserved populations in Chicago gain access to education, healthcare, childcare and other vital services. She would continue this important work for the rest of her life, becoming a political activist of national prominence.

"Your education at Connecticut College has prepared you well to do as Addams did—to put your education into action, to make the change that you envision, to make something that lasts," she said.

Watch our highlight video of Commencement 2017.

The graduates were also addressed by Student Government Association President Ramzi Kaiss '17, a philosophy and international relations double major from Beirut, Lebanon, who was chosen as the senior class speaker. Kaiss told his classmates that while the Commencement ceremony was filled with pomp and circumstance, they should not think of it as a true celebration of their accomplishments.

"This place has taught us that life is not so much about how far we go, but about what we do with that distance. It is about how we utilize our positions of power to empower the people around us," he said. "Because, as we will come to find out, every day for the rest of your lives—and not just this day—will be a celebration of the lessons we've learned, the relationships we've built, and the love that we've had and shared on this beautiful New London hilltop."

Senior Class Speaker Ramzi Kaiss '17 addresses the Class of 2017.
Senior Class Speaker Ramzi Kaiss '17 addresses the Class of 2017.

During the ceremony, the Oakes and Louise Ames Prize for most outstanding honors thesis was awarded to Shatrunjay Mall ’17, a double major in history and economics from Pune, India, for his thesis, “Pan-Asian Imaginings: From Anti-Colonialism to Imperial Ambitions, 1905-1945.” Using a wide range of archival sources and theoretical perspectives, Mall traces the ways in which debates about anti-colonialism were connected across Japan and India and transformed into imperialist ambitions that encompassed a Pan-Asian scope. The thesis identifies important commensurable themes across regions, and compares and connects important thinkers and events in the interwar period in Japan, China and colonial India.

The College awarded the Anna Lord Strauss Medal for outstanding public or community service, including service to the College, to Maurice Tiner ’17, an Africana studies major from Springfield, Illinois. A champion of community and public service, Tiner is committed to creating more just and equitable communities. As a Unity House ambassador, a Diversity Council representative, and president of Umoja, the African/African American student organization, Tiner worked to improve the quality of student life for black students and pushed the community to think deeply about challenges of equity and inclusion. Off campus, he has conducted research on the role of youth and women in the civil rights movement and worked to provide opportunities for youth.

At the conclusion of the ceremony, Stephen Mark Cofrancesco ’17 sang the traditional Alma Mater before Bergeron led the audience in a lively R&B version that included musical accompaniment by Connor Gowland ’17, Haley Gowland ’17 and Kolton Harris ’14, along with Bergeron’s husband, Butch Rovan, on the saxophone. Earlier in the program, Connor Bernard Wu ’17 sang America the Beautiful.

Commencement events began Saturday with the induction of 45 graduating seniors into Phi Beta Kappa, the national academic honor society; certificate ceremonies for senior scholars in the College’s five centers for interdisciplinary scholarship; and special gatherings for student-athletes and Posse scholars. Baccalaureate, the annual celebration of the spiritual diversity of the graduating class, was Saturday afternoon and featured a keynote address by Associate Professor of Religious Studies Sufia Uddin.

Now graduates, members of the Class of 2017 are heading to locations around the world to pursue a diverse range of opportunities. Four of the new alumni have received Fulbright fellowships to Spain, Germany, Thailand and Taiwan, and one alumnus has been awarded a Critical Language Scholarship to study Chinese at National Cheng Kung University in Taiwan. More than a third of the graduates continuing their education have been accepted into Ivy League graduate schools, including Harvard, Yale and Columbia, while other members of the class have accepted positions at companies and organizations including Capital One, Scholastic Corporation, UBS, New York Life Insurance Company, Boston Children's Hospital, LAM Design, Ernst & Young, Walt Disney Corporation, Royal Bank of Scotland, Wayfair and Booz Allen Hamilton Inc.

Class of 2017 By the Numbers

  • 442 Bachelor of Arts degrees awarded
  • 122 double majors
  • 3 triple majors
  • Graduates represent 31 states and 14 countries
  • 230 members of the class studied abroad
  • 65 are the first in their families to graduate from college
  • 133 graduates earned Latin Honors (29 earned Summa Cum Laude; 47 earned Magna Cum Laude; 57 earned Cum Laude)
  • 178 members of the class earned departmental honors
  • 45 graduates were inducted into Phi Beta Kappa, the national academic honor society
442 Bachelor of Arts degrees awarded
52% of the class studied abroad
122 Double Majors
3 Triple Majors

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May 21, 2017