SIT Graduate Institute Holds First Virtual Commencement

August 21st, 2020   |   Alumni, SIT Graduate Institute

President Howlett Challenges Graduates to Embrace Moment of Global Uncertainty

SIT Graduate Institute’s 54th annual commencement—and first ever virtual commencement—was held Friday, August 14, with graduates and speakers connecting from across the U.S., and globally from Haiti to Uganda, to participate in the event. As the COVID-19 pandemic continues to spread worldwide, the ceremony was adapted to an online format in consideration of participant safety.

Though missing from this year’s commencement were the hilltop views of its traditional location on SIT’s Brattleboro, Vermont campus, some of the sights and sounds remained, remarkably, the same. Families murmured in excitement next to their graduates, caps were placed jauntily on heads, and eager smiles stretched across the faces of students and faculty alike—just, on this occasion, mediated through the blue-light glow of individual computer screens.

Before initiating the formal speeches, Dr. Sophia Howlett, SIT president, asked the graduates to continue another ritual carried forward by the graduating classes before them—to first, thank the faculty who’d been involved in their education, and the family and friends who’d supported them along the way, for making their graduation possible.

However, despite familiar sights and sounds, the 76 students awarded degrees on Friday have graduated during a moment unlike any other—even beyond the uncertainty generated by the global pandemic.

“From climate change to Black Lives Matter, refugees in crisis, the undermining of so much work that has been undertaken in the past to combat extreme poverty… suddenly everything, everything is in a moment of flux,” mused Howlett in her address.

But Howlett encouraged the graduates to seize this moment of flux, to have vision, take on the burden of leadership, and embrace the power of personal action.

“The potential for change is all around you,” Howlett reminded the graduates. “… The situations have changed and the conversations around them and the actions that arise out of those conversations must change too. This really is your moment. Don’t stand back. Don’t wait for others. Do not see this moment as simply another small step in your career. You are right now, suddenly, a participant in a global crisis.”

The potential for change is all around you…This really is your moment. Don’t stand back. Don’t wait for others.

The graduating class is indeed no stranger to the most pressing challenges being tackled worldwide. SIT’s curriculum is structured around the framework of seven Critical Global Issues, which students are immersed in through their coursework merging theory and practice. The 2020 class graduated with degrees ranging from Climate Change and Global Sustainability, to Peacebuilding and Conflict Transformation, and Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages (TESOL), a program designed to advance access to quality education and social change, together with building professional expertise.

The commencement’s student speaker, Nixon Cadet, a 2020 TESOL master’s degree recipient, is himself a testament to perseverance, and the determination and courage needed to make a difference in one’s life and community. Cadet’s journey to SIT Graduate Institute was a long one. He knew that he wanted to pursue graduate studies after obtaining his first degree in Port-au-Prince, Haiti in 2001 from a teacher-training college, but that he would need financial aid to do so.

Cadet never gave up and while continuing to teach, he earned a scholarship that allowed him to pursue a SIT TESOL certificate in 2003, nurturing his passion for the English language. And finally—after much persistence and 19 years after earning his first degree—he has earned his master’s degree with SIT, further developing himself as an educator.

“During the course of the master’s degree program we have learned so many things,” Cadet reflected in his speech, describing the important tools he took from the program, among them, deep awareness, mindfulness, reflective teaching skills, and how to grow both his own personal agency and foster his students’ personal agency.

What’s next? Cadet looks forward to ultimately obtaining a doctorate degree. In the interim, Cadet is adapting the skills he gained through his master’s with SIT to the complexities of teaching in the COVID-19 context, where, as Cadet puts it, teachers are required to take on other roles as healers and sources of comfort as they try to create trauma-sensitive learning environments.

In her address to the graduates, Dr. Sora Friedman, program chair and professor for SIT Graduate Institute’s International Education and Intercultural Service, Leadership & Management master’s degree programs, emphasized the importance of sensitivity toward others, and enacting change on a personal level.

“Whatever has our attention, we need to remember that change happens person by person,” she said. “If we can make one person laugh or even smile each day, then we are contributing to our community, we are building a strong foundation for positive change, we are making things better—because that happens person by person.”

The commencement was ushered along by master of ceremonies Dr. Michael Zoll, dean of Student Health, Safety, and Wellbeing for SIT, and additionally featured remarks from Dr. Daniel Lumonya, founder and director of Washarika International and former academic dean and academic director at SIT Study Abroad.

“We, in the wider global community, are going to be expecting much of you,” congratulated Lumonya. “You have broached wonderful topics in unique and diverse fields.”

If we can make one person laugh or even smile each day, then we are contributing to our community, we are building a strong foundation for positive change, we are making things better—because that happens person by person.

Leadership from the World Learning Inc. family was present online during the ceremony too, including trustee Jenny Backus; President and CEO Carol Jenkins; and SIT Dean of Faculty Dr. Said Graiouid.

As Dr. Kathryn Inskeep, interim director of SIT Graduate Institute and dean of Assessment and Learning for SIT, and Dr. Alla Lorzh, associate professor and program chair of the doctorate in Global Education, read the graduates’ names during the presentation of the diplomas, those connected silently applauded each graduate using American Sign Language.

After the last of the names were read and the degrees officially conferred, Howlett led the virtual celebration, perhaps kicking off a new tradition.

“If you have a hat on, please feel free to turn that tassel over. If you do not have a hat, like many of us, we’re going to take you off mute at this point, and I want you to yell at the screen ‘Congratulations!’ to all of your fellow students.”

With those words, a cacophony of voices erupted from the video call. Despite the static din of the long-distance connection, with eyes shut, one could be forgiven for imagining, for a moment, that this graduation was like any other.

As the ceremony drew to a close, Mory Pagel, executive director of Institutional Relationships and Strategic Partnerships at SIT, proudly welcomed the graduates to the SIT and World Learning family of alumni, which is now more than 125,000 people strong and located all over the world.