Gillibrand addresses NEC graduates at commencement

  • The New England College Class of 2019 emerges from the Henniker covered bridge on their way to the commencement ceremony on Saturday. Ethan DeWitt photos / Monitor staff

  • 2019 graduates of New England College walk in to the commencement ceremony in Henniker, Saturday, May 11, 2019. Ethan DeWitt—Ethan DeWitt

  • Presidential candidate and U.S. Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.) addresses the Class of 2019 after receiving an honorary degree at New England College in Henniker on Saturday.

Monitor staff
Published: 5/11/2019 11:01:18 PM

Sarah Derian had the white picket fence childhood of the American dream, and the assurance of opportunity that went with it.

But it wasn’t until she met her husband that she fully appreciated its worth. Her new in-law relatives, immigrants from Armenia, brought Derian humbling perspective on privilege, possibility and the value of higher education.

Learning their harrowing family history laid bare the advantages Derian had become used to. But it was their emphasis on higher learning that inspired Derian to move to Henniker and pursue a masters in education at New England College.

“It was no longer a question of whether or not it was required or deserved, but rather if I made the space and the time to embrace this gift,” she said.

Derian told her story as the graduate studies speaker on the Henniker campus, one of 925 graduates from the school in 2019. On Saturday, about half of them gathered for a commencement ceremony headlined by U.S. senator and presidential hopeful Kirsten Gillibrand.

New England College has operated as a contradiction for years: a small, isolated institution with a global reach and expansive ambitions. Students pour in from across the country and abroad, their journeys as varied as their destinations.

To Derian, it’s the perfect foundation to find opportunity.

“While we have earned this degree today, we must not forget to look around for unexpected teachers,” she said. “They are all around us, all the time.”

For Meaghan Six, the undergraduate class speaker, the path to the podium wasn’t linear. The Manchester native bounced around a few colleges before landing at NEC, she said. But there she found a home.

“New England College wasn’t my first choice, but there’s a reason it became my last,” she said.

It’s a trajectory familiar to many who attend the small New Hampshire college, Six said: arriving unintentionally and staying with pride. For most, there’s a singular moment that seals their affinity, she said.

“There’s a camaraderie here that I would argue is unmatched by other institutions, and that other simply could never understand without being right where we are now,” she said. “When you step foot on this campus, you are immersed in the inclusive culture we share.”

Six’s moment was in the gymnasium, as a new member of the women’s volleyball program. It was instantly exhilarating: the team, the court, and the “unwavering support of our campus community.” She would ascend to captaincy and see the team reach the semifinals in the New England Collegiate Conference.

Addressing students, Gillibrand, too, tried to harness the power of new frontiers. The second-term New York senator – one of 21 Democrats vying for next year’s party nomination – grounded her speech around her campaign’s chosen theme: bravery.

“I’m here today to ask you one question: How are you going to be brave?” Gillibrand said.

The theme – part career advice, part political battle cry – weaved throughout the 16-minute speech. Gillibrand tied it to gun control activism from survivors of the 2018 Parkland massacre, to efforts against climate change and the opioid crisis, and to opposition to family separation under President Donald Trump.

But by the senator’s telling, the real meaning of bravery is rooted in the personal. Gillibrand’s understanding, she said, came from her grandmother.

Lacking a college degree, the senator’s grandmother crafted her influence through organizing, pulling together door-knocking and mail campaigns in the New York legislature and turning a grassroots campaign into a political force.

“She redefined what women can accomplish in the political sphere and she was brave enough to force open doors into spaces where women weren’t invited,” the senator said.

That, Gillibrand said, helped plant the seeds that led to her own public service, as a U.S. representative-turned-senator.

“I’m telling you this story because I want you to understand that the path to public service isn’t always easy or direct,” she said. “You can’t always see your path. It can be risky and scary … Sometimes – let’s be honest, often times – you’ll doubt yourself. But it is worth it.”

For many of the students, those paths are far from clear. Some left the commencement with plenty of passion but few plans. Others had clear intentions for their future.

Zach Delgado always knew where he’d land. The criminal justice degree brings the Manchester resident a step closer to a lifelong dream: entering the state police academy and joining a local police department.

Any department available, Delgado specified. Maybe Bow. “Close to Manchester,” he said.

Delgado has had his sights set on the career for a while, attracted to the “brotherhood,” he said. But his courses at New England College added a new dimension to his passion: community policing.

“The community’s the most important thing in the job,” he said.

Throughout Saturday, friends and families swarmed the leafy campus and spilled into Henniker’s two street downtown. The town’s secluded location and postcard New England environs is a selling point for the small college. But the remoteness can sometimes make for tough transitions, admitted Kathleen Donohue, 21 of Yarmouth Port, Mass.

Several of Donohue’s classmates were unable to make it past the first year, she said. But Donohue found camaraderie on the women’s ice hockey team, and the grueling, close-knit practice sessions that came along.

Now, she’s on her way with a communications degree and an eye on Boston. Her ideal field: sports public relations. “I’m a good problem solver,” she said.

Key to Donohue’s experience, she said, was a lesson from her communications professor William Homestead: “Whatever I think my best work is, you can still perfect it three more times.”

“Even when you think you’re there, you gotta keep perfecting.”

(Ethan DeWitt can be reached at 369-3307, or on Twitter at @edewittNH.)

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