My college graduation was very strange. I had been accepted into the Smith College School for Social Work and was scheduled to begin the summer program there on June 4. This was, however, the very same day of my undergraduate graduation, as we were on a trimester system.
A family member with financial resources kindly bought me a plane ticket to help me travel from back east to attend orientation events at the School for Social Work, and then fly back to attend my college graduation.
After classes were over I packed a backpack and flew from Portland, OR to Northampton, MA to attend a few days of orientation.
But it turned out as confused as I was about the end of semester activities in one place, and orientation activities in another, that by the time I got to Northampton, orientation activities had mostly ended and students were preparing to begin classes, settling into their rooms and beginning to explore Northampton.
I remember sitting by the banks of the Mill River looking up at the trees wondering to myself, what on earth have I done? Back in Oregon my friends had mostly moved us out of our apartment, and in 48 hours I packed up the rest of my belongings and tried to be a civil host to my parents who were there to see me graduate, and walked sleepily onto the stage to receive my diploma. The whole thing was a blur.
Over the summer that followed I remember not quite being sure if I had actually graduated. For the next several weeks I tried to adapt to new surroundings and new people, not to mention the intensive coursework for which the SSW is known. I remained jet-lagged for what felt like months. I grieved my old life, the fresh air of Portland, the mountains, and my friends and the life I had built over four years of college.
Sometimes we say we are all refugees to refer to spiritual and social upheaval. It is questionable to use this term to apply to ourselves in times of transition, if we are not in fact actually people seeking political asylum or fleeing persecution like so many around us, as we speak. The last several years as we know have seen an unprecedented refugee crisis in a world which has the resources to provide shelter housing and basic human rights for everyone, including Latin Americans trying desperately to come over the southern border for a better life. Some of you reading this may in fact come from refugee families. And a disrupted college graduation might not seem like much in the scheme of things.
But in so far as the etymology of the word can be traced to “one seeking a place of safety,” a place of refuge, we are all refugees now of a certain sort.
Many of you had to leave campus abruptly. Community members and staff and faculty had to move our work lives on-line, and figure out how to educate our children while employed full time. All of us are separated from places and routines in which we felt at home.
When I think of myself sitting bewildered on the banks of the Mill River, I remember feeling like a refuge seeker– the life I had built in college was now not only left behind but dismantled, except in memory, and yet I had not settled into anything new. I had not been able to be fully present for the rituals that would help me emerge from one stage of my life into another, and so I felt neither here nor there.
Anthropologist Victor Turner’s term, “liminality,” captures the indeterminacy of an in between time. It describes the threshold when, for example, one is no longer a child but not yet an adult. A vision quest or similar rite of passage helps make and mark this transition.
Without the ritual of graduation or end-of-year ceremonies it may feel as if you will be in a liminal place forever. Graduation has not been preceded by a week of activities reminiscing, and celebrating, taking part in all the activities that help serve the rite of passage, bringing you from the old life to something else. The fall is uncertain, and we left campus abruptly without a ritual to help us understand what was happening.
But there is more to liminality than “betwixt and between.” Turner also noted that a liminal experience leads us to question social structures as they are. A vision quest or other coming of age rituals draw upon deep reliance on one’s own internal resources, one may have “visions” of what lies below the surface in human consciousness.
And in these times more than ever a Smith education must be about questioning social structures, interrogating what we have been taught not just academically, but contemplatively with our whole selves.
Perhaps this is a vision quest for all of you.
So, I invite us to think about the benefits of what might feel like an extended period of liminality as helping to imagine a new world. Students, you will bring this vision into your classrooms and houses and activities in the fall, whether virtual or in person. Class of 2020, you will bring this forward into the rest of your life—you will be the visionary generation.
What I learned that strange and lonely summer of my first year of Social Work School has lasted me my whole life. My homesickness for my old friends inspired me to intense and meaningful correspondence, and some of my relationships even deepened over the miles. My longing for connection drew me deeply into my studies and into getting to know my classmates. I learned that I could survive and even flourish through a major life transition.
Though it can be impossible to feel engaged while gazing at a zoom window, each of us is struggling in our own ways, seeking refuge.
As President McCartney says, Smith is not just a school, it is a movement, and while part of this journey may feel intensely solitary, my hope is that you know you are not alone.
(Matilda Cantwell is the director of Religious & Spiritual Life and College Chaplain.)