November 18, 2019
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COA Celebrates 40th Commencement

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BAR HARBOR, ME—Calling College of the Atlantic’s class of 2013 the “marvelous 72,” Dr. Paul Farmer, noted doctor and co-founder of Partners In Health, told the graduates to “partner hard” during the college’s 40th commencement exercises on June 8.

Farmer underscored themes of being true to one’s self, relying on others, and following understanding with action. After a bit of teasing of the college for its intentionally small size, and adding a greeting in Creole to the families of COA’s four Haitian seniors, Farmer spoke about the essential importance of a “complex web of connectivity” to get things done. An understanding of this complexity, he noted, is implicit in COA’s single major of human ecology, which probes the relationship between humans and our social, natural, and built worlds. Teamwork, partnerships, and persistence, Farmer added, are necessary for any global initiative and COA students, trained in the school’s hands-on, problem-solving curriculum, know this well. They are not content to see patterns. “They get involved, discover connections, and act on their findings.” In short, COA students graduate ready to “partner hard.”

A physician, educator, and activist, Farmer chairs the Department of Global Health and Social Medicine at Harvard Medical School and is chief of the Division of Global Health Equity at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston. At Partners In Health, an international non-profit organization providing direct health care services, research, and advocacy activities on behalf of those who are sick and living in poverty, Farmer serves as chief strategist.

The ceremony took place under a large tent on the shores of the Atlantic Ocean festooned with flags of the many nations from which COA students and alumni hail. Joining the 72 graduates from 18 states and the District of Columbia, as well as nine nations beyond the United States, were COA faculty, staff, undergraduates, trustees, and hundreds of family members, friends, and alumni.

At the ceremonies, Dr. Farmer received an honorary Master’s of Philosophy in Human Ecology. Five students spoke: Maura Brennan, who introduced Farmer, Colleen Courtney, Graham Reeder, Gina Sabatini, and Jesse Karppinen, a graduate from Finland. Karppinen received a standing ovation after concluding his speech with these words: “Four years ago, I was … preaching to my fellow students about how compassion did not exist in the world. I was cynical about the world with no hope. Today … I am standing here in front of you as a believer in the power of devotion and transformation.” Karppinen leaves COA to pursue a medical degree in Europe.

In his talk, President Darron Collins, a 1992 alumnus, praised COA students for being tough, feisty, and willing to get their hands dirty. In a word, he said, COA students are “scrappy.” Following the speeches, Collins, COA’s first alumni president, delivered diplomas and a hug alongside COA board chair Will Thorndike of Housatonic Partners. As part of the tradition, the students call upon their classmates to receive a diploma, along with a large flower and additional hugs.

As always at COA, students chose their own graduation attire. A student from Hawaii received her diploma festooned with leis, another donned a crown, and several wore mortarboards. Some crossed the tent’s muddy threshold in cowboy boots, others in three-inch heels, still others had no shoes at all. The students had all done extensive senior projects, undertaking original scientific and ethnographic research, mounting exhibits, completing films, and penning guides to herbs, birds, and plankton, as well as a full-scale biography of COA’s longest-serving employee.

College of the Atlantic was founded in 1969 on the premise that education should go beyond understanding the world as it is, to enabling students to actively shape its future. A leader in experiential education and environmental stewardship, COA has pioneered a distinctive interdisciplinary approach to learning—human ecology—that develops the kinds of creative thinkers and doers needed by all sectors of society in addressing the compelling and growing needs of our world. For more, visit