Poet Richard Blanco will be the commencement speaker Sunday, May 23, at Colby College in Waterville. Photo by Jacob Hessler

WATERVILLE — Poet Richard Blanco will be the graduation speaker May 23 at Colby College’s 200th commencement, to be held in person at the Mayflower Hill campus in Waterville, college officials announced Thursday.

At the ceremony, the college will confer honorary degrees on restaurateur Erin French, owner of the Lost Kitchen in Freedom; Nobel Prize-winning geneticist and chronobiologist Michael Rosbash; and Theresa Secord, award-winning Penobscot basket maker and founding director of Maine Indian Basketmakers Alliance.

The ceremony will be closed to the public because of the coronavirus pandemic.

The speaker at baccalaureate ceremonies May 22 will be Charles Terrell, a 1970 Colby graduate and nationally recognized authority on higher education access, diversity in higher education and medical education and student financial assistance.

Terrell and the others will receive honorary doctorate degrees at the commencement exercises.

“This year’s commencement will be particularly meaningful as we are all so grateful for the opportunity to gather in celebration of our graduates,” Colby President David A. Greene said in a prepared announcement released to the news media. “We look forward to honoring and hearing the insights and perspectives of Richard Blanco and Charles Terrell while also celebrating Erin French, Michael Rosbash, and Theresa Secord for their important contributions. This group represents so much of what is right and good in this world, and we are delighted to be recognizing them in this way.”

The graduation ceremony is scheduled to begin at 10 a.m. on the lawn in front of Miller Library. Any notification of a weather-related location change would be posted at colby.edu, along with the link to a live video feed.

In an interview Thursday, Blanco, 53, said he was selected to bring a message of poetry during turbulent times.

Charles Terrell, a 1970 Colby graduate and nationally recognized authority on higher education access, will be the speaker at baccalaureate ceremonies May 22 at Colby College in Waterville. Photo courtesy of Colby College

“I’m planning to do something poetic,” Blanco said, adding he planned to create an original poem, or at least original poem lines, for the Colby speech. “There’s a way poetry can speak to our times right now, when we’re most confused, heart-wrenched, what we’re going through as a country. Poetry can offer us language, different ways of thinking and a new perspective that plain old speech can’t.”

Colby’s Class of 2021 includes 514 students from 36 states and 21 countries. Those receiving honorary degrees will join the class, faculty members and guests in celebrating graduates’ academic achievements and leadership on campus, particularly this year, according to college officials.

“Their successful completion in the midst of the Covid-19 pandemic has special significance for all those involved,” Colby officials said in the announcement.

Blanco, who read one of his poems at the 2013 inauguration of President Barack Obama, received an honorary degree from Colby in 2014.

“A renowned poet and artistic visionary, Blanco’s words stirred the nation as the inaugural poet at the 2013 Inauguration of President Barack Obama,” Colby said in its announcement. “Blanco has been a Woodrow Wilson Visiting Fellow and the Academy of American Poets’ first Education Fellow and was the inaugural artist in residence at Colby’s Lunder Institute for American Art in 2018.”

Born into a family of Cuban exiles, Blanco writes about collective, sociopolitical issues and advocates for the role poetry plays in the public realm.

Colby noted Blanco has published four critically acclaimed volumes of his poetry, including his latest, “How to Love a Country,” which explores current issues relating to immigration, racism, gun violence and LGBTQ issues.

He has also composed works commemorating events, such as the reopening of the U.S. Embassy in Cuba and the “Boston Strong” benefit concert, held after the 2013 Boston Marathon bombings.

Terrell, the baccalaureate speaker, is founder of Cross Creek Higher Ed Associates, which provides pro-bono higher education advisory services. He worked previously for the American Association of Medical Colleges and Boston University Medical Center, and served on Colby’s board of trustees from 2006 to 2014.

“Terrell is known as an icon of activism at Colby as a founding member and the first president of the student group, Students Organized for Black Unity (now Students Organized for Black and Latinx Unity), in 1969,” according to Colby officials. “Terrell became a leader in a movement that challenged the college to confront issues of inequity which, while highly controversial at the time, has since been celebrated for creating lasting change. Terrell remains engaged with Colby students and young alumni as a friend, resource, and mentor.”

French, the restaurateur, is a James Beard Award-nominated chef who established a culinary mecca at The Lost Kitchen, considered one of the nation’s hardest-to-book restaurants.

Rosbash, besides being a a Nobel Prize-winning geneticist and chronobiologist, is a Brandeis University professor and Howard Hughes Medical Institute investigator, best known for his research with Drosophila (fruit flies) to determine how circadian rhythms work.

Secord, the award-winning Penobscot basketmaker and founding director of the Maine Indian Basketmakers Alliance, is an advocate for preserving and promoting the art of ash and sweetgrass basketry.

Most students in the Colby Class of 2021 have studied abroad, participated in a global research or internship experience through DavisConnects and completed significant scholarly research, according to Colby officials. The class played a critical role in the college’s ability to provide an on-campus, in-person academic program for its students throughout this year.

“The leadership of this class has been profound,” said Karlene Burrell-McRae, dean of the college. “They saw the challenge ahead and rose to it in ways that make us incredibly proud and grateful. I will be honored to read their names as they cross the stage at commencement.”

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