Bates College President Clayton Spencer speaks during an online-only convocation Tuesday. Video screenshot

LEWISTON — Bates College formally kicked off its academic year with its first online-only convocation welcoming new students to its historic campus in Lewiston.

President Clayton Spencer recognized that newcomers were arriving at a time of “dislocation, stress and distress” across the world due to the COVID-19 pandemic that shuttered the college in March and caused it to reopen for its fall semester with strict new public health rules.

The disease, she said, has “altered the most basic rhythms of life.”

But despite changes forced on Bates by the crisis, student leaders and professors urged arriving students to embrace the possibilities that a liberal arts education offers, from exploring a range of academic subjects to trying new activities.

“You’ve earned the opportunity to come to Bates and to let it change you,” Charles Nero, a longtime professor, said.

Bates professor Charles Nero speaks during an online-only convocation Tuesday. Video screenshot

The new class at Bates numbers about 480 students, selected from more than 7,600 applicants. Slightly more than half are women, a little more than one in four is a student of color, and 10% live outside the United States.

One of them kayaked 140 miles of Alaska’s Prince William Sound from Valdez to Whitter, Bates reported, while another translated the Bible into Albanian. Its members include a national ice dancing champion, a prom organizer for senior citizens, a coral restoration expert and someone who founded a Model United Nations in an area of Iraq occupied by ISIS.

For all of them, Spencer said, Bates provides a chance “to figure out what you want to learn and how you will act in the world.”

Nero and Stephanie Kelley-Romano, both professors of rhetoric, film and screen studies, offered lots of advice about how students should deal with their four years at Bates.

“Get out of your comfort zone,” Kelley-Romano said. “Don’t let your views be so narrow that you miss the beauty of a broader perspective.”

Nero told students, “Seek balance. Don’t burn out.”

They said that through collaboration, trust and learning students can create useful and satisfying lives.

Lebanos Mengistu and Perla Figuereo, co-presidents of the student government at Bates College in Lewiston, speak to fellow students during the online-only convocation Tuesday. Video screenshot

Lebanos Mengistu, co-president of the student government, advised students “to learn something new from everyone you meet.”

Perla Figuereo, the other co-president, said students should try new things academically and beyond.

“Be comfortable with failure,” she said.

The two said the new class is arriving at a nearly unprecedented moment in history.

Bates professor Stephanie Kelley-Romano speaks during the online-only convocation Tuesday. Video screenshot

“We want to make sure to keep everyone safe and well,” Figuereo said.

Spencer said the pandemic has exposed a range of problems while fraying the bonds that tie us all together, including the reality that COVID-19 strikes Black and Latino people three times as often as white Americans and that police keep killing Black people despite protests and calls for reform.

“These are deeply distressing times for anyone who cares about this country,” Spencer said.

Spencer told students to embrace the liberal arts, which can help provide the context and understanding so crucial for citizens of a democracy.

She also urged them to be sure to employ “the simplest, yet most powerful act” in a democracy: voting.

Kelley Romano issued a final comment to new students. “Class of 2024, welcome to Bates.”

“Now go get busy,” Nero chimed in.

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