Class of 2021 Valedictorian: Rachel Brainerd

For the last four years, Rachel Brainerd ’20 (Visual Arts), the valedictorian of the SUNY New Paltz Class of 2021, embraced the life of a dedicated commuting student. She lived in her family home in Poughkeepsie, New York, and worked part-time to afford her education and studio fees.

But like the rest of her class, she was also at the mercy of a worldwide pandemic and its relevant changes to the higher education landscape.

“My journey through college looked very different from what I expected,” said Brainerd. “But I’ve found that the variety of relationships I built over the years, with my family and coworkers, as well as faculty and peers at SUNY New Paltz, taught me the skills, autonomy, and confidence needed to transition into post-college life.”

Initially, Brainerd looked for ways to make the best of a tough situation. She was a studio art major concentrating in metal, so losing access to the studio in the early days of COVID-19 forced her and her classmates to find new ways of working.

She credits those months of online learning outside of the studio with helping her explore non-traditional materials and ways of working her craft.

“It helped me prepare for the time after graduation when I would no longer have access to countless tools in the campus studios – where now I have to problem-solve with the smaller scale equipment I’ve collected,” she said. “It made me appreciate all of the resources I’d taken for granted, and reflect on the experiences of those who never had access to those resources to begin with.”

The partial reopening of campus in fall 2020 allowed Brainerd to get back into the studio, and she took full advantage, focusing on a senior thesis featuring wearable metal forms that illustrate the psychological effects of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) in refugees.

“I will never forget my last semester on campus,” said Brainerd. “I was just so grateful that we had the right precautions in place to allow my peers and me back into the metal studio.”

Beyond her success as an artist, Brainerd was an active member of the campus community. She became a member of the Honors Program her freshman year and also joined the All 4 Jesus Campus Ministry Club, where she served as worship leader, secretary, vice president, and eventually president. She was inducted into the Psi Chi Psychology Honors her last semester and volunteered with Saturdays of Service and Make a Difference Day every year.

Brainerd now resides in Cincinnati, Ohio, where she works for an agency that supports community-based living for individuals with developmental disabilities. She plans on attending George Washington University in Washington, D.C., to earn her master’s degree in art therapy.

Click here for additional information about SUNY New Paltz’s 2021 Commencement Ceremonies.