“An Ode to Mount Holyoke” by Sarzah Yeasmin ’18
As the time to bid farewell treads forward
We walk across the ironclad gate
Leaving our shadows behind to swing along with the chiming bells of the Abbey Chapel,
On the knells of autumn that struck the chords of our hearts,
On our way to the grandeur of the library,
On the lush labyrinth of a bustling afternoon -----------
We dwell along the maze of longing faces, meditating for the most-awaited Sunday brunch,
In the welcoming smile of workers who make this place a home,
The dining hall workers, the janitors, the maintenance workers, who we pass by in oblivion --------
We’ll leave our shadows on our way back from grueling yet eclectic arguments,
Raising a storm on our coffee cups as we rush back and forth from doors to doors.
We sojourn in the halls of Skinner, where the blend of euphoric voices lull us back to our first day,
Black and white, to our days of commencing yore, to the amber of a yearning ------
Yet the voices of reason are sharp, crisp, fierce, and brand new
Ringing in our ears, and speaking to our lips ---------
We’ll leave our shadows to hang by the lower lake
Oscillating in the oasis of bonds
Listening to the rippling waves,
We’ll leave our shadows here to grow with the grass on pangy day
And prance with the showering confetti
Breaking from the ground that had been long buried under the soft bed of New England snow -------
We will dwell in our minds riddled with the right questions
That we’ve learned to ask over our years here ---------
We too have aged with this home away from home,
We too have given as much as we were given
To the place that has been a home for hundreds of years to thousands of us.
Many of us, have exchanged mere glances and smiles,
Many of us have exchanged occasional words and waves
Many of us fought to be here --------
And many of us here, have stayed up, plotting our lives in the shy, short lived twilight,
Serenaded by the bittersweet breeze and rustling leaves,
And many of us here swayed into the arms of a stranger
A stranger who became our other half, our better-half, our friend,
And many of us will create our own paths because we can hope ————
This home has challenged us,
Exhausted us, torn us in tatters,
Provoked us to topple ourselves
As we grew here in many ways
Finding and losing our paths,
Constructing and deconstructing ourselves ------------
This place has also pronounced us,
And promised us of better days ---------
Here and now, we stand on the solemn labor of our sisters, comrades, and mothers
Some of us come from the fringes of the globe,
Emerging from the margins with only dreams at our disposal
Some of us fight in our silence of a corner, or in the faint, yet reckoning glow of a candlelight vigil,
And some of us with our bodies on the streets, raising our fists, pounding our feet
But for all of us, the lights are still on as we dream awake night after night,
Ready to go miles and miles before we sleep ————
All of us are taken by the vast expanse on the Mountain Day
When for us the bells toll
We are spellbound, yet striving with our tired legs and army of friends to reach the future beyond ourselves
And as we cross yet another stage of life tomorrow,
With the rituals in procession and cheers leading our way, launching us into a life after here ———
We will join the walks of our sisters, fortune tellers, ancestors, and survivors, of names known and unknown,
We claim the morsel of the earth that we have walked on for four years ----- or two years,
As it had asked a piece of us
When it asked us to never fear change -------
We haven’t feared change
Because we can, if we will ———
Baccalaureate Remarks by Saltanat Ansari ’18
(remarks as prepared)
Dear Mount Holyoke, With Love, The Pegasi Who Shall Never Fear Change
Congratulations to the Never/Fear Change generation, class of 2018, we made it!
We made it as gender minorities, people of color, first-generation college students, undocumented, immigrants, domestic and international, we all made it. Despite our differences, here we are cherishing our shared experience through this warm yet sassy, kind yet fierce place we call MoHome.
I flew to the United States 7,000 miles away from my home, Lahore, Pakistan. In my newly acquired international status as a South Asian, Muslim woman of color, I felt excited but displaced. I knew there was much for me to adjust to — the dollar bills, the New England weather, the left-side steering wheel and American chai tea. And in this long, four-year process, Mount Holyoke became the place where I learned how to unlearn and relearn. We all have, in the MoHo way.
Believe it or not, today is the end of possibly the longest rollercoaster ride of our lives so far. We may have begun our common journey with “Orange is the New Black” but it winded down to much deeper than just that. Our first Convocation celebrated not just the red Pegasi of 2018 but also Mount Holyoke’s historic change in policy on admission of transgender students who were now just as welcome to join this great institution.
We participated in the day of action for Black Lives Matter during the fall of 2014 in our pursuit to realize Assata Shakur’s words: “We must love and support each other. We have nothing to lose but our chains.” The climate for people of color continued to change and we demonstrated our unwavering strength yet again in the fall of 2015. As we interrupted and walked out of our engagements, we walked into a safe procession expressing solidarity with our peers who were protesting on-campus racism in Missouri, Yale and other colleges.
We then progressed into what was going to be a rowdy and terrifying election season. And if you are an international F-1 visa holder like me, you probably felt severely unsure of this moment that we are living here right now. But on the morning of November 9, 2016, we did not fear and embraced not just the change, but also each other, realizing the power of free hugs. Soon we came out in mighty hundreds to demand safety for the undocumented, immigrant and international members of our community. We raised our voices for each one of us who felt vulnerable: “No importa de dónde eres, estamos contentos que seas nuestro vecino.” “No matter where you are from, we are glad you are our neighbor.”
Unfortunately, in 2017, we lost one of our own red Pegasus, Paige Zeiler who left behind her friends, peers and the Mount Holyoke community in shock and sorrow. This was followed by the passing of Professor Kavita Datla, who I like to remember as an academic activist. She was composed in manner yet fiercely intellectual and invited her students to confront the challenging and changing notions of South Asian history, religion and politics. You both are greatly missed. Let us take a moment of silence to wish peace upon them and honor them for their service to the Mount Holyoke community.
But we have also navigated our individual paths through the past few years spent here. We have each found our own comfortable spot on this campus that has heard our frantic internal dialog and soaked in our distressed tears. We have strived in our own ways to carve our own path in politics, science, technology, art amongst many other fields and be standing here today as the best version of ourselves.
So, it really has been a rollercoaster. And this ride will always make us nostalgic once we walk out of the gates tomorrow. We will remember the 2018 chants and cheers that carried over from Orientation to Dis-O, the heels that chased that last bus back to campus on a Saturday night, the crisp of the fall leaves crunching under our feet and “Dirty Dancing” under the stars. We will remember the pink sunsets glimmering around us that we all stopped to feature on our Snapchat, the feeling after a fulfilling meeting with our mentor and the quintessential MoHo conversations that could critique mansplaining and appreciate unlimited swipes to Super Blanch with similar ease.
Now as we embark on the next endeavors that await us, I am tempted to reflect on all the times I left this campus to be somewhere else. I would feel excited but displaced. This is because when I relearned, I relearned Mount Holyoke so well that everything beyond these 800 acres seemed a little alien. But the greater thing that I have learned at Mount Holyoke is this: Change is only one of the two constants in life — the other is embracing it. Very often in life we may feel lost in places that would seem bigger than ourselves and just when we get too comfortable, it will be time to relocate, like it is today. So, I want to remind all of us that today, we are more ready than we think we are because MoHome taught us to keep our hearts open, love ourselves, fight the inequalities and feel free to be a tad bit feisty in the process.
So, Baby may be starting “real world” in the fall but no one can put Baby in a corner! Thank you to every single one of us in the Mount Holyoke community who made this day possible. Class of 2018, you have my heart and we will soar to new heights — it has been my greatest pleasure.
Sonya Stephens, acting president and president-elect
Acting President and President-elect Stephens gave the Welcome Address, calling on the graduates to take “a moment to reflect on how you spent your time here as the world has changed around us.”
(remarks as delivered)
Good morning, everyone. Trustees, honored guests, members of the faculty, colleagues, our distinguished graduates, class of 2018. Good morning and welcome. It is my very great pleasure to welcome you all to the 181st Mount Holyoke College Commencement. With Barbara Baumann, chair of the Board of Trustees, I extend my warmest congratulations to all those receiving degrees and certificates today, and acknowledge the support that has helped you along the way. To all the family and friends with us today, and to those who could not be here in person and are watching the ceremony, or thinking of graduates as the celebrate this moment, thank you.
Thank you for the encouragement you have offered, and in many cases for the sacrifices you have made so that your student could earn the degree or certificate that they will take today. Graduates, please would you take a moment to acknowledge all those who supported you, near and far, including your own classmates, and the faculty. Would you please also all stand so that we can acknowledge you and show our gratitude to you? Faculty, would the faculty stand? Stand.
Thank you. One hundred eighty years ago, on August 23rd, the very first Mount Holyoke graduation exercises, known as Anniversary, were held. With a small procession of students dressed in white, from the seminary to the meeting house, where student, where certificates were awarded to the three graduates. Mary Lyon wasn’t given to great ceremony or public display, nor to personal display of emotion, but Miss Caldwell’s account of that afternoon describes it as, and I quote, “An hour in Mary Lyon’s life never to be forgotten. Wonder, gratitude and praise filled her heart.” She continues, “Her great soul was so charged with joy, smiles and tears stove for mastery of her radiant face. For an hour, she resigned herself to the emotions of the occasion and gave way to a joy with which no one could intermeddle.”
Class of 2018, all graduates and honorary degree recipients, we are here today to participate in the praise and wonder at your achievements. You join those first three graduates in a great lineage that honors your endeavors, as well as the historic legacy of Mount Holyoke Seminary and College, to ensure that your education is, in the words of our founder, “Not for you only, but for our country and the world.” Today, as we celebrate over 600 graduates, who hail from 33 different countries, who are citizens of 36 nations and who have come here from 39 states. There can be no doubt about Mount Holyoke’s commitment to a global education, nor about your individual and collective impact upon this community and henceforth upon the nation and the world that you are entering.
You have shown us that you challenge boundaries, break out of them and redefine them. That you are individuals committed to each other, to social change and to the planet. You are always connected, and you use that connectivity to change things for the better, and you are intrinsically a part of the global community. Today is a moment to reflect on how you spent your time here as the world has changed around us. To celebrate your engagement with facts, opinions and interpretation, in all that you do. Today is a day to acknowledge and celebrate your unwavering commitment to advance the causes and the knowledge that matter most in this time and to you.
Graduating today, there are students with first and advanced degrees, and some 565 members of the class of 2018, along with two post-baccs and 65 graduates earning master’s degrees — for some of them, this is their second Mount Holyoke degree. Twenty-two of you came to Mount Holyoke as transfer students. Twenty-seven of you are Frances Perkins scholars. One of you is a current Mount Holyoke staff member. And one of you first matriculated in 1982, and after some twists and turns and more than two decades away from Mount Holyoke, you are back here today to claim a degree earned over half a lifetime. Congratulations.
Some of you have braved illness and other personal challenges and losses. Today we also remember those who are not here to graduate or to celebrate your achievements with us. To get to this point, you’ve completed over 21,000 courses. Twenty-one thousand. At Mount Holyoke. Twenty-two hundred of these were in physical education. Over 1,200 were in psychology, while almost a thousand were in each of biological sciences, economics, English and math. You took over 800 courses at the undergraduate and the graduate level in education, around 700 each in politics and computer science, over 500 in history and in dance. Over 450 in philosophy and in sociology. Nearly 400 in Spanish. Over 300 in environmental studies. As well as nearly 11,000 in other enriching and glorious liberal arts college subjects. That’s just the Mount Holyoke courses.
In addition, collectively, you took well over a thousand courses in the Five Colleges. They ranged from Money and Banking to Barbarian Literature. From Queer Feelings to Machine Learning. Chinese Religions to Marine Mammals. Statistics Through Baseball to Swahili III. You committed to learning about Black Women in U.S. History. Anthropology and Tourism in South Africa. National Parks, Linguistics, Film Production Design, Student Farm Management, Human Physiology, Cyberpolitics and What Jane Austen Read. Your commitments are expressed in a stack of diplomas behind me. Diplomas that represent three graduate programs, 49 different undergraduate majors and 304 different combinations of majors, minors, certificates and Nexus credentials. One hundred and four of you are graduating with double majors.
Congratulations. You have customized your degrees and your pathways to express who you are and what is meaningful for you. To prepare yourselves for a future that matters to you and to the world. We celebrate your commencement knowing that as your journey begins, whether in graduate school as advocates for social justice and the environment, information technologists, healthcare professionals, researchers, performers, public servants, economists, entrepreneurs or business leaders, you will continue to serve and empower others in your own distinctive way, and to live in the spirit of this place and this education as unravelers of complexity, responsible fact-checkers, open-minded knowledge bearers, and most of all, persistent truth-tellers.
As I look out at you, I see both great accomplishment and great hope. I see a student body that has challenged and livened and emboldened this college and each one of us, to live up to its promise, to your promise. I see one of the greatest incubators of intellectual and social progress, and a collective comprising extraordinary individuals, accomplished graduates and mature thinkers who will make that progress their imperative, just as our honorary degree recipients have done. You will hear more about their achievements in due course, but taken together, they have worked to promote civil rights, equity and opportunity, to eradicate systemic discrimination, to empower all Americans, and to ensure access to education, to healthcare and to fair pay.
They are women who, in the most daunting of times and situations, have held fast to what they believed in and redoubled their efforts so that others would be empowered. Through their achievements, they serve as a model for what is possible with noble impulses, perseverance and sheer hard work. This kind of endeavor is at the very heart of Mount Holyoke and its founding. Mount Holyoke has always been an incubator for great ideas and unwavering commitment. A place founded on a desire to provide an education for women and a place that now continues that historic legacy in advocating for gender equity wherever it is challenged.
The 1839 Commencement speech at Mount Holyoke was delivered by Dr. Anderson, who many thought should not endorse a liberal education for women. He spoke with great passion, enthusiasm and support for the seminary. “There are,” he said, “important experiments in progress, and this seminary is one of the most important.” While we might take issue, as T.W. Higgins later did, with being an experiment, and not from the outset an institute of higher learning, we might draw from this a yet greater sense of our historic role in pushing boundaries, in challenging received ideas, and in being the place of vision for what the future should be. Anderson described Mount Holyoke as a powerful transforming influence, and continues, “It is not a local institution. The experiment is one of general interest and its success will be a national good.”
Two years later, the Anniversary speaker, Professor Bela B. Edwards, picked up this theme and proclaimed that were such an institution to exist in every state, it will be one of the firmest props of the union. Continuing to say that, “no beetle-eyed prejudice, no narrow-minded bigotry, can find a home where the sciences are truly taught. The air which is breathed is too invigorating. The impulses which it prompts are too noble.”
As you reflect on your time at Mount Holyoke, on all that you have done here, abroad and in neighboring communities, on the learning and the leading in which you have engaged, and as you take in deeply and nostalgically the invigorating air of South Hadley and your success, my hope is that you will carry these noble impulses with you, wherever you go. That, shaped by this education and your own values, transformed by Mount Holyoke and your peers, inspired by all those who have gone before you, you will know great happiness and see progress in your endeavors, and that you will continue to be a force for good in the world. This is our heritage, and this is the charge that comes with your diploma. Congratulations.
Aiza Amjad Malik ’18
Malik gave the Student Address, encouraging the Class of 2018 to enter into the moment with intentionality and courage.
(remarks as delivered)
Welcome, everyone. Faculty, staff, friends, family, and the graduating class of 2018. We are here today to celebrate, commemorate and initiate. Our time at Mount Holyoke has been a collection of moments, a mosaic of stories, journeys, friendships and perhaps a few too many late nights at the library, experiences that string together to create something truly worthwhile. We are here to celebrate journeys, commemorate stories and initiate the next stage in our lives.
Today, Baby graduates from Mount Holyoke —
— a beginning and an end. Isn’t that the truism for moments like this? But overused and trite as it is, nothing captures this moment better. The question for today is, “How do we begin?” And the people who help us answer are seated all around us. Our faculty and staff gave us the tools to begin when they helped us ask questions, challenged our worlds, and taught us. Today, we emerge as activists, artists, scientists, and critical thinkers, thanks to these individuals.
But we also emerge as something more: global citizens. Our mentors in that journey worked their magic outside of the classroom, and are seated all around us. Look around at every red Pegasus beside you. These are our classmates, our friends, our advocates, the people who share the peace love hashtag, the voices that screamed, “2018!” together at Convocation and DisOrientation and Laurel, yesterday. Voices that have carried each other through four years, amplified each other through four years, and wow, have we amplified each other.
We are a remarkable community. We come from 69 different countries, 45 different states and gather for one common cause: our education. A quarter of us identify as African-American, Asian-American, Latinx, Native American or Alaska Native, Native Hawaiian or Pacific Islander or multiracial. Work cited: the Mount Holyoke College website. Each of us with these different identities brings a different world to the red brick collective we call MoHome.
But Mount Holyoke isn’t housed in these buildings, it’s made of these myriad worlds melting into more. Homes from around the world coming together to create MoHome, a unified multiplicity. This home is by no means seamlessly bound together. We have had to learn, to learn from and engage with each other, both here and in the wider world. We have had to persevere in the face of difference.
Luckily, we’ve known how to engage from the very beginning. And how have we engaged? We engaged when we supported each other as Ferguson unfolded. We rallied together for Black Lives Matter, walking out and declaring that we stand for justice. We engaged when we celebrated the announcement of the Open Gate decision, initiating our first year with a message of inclusion. Yeah.
We engaged when we were faced with a trying election year as juniors, and responded to divisions with compassion and respect. It wasn’t easy, but we rose to the challenge. We engaged when we held the College accountable, gathering to demand protection for undocumented and immigrant students. And we engaged when we covered the notice boards in Skinner with demands for a more diverse history department. We engaged when we joined March for Our Lives to chant, “books not bullets,” and “enough is enough.” Most importantly, we engaged when we held ourselves accountable in every instance.
Alice Walker said, “The most common way people give up power is by thinking that they don’t have any.” Every time we stood up for ourselves and stood up for each other, we refused to give up that power. And here we have a hint of how to begin — or rather, to continue. Because there is so much more to be done. We are about to enter a world that seems more complicated than ever before. We’ve all heard that Mount Holyoke is a bubble. Whether going home for break, working in the summer or studying abroad, we’ve been reminded that the world is not Mount Holyoke. Anticipate frustration and uncertainty as you navigate a world that seems to be transforming unpredictably.
How do we enter into this moment? With intentionality and courage. Because we’ve been taught to never fear forward-slash-space change.
So whether it’s the volatile New England weather — need I say more — or the volatility of the present historical moment, we know just how to rise to the challenge. We’ve learned to unlearn, to ask complicated questions, form complicated answers, and stand up for our sense of justice. William Faulkner advised comfort with volatility and uncertainty: “You cannot swim for new horizons until you have courage to lose sight of the shore.”
But remember that once we sail away with our B.A.s safely in hand, we are not completely at sea. In the thousand little moments of our Mount Holyoke years, we’ve created something we can take with us. In the joy of elfing, the anticipation of M&Cs, the jubilation of Mountain Day morning, the respite of Pangy Day and the countless other traditions we’ve been together. And we’ve made ourselves together. We’ve shared laughter, warm meals, first in the dining halls, now in Super Blanch. Mad dashes down the street to catch PVTA, mutual confusion over the forward-slash and never fear change, the strange centrality of a goose to our campus lives, shared looks of sleep deprivation in the library, dutiful appreciation of the Chef Jeff, yeah. Kind words at the end of a hard day, week or semester, comforting hands and hugs in moments of vulnerability or despair, encouraging moment, encouraging words in moments of self-doubt, eye-opening conversations in the common room, eye-rolling conversations in the common room, movie nights, raucous parties, spontaneous acts of kindness and intentional acts of kindness.
Throughout these years, as the dignified rustle of fall gave way to the muted white of winter, and winter in turn melted into spring, over and over again, we were busy creating a self. Incrementally, but undeniably, we became masters of our chosen discipline, and constantly challenged ourselves to be more. More ethical, more informed, more deliberate, more patient. As we enter into this world, we will want to make it more in just the same way. For the moments in which this will seem overwhelming and insurmountable, remember that we have learned to learn, to unlearn, to think, to engage, to act, to be intentional, to be compassionate and to be firm.
For moments like these, let’s draw on the wisdom of the Jewish text, the Talmud: “Do not be daunted by the enormity of the world’s grief. Do justly now. Love mercy now. Walk humbly now. You are not obligated to complete the work, but neither are you free to abandon it.”
Class of 2018, let’s begin. Let’s continue. Congratulations, we did it.
Sonia Nieto, professor emerita of language, culture and teaching in the College of Education at the University of Massachusetts Amherst
Nieto was awarded an honorary Doctor of Humane Letters for her work in diversity, equity, and social justice and education.
Sonia Nieto Remarks
(remarks as delivered)
Thank you. Thank you so much. I’m just thrilled to be here.
President Stephens, esteemed guests, and especially the family of the graduates, and the 2018 graduates, it’s a distinct honor for me to be here today, as, I believe, the second Puerto Rican to receive an honorary degree from Mount Holyoke College. I’m honored to follow the first, given in 1962 to Felisa Rincón de Gautier, the first female mayor in Puerto Rico. And I’m thrilled to accept this honor in honor of my parents, Esther Mercado and Federico Cortés, neither of whom graduated from high school. My father, who left school to work on a farm to help his widowed mother and six siblings, made it just to fourth grade. I know they would be immensely proud.
This morning, I want to use the short time I have with you to share a bit of advice as you embark on your postgraduate life. Though I’ve been a teacher for over 50 years, and a researcher for 40, I’ve come to believe that my most important professional role has been as a mentor. I think this is true regardless of any position you hold or any endeavor in which you engage. As you graduate today, I ask you to become mentors.
A mentor is someone who supports you, but goes beyond just being your champion. They defend you, provoke you, advocate for you, push you, care for you, believe in you and they dare you to be the very best you can. Sometimes what a mentor says may be hard to hear, but if a mentor doesn’t challenge you, who will? Be that kind of mentor.
A mentor is someone who teaches by example. They may never directly tell you what to do, or how, but instead they demonstrate it in their day-to-day behavior. A mentor, then, is humble, as well as someone who pays back and pays forward.
Also, a mentor is someone you may never have met. Recently, a distinguished scholar even older than I am thanked me for being a long-distance mentor through my writings and my research. I was stunned to hear this, because we had never met. Which just goes to show that you never know the influence you can have on people you don’t know.
In my long career, I’ve also learned that it doesn’t much matter what you studied, or what you think you’re going to do with the knowledge you’ve acquired, because you may never use what you’ve learned in the way that you’ve imagined you would. It’s a fact, especially given the explosion of technology and the new opportunities today, that many people end up in entirely different fields than what they’ve studied.
Over a century ago, John Dewey, one of my favorite philosophers of education, wrote, “Education is not preparation for life. Education is life itself.” But what does matter is that you spend your time to figure out who you are and what you stand for. Education is about learning how to think, not what to think.
Maxine Greene, another favorite education philosopher of mine, who died too young at the age of 96, wrote the following: “Without the ability to think about yourself, to reflect on your life, there’s really no awareness, no consciousness. Consciousness doesn’t come automatically, it comes through being alive, awake, curious, and often, furious.” My greatest wish for you is that you face the future with hope and joy. But as you begin your post-Mount Holyoke life, I hope you also maintain a bit of the anger that Maxine Greene wrote about. Because it’s only through the righteous anger and love of courageous and independent thinkers that the world changes.
Maxine also famously wrote, “I am forever on the way.” Learn from that. Keep learning, thinking and going your own way, while you also think about your responsibility to others, to the world and to the Earth.
I wish you a consequential life, and the courage to carry it forward. ¡Enhorabuena! Congratulations!
Sonia Neito Biography
Sonia Nieto is professor emerita of Language, Culture and Teaching in the College of Education, University of Massachusetts Amherst. She has devoted her professional life to issues surrounding diversity, equity and social justice in education. Her research has examined multicultural education, teacher education and the education of students of culturally and linguistically diverse backgrounds, with a particular focus on Latinx (a gender neutral term often used in lieu of Latino or Latina) students. Her classic text, “Affirming Diversity: The Sociopolitical Context of Multicultural Education,” was selected by the Museum of Education as one of the 100 books that helped define the field of education in the 20th century. She has authored or edited 11 books, including a memoir, “Brooklyn Dreams: My Life in Public Education.”
Nieto has received numerous awards for her scholarly work, activism, teaching and advocacy, including eight honorary doctorates. Among them are the 2017 James R. Squire Award and the 2005 Outstanding Educator in the Language Arts Award, both presented by the National Council of Teachers of English; the 2013 Distinguished Service Medal from Teachers College, Columbia University, the highest award granted by that institution; the 2008 Social Justice in Education Award from the American Educational Research Association, and the 1998 Educator of the Year Award from the National Association for Multicultural Education. A member of the National Academy of Education, Nieto also is a fellow of the American Educational Research Association and a laureate of Kappa Delta Pi. She is currently working on a book with her daughter, Alicia López, who also is a teacher.
Sonia Nieto Citation
Sonia Nieto, as a dedicated teacher, a tireless researcher and a scholar who herself is always learning, you have dedicated your professional life to promoting equality and equity in educational opportunities.
You have pressed the academy to address the needs of the most marginalized students, whether because of cultural or language differences or special-education issues, and you have created innovative tools for teachers to lift those students to success. In the process, you have helped make our schools more just and equitable places and have bolstered the capabilities of public education.
As a child, you were a Spanish-speaking student in a Brooklyn school where only English was spoken. After your studies, you returned to become a teacher there. You also worked at P.S. 25 in the Bronx, which became the first fully bilingual school in the Northeast thanks to your advocacy and leadership. Those experiences in the classroom reaffirmed your conviction that multicultural education must not only address the curriculum, but also the structural inequality in our schools, particularly for students of color. As your colleague Patty Bode has said, your “tenacious commitment is evident” in your “determination to ensure equitable public education for all children.”
As a teacher of teachers, you have infused educators with energy and hopefulness with your contagious and unwavering belief in education as a path toward personal freedom and agency, as a power to help create a better world. You have been quick to credit your own teachers and colleagues as well, valuing “people who push you and see more in you than you see in yourself.”
Your instinctive valuing of diverse perspectives and your encouragement to “think differently” and “turn things on their head” has made your work as a scholar “enormous and pathbreaking,” in the words of James Banks, who also writes that you continue to make “original, pivotal and incisive contributions to research, policy and practice.” Your book “Affirming Diversity: The Sociopolitical Context of Multicultural Education” continues to be a principal text in the field. Over the course of 11 books and dozens of chapters and articles, you have put into practice your commitments to social justice and educational equity and have shown others how to do so as well.
Even in daunting times, you have remained inspired and motivated by the highest-needs students and their teachers. Always innovating, growing and learning, you describe yourself as a “learning junkie.” Your career has demonstrated your firm belief in the profound opportunities teachers have to impact the lives of their students — after all, as you said yourself, there is “nothing like a really great teacher.” Yes, Dr. Nieto, we most certainly agree.
For your service to countless students of diverse racial, ethnic, cultural and linguistic groups, for your inspiring teaching and scholarship, and for your commitment to equity and justice, Mount Holyoke College is proud to bestow upon you the degree of Doctor of Humane Letters, honoris causa.
Shirley Wilcher ’73, executive director of the American Association for Access Equity and Diversity
Wilcher was awarded an honorary Doctor of Laws for her lifetime’s work on equal opportunity and diversity policy.
Shirley J. Wilcher ’73 Remarks
(remarks as delivered)
Thank you. To the trustees, President Stephens, Leader Pelosi, faculty, fellow honorees, alums and dear graduates, and your families, thank you for inviting be back to this wonderful campus. I am humbly and deeply honored to be among such accomplished and outstanding individuals.
Frankly, I can’t believe I’m here. In the fall of 1969, I began my college career at Mount Holyoke, choosing to come here instead of other outstanding women’s colleges because the students and administrators were genuinely welcoming, and the campus was beautiful.
Being a student here also enabled me to pursue my love of language and philosophy, as well as to participate in the chamber singers, where we spent the summer of 1972 on a European tour. What an opportunity. And the late ’60s was also a time of explosive turmoil, with the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. It was a time of student unrest and takeovers, and at that time African-American students across the nation called for black studies and a house where we could support each other. In the spring of 1970, there was even more unrest against the Vietnam War, and colleges and universities nationwide observed a moratorium to reflect on the implications of this war.
At Mount Holyoke, my class boasted one of the largest numbers of African-American students. We came from Roxbury, Dorchester, South Side Chicago, Washington, D.C., Brooklyn, Memphis and Los Angeles. We were bright and capable and intellectually curious and we were just good. And I told Senator Nancy Kassebaum years later, many of us are now physicians and lawyers, or have some form of graduate degree. And that includes my three — we called them sisters back then — who are here. Deborah Northcross, class of ’73. Mindy Lewis, trustee, class of ’75, there she is. And Judge Rhynette Northcross, trustee, class of ’71. As I said, we’re just good.
That’s what giving a group of young people, many of whom were unfamiliar with the bucolic landscape and more privileged community in South Hadley, an invitation. I knew nothing about demitasse, and milk and crackers were not part of my evening routine. I am, after all, the daughter of jazz musicians, and was raised until the age of 12 by a grandmother whose life choices were limited by being black, female and having only a second grade education. She had to leave school to take care of her 13 brothers and sisters. But she was brilliant in her own unique way. And she supported my love of school, an opportunity that she was denied.
It was during my first semester senior year in Paris that I made the decision to pursue a career in civil rights. France has many political parties and I lived with a French family, and we debated the issues of the day. And we learned literature and philosophy from a French perspective. But it was there that I decided to be an activist. I am no scholar. I want to get things done. So, while my parents were jazz musicians, I chose to be the activist and follow the footsteps of my Uncle Mike, who changed his name to Marcus Garvey Wilcher. Civil rights was my passion. And I went to Washington, D.C., worked for Congressman Augustus Hawkins, chair of the Education and Labor Committee, and then went on to work in the Clinton administrations.
I must say that one of the highlights of my career was receiving the key to the city of Birmingham, Alabama, at the Civil Rights Museum. And as I received the key, I remember my granny, who had migrated from Montgomery, Alabama, to Akron, Ohio, and I hoped that she was watching to see her little girl. And I hope she’s here today. My wish to you is that you need more than youthful enthusiasm to succeed in this world. You need to understand power, and I’m sure Speaker Pelosi can talk about that, but also the power of relationships, both in the workplace and beyond. Most importantly, you need to understand the power within yourself. You need to have a vision and the strength to achieve that vision through hard work.
I used to write when I was in high school, “Shirley Wilcher, A.B., M.A., J.D., Ph.D.” I got almost all of that. And in my view, you need to know that you share with the creator, whomever you call creator, an ability to create your reality. Where there are obstacles, as Nancy Reagan said, “Just say no.” Be undeterred. Fight against personal oppression, as well as systemic, societal oppression. To a great extent, remember that you control your life, and you control your future. Believe that.
We have entered an era where standards of decency have been upended, and the rights we fought so hard to establish are being dismantled. We are truly at a crossroads. We will either be destroyed by the fear of change and of the other, or we will rise stronger together as a society and a civilization because of our diversity. I believe. I believe that you were born at this time to challenge us to take the latter path. You are shaking the culture of sexism and racism, the tolerance of sexual assault and homophobia, and the hate and bias that are infecting our college campuses and our workplaces. You are standing for a future that rejects tribalism and oppression, religious intolerance, and the freedom to simply be your beautiful selves. When I, when I look out at you, I am convinced that one day, we will truly be a human race.
And in the words of Dr. Martin Luther King read, “As time, June approaches, with its graduation ceremonies and speeches, a thought suggests itself. You will hear much about careers, security, and prosperity. I will leave the discussion of such matters to your deans, your principals, and your valedictorians. But I do have a graduation thought to pass along to you. Whenever career, whatever career you may choose for yourself, doctor, lawyer, teacher, let me propose an avocation to be pursued along with it. Become a dedicated fighter for civil rights. Make a central part of your life. It will make you a better doctor, a better lawyer, a better teacher. It will enrich your spirit as nothing else possibly can. Make a career of humanity. Commit yourself to the noble struggle for equal rights. You will make a greater person of yourself, a greater nation of your country, and a finer world, to live in.”
I believe in you. I salute you. And I wish you all the best. Thank you.
Shirley J. Wilcher ’73 Biography
Shirley J. Wilcher ’73 is a leading authority on equal opportunity and diversity policy. After graduating cum laude from Mount Holyoke, Wilcher earned a master’s degree at The New School and a law degree from Harvard Law School. Wilcher became staff attorney for the National Women’s Law Center in Washington, D.C., and later moved to Capitol Hill as associate counsel for civil rights for the House Committee on Education and Labor. There, she was responsible for legislation and oversight of matters, including Title IX, portions of the Civil Rights Act, and other laws relating to equal employment opportunity and labor standards. She served as the principal staff person on major investigations of the civil rights enforcement activities of several federal programs and departments.
During the Clinton administration, Wilcher served for nearly seven years as deputy assistant secretary for the Office of Federal Contract Compliance Programs in the Department of Labor. In this role, she directed a federal program that emphasized the elimination of systemic barriers to equal employment opportunity, the glass ceiling and inequities in corporate compensation systems, testifying before both House and Senate labor committees.
Following her service in the Clinton administration, Wilcher served as director of Americans for a Fair Chance, a consortium of six civil rights legal organizations formed to provide educational resources on affirmative action. She has been a recipient of the NAACP’s Benjamin Hooks Keeper of the Flame Award, the American Association for Access Equity and Diversity’s Rosa Parks Award, and the prestigious Drum Major for Justice Award. Currently, Wilcher is executive director of the American Association for Access Equity and Diversity. She also is president and CEO of the Fund for Leadership, Equity, Access and Diversity, and president of Wilcher Global LLC, a diversity management consulting firm.
Shirley J. Wilcher ’73 Citation
Shirley Wilcher, just two weeks after you were confirmed as deputy assistant secretary in the Office of Federal Contract Compliance Programs, which is charged with monitoring civil rights compliance for the Department of Labor, you said in a speech to contractors, “I believe in streamlining procedures and in making your jobs easier. But I do expect results.”
You certainly got them.
Under your leadership, the program obtained more than $275 million in financial remedies for women, minorities, persons with disabilities and veterans. It also celebrated outstanding corporations and nonprofit organizations that showed exemplary practices. Your office conducted thousands of compliance reviews each year and rooted out discrimination from the entry level to the executive offices. You noted that it took compliance review to find the most egregious cases because “people feel too fearful to file complaints.”
Utilizing your strategy, your team revitalized and managed the agency by focusing on eliminating systemic discrimination, breaking the glass ceiling, promoting equal pay and completing the most significant revision of the agency’s regulations in 20 years. You even extended the program’s reach beyond the nation’s borders and worked with governments and organizations seeking to promote diversity in Europe, Asia, Mexico, Canada and South Africa, where you and your staff offered insights to the South African Department of Labor.
Throughout your career you have worked for equal access to opportunity and toward eliminating systematic discrimination, creating along the way a set of best practices with proven results to find and create a diverse and inclusive workplace. As director of Americans for a Fair Chance, you marshalled a consortium of six civil rights legal organizations to serve as an educational resource on affirmative action. In your current role as executive director of the American Association for Access, Equity and Diversity, you continue to help employers and policymakers understand affirmative action and equal opportunity laws and regulations, and to advocate for access, inclusion and equality in employment, economic and educational opportunities.
Underlying this difficult work is your bedrock belief that embracing diversity serves American democracy. You’ve been direct in saying that “given the nation’s demographics, we need to be educating more students of color and disadvantaged students — not fewer.” Participation in education is the gateway to more agency, more involvement. You have talked about your experience on voter registration drives in poor communities, seeing how the lack of access to opportunities had detached people from the political process and the power of their vote. You said, “By integrating our selective colleges and universities, and our work forces at the managerial level, that will encourage more involvement in the political process. Everyone needs to be involved. People need to feel that they have a stake in what goes on in this country.” We are so grateful that you have put your formidable skills and understanding of the law to work in clearing this path.
For your tenacious dedication to the law, your long public service in support of equal opportunity and your efforts to make possible the strides gained by so many, Mount Holyoke College is proud to bestow upon you the degree of Doctor of Laws, honoris causa.
House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi
Nancy Pelosi Biography
Nancy Pelosi is the Democratic leader of the U.S. House of Representatives for the 115th Congress. From 2007 to 2011, Pelosi served as speaker of the House, the first woman to do so in American history. She was inducted into the National Women’s Hall of Fame in 2013.
Working in partnership with then President Obama, Pelosi led House passage of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, legislation to establish a patients’ bill of rights and the Affordable Care Act. Speaker Pelosi led Congress in passing Wall Street reforms, the Student Aid and Fiscal Responsibility Act, the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act to fight pay discrimination, legislation to provide health care for 11 million American children, national service legislation and hate crimes legislation.
In 2010 Pelosi led Congress in passing child nutrition and food safety legislation as well as repealing the “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy prohibiting gays and lesbians from serving openly in the military. She has made energy security her flagship issue, enacting comprehensive legislation in 2007 that raised vehicle efficiency standards for the first time in 32 years and making a historic commitment to American homegrown biofuels. Under Speaker Pelosi, the House passed landmark ethics reform legislation. Pelosi graduated from Trinity College (now Trinity Washington University), a women’s college in Washington, D.C.
Nancy Pelosi Citation
Nancy Pelosi, when you were growing up in the Little Italy section of Baltimore, you were taught that public service is a noble calling, that we all have a responsibility to each other. Your fiercely patriotic commitment to this country spawns both your belief in its possibility and your tenacious insistence that it move forward and fulfill its greatest potential. You learned how to count votes during your father’s campaigns, and lucky for all of us, you’ve never stopped.
Your firm belief in American possibility and your compassion for families moved you to seek public office to make a difference. You first came to Congress motivated by the one in five children in America who lived in poverty. “I have five children myself,” you said, “and the fact that one in five go to bed hungry — I find that to be totally intolerable, unacceptable for a country as great as ours.” Your values and vision shine in the gains you have made for families.
In a divisive political era, you have the rare talent of finding a way forward. You said, “Any time that we can bring people together, find our common ground, we have a responsibility to do that. If we can’t find our common ground, we have a responsibility to stand our ground.” Defending core values and reaching for connection with others, that’s how you make progress.
And, as the first woman in United States history to serve as speaker of the House, what extraordinary progress you made. In your tenure as speaker from 2007 to 2011, you gave us the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act to create and save American jobs, Wall Street reforms and the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act. Your leadership was essential in giving us student loan reforms, hate crimes legislation, stricter fuel efficiency standards, an updated patients’ bill of rights, House ethics reform and the end of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.” You were instrumental in the passage of the Affordable Care Act, and you have stayed the course to defend it from a long line of adversaries.
It’s a stunning list of victories, each one with so much hard work behind it. So much collaboration, coalition-building — and, I imagine, plenty of cajoling as well. But everything you accomplished, you achieved through your commitment to finding common ground, through your belief in unity. And as you’ve reminded us, “Unity is not only a great message, it’s a great way to get things done.”
A whole generation of women have seen you model leadership and advocate for them. Your message has always been that “nothing is more wholesome to our political process and our government than the increased participation of women in politics.” By your tireless example and your concerted efforts, more women than ever are finding their way to the leadership table, and we can’t wait to see what happens next.
For your commitment to securing a better life for all Americans, for your steadfast and ongoing leadership, and for your unwavering belief in the dignity and possibility of our country, Mount Holyoke College is proud to bestow upon you the degree of Doctor of Laws, honoris causa.