Commencement Remarks and Citations 2019

Sonya Stephens on stage, Commencement 2019

Sonya Stephens, President

Welcome Address

Trustees, honored guests, members of the faculty, colleagues, our distinguished graduates, the Class of 2019, good morning!

It is my very great pleasure to welcome you to the 182nd Mount Holyoke College Commencement, and, with Barbara Baumann ‘77, chair of the Board of Trustees, to extend my warmest congratulations to all of the graduates, and my thanks to this exceptional faculty

Faculty, would you please stand and face the audience for our recognition?

The Class of 2019: Forging a Path

Today, we celebrate over 500 new graduates from 31 different countries and from across the nation.

We gather to honor your hard work, your achievements, all that you have brought to this community, and to others beyond it over the course of your studies.

I have heard from some of you directly that your journey to graduation was not a straight path.

Instead, it resembled the winding byways of this beautiful campus, the chance encounters, the waypoints, representing important periods of exploration and learning, places of reflection and self-discovery.

You have shown us that you can navigate complexity and challenge, and chart a course that you couldn’t necessarily see.

I have heard how a particular class led to an unexpected change in direction and to a vocation—how, for example, a reader of Emily Dickison, and intented English major took a class in building a birdhouse, and went on to earn today a degree in Architectural Studies, designing a kitchen, a market place and a community center in a village in Northern Thailand along the way.

I have heard how study abroad and internships cemented passions. Because of time and study in Samoa, one of you diverged from your initial path to a legal career and instead forged a commitment to culturally informed international development policy, winning a Fulbright Research Award.

Your willingness to get lost in learning, to be open to discovery is also an essential part of forging your path.

During my first year in college, I began to learn Spanish, and, challenging though it was for a beginner, to discover in Antonio Machado’s poetry just such an invitation to get lost in learning. One of his poems in Proverbios y cantares (XXIX) speaks to the ways in which we must all forge our own path:

Caminante, no hay camino, se hace camino al andar,”

“Traveler, your footprints are the only path, nothing else [...] there is no path; you forge your own path as you go.
As you walk, you forge your own path, and when you look back you see the path you will never travel again.
Traveler, there is no path; only a ship's wake on the sea.”

This is, of course, what a liberal education is about: the freedom –and the requirement – to explore, to chart a new course, to discover. And all the growth and the good that follow and lead us forward.

On the way to this moment, you have completed over 21,000 courses at Mount Holyoke College—with over 500 unique and wonderful Mount Holyoke professors. You have studied over 21 languages, from American sign language to Urdu.

Almost one third of you took the PVTA to class, and at least one course in the Five Colleges.

One of you, pursuing a special major in Linguistics—and the bus schedule—took 18 Five-College courses!

You pursued the range of your passions as you explored Mount Holyoke’s many intellectual offerings: from Reasons for Belief and Action to Cognition in Whales and Dolphins; from Cyberpolitics to the Science of Sexuality; from Literature and Climate Change to Reasoning Under Uncertainty.

Expressing your individuality and personal interests, you created almost 900 independent studies, and 15 of you are graduating with interdisciplinary majors you designed yourselves.

A Liberal Education for life, and for “the water-clarity of what is right”

Such lists and requirements, such courses, do not, in and of themselves, give a full account of your learning and your talents.

They don’t capture how you contest received ideas, as well as the categories and boundaries that constrain your thinking.

Once you have this education, you never stop asking questions and challenging the status quo.

On your path to graduation, you have become accustomed to taking on the uncharted. You have unleashed your irrepressible curiosity and learned how to filter, distill, and connect information.

On your path to graduation, you have become fascinated by -- and comfortable with -- ambiguity. You have insights to offer and questions to ask, which come as much from listening to others as from your own mind.

On your path to graduation, you have helped each other along the way, as well as serving communities beyond the gates of Mount Holyoke—you have developed humility and empathy that empowers others.

Once you embark upon this path of liberal education, there is no turning back. The journey continues, because you cannot unlearn these ways. You will forever value intellectual rigor and complexity, because you understand that they are necessary in the pursuit of truth as well as for the preservation of humanity.

As the environmental historian William Cronon argues, “Liberal education...aspires to nurture the growth of human talent in the service of human freedom[...]—liberally educated people have been liberated by their education to explore and fulfill the promise of their own highest talents.”

You have been educated not for yourselves alone. For, in Cronon’s terms, “education for freedom,” is also “education for human community.” 1

In her poem, “Allegiance,” Elizabeth Alexander writes that Learning “At its end, blossoms and billows into vari-colored polyphony.”

She writes, too, of the courage of the poem’s subject, Prudence Crandall—a Connecticut schoolteacher who, in 1831, created what is believed to be the first integrated classroom in the United States—describing Crandall as so “visionary,” so “stare-down-the-beast,” so very motivated to change the course of lives and of history:

Work, she says, there is always work to do,
not in the name of self but in the name,
the water-clarity of what is right. 2

Today, as we honor your achievements and celebrate your commencement, we also celebrate three exceptional, and exceptionally courageous, individuals. As you will hear, each has always sought out work to do “in the name, the water-clarity of what is right.”

The Charge

As I look out at you, Class of 2019, I know that, if this world is in your hands, it is in good hands.

I see enormous accomplishment and great hope..
I see a student body that has challenged, enlivened, and emboldened this College and each one of us to live up to its promise, to your promise.
I see a collective of extraordinary graduates; bold thinkers who will make progress your imperative, just as our honorary degree recipients have done.

Shaped by this education and your own passions and values, may you know great happiness and success.

May you see progress in your endeavors, and be a force for good and for change in the world.

May the path you have forged here be just the start of your path breaking, a path that you will make as you travel onward, and that, I hope, will also always lead you back here to share your story.


1 William Cronon, “Only Connect...The Goals of a Liberal Education.” See also George Anders, You Can Do Anything. The Surprising Power of a “Useless” Liberal Arts Education(New York: Little Brown and Company, 2017).

2 Elizabeth Alexander, Crave Radiance. New and Selected Poems 1990-2010 (Minneapolis: Gray Wolf Press, 2010, 225.

Nada Taha Al Thawr on stage giving the student address.

Nada Taha Al-Thawr ’19, Student Address

Adrienne Arsht ’63 on stage at Commencement 2019.

Adrienne Arsht ’63, Doctor of Humane Letters

Adrienne Arsht ’63 Biography

Adrienne Arsht is a business leader and philanthropist. She has taken a leading role promoting artistic, business and civic growth in the three cities she calls home: New York, Washington, D.C., and Miami, Florida. She is founding chairman of the Adrienne Arsht Center Foundation in Miami. Her $30 million contribution to Miami’s Performing Arts Center in 2008 secured its financial footing and ensured quality cultural programming. In her honor, the Center was renamed the Adrienne Arsht Center for the Performing Arts of Miami–Dade County. Her contribution of $11 million in support of the transformation of Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts’ facilities and public spaces was recognized with the dedication of the Adrienne Arsht Stage in Alice Tully Hall in 2012.

In Washington, Arsht spearheaded the creation of the Adrienne Arsht Center for Resilience at the Atlantic Council in 2016, which has just been renamed the Adrienne Arsht–Rockefeller Foundation Resilience Center in recognition of her transformative $25 million gift. She also founded the Adrienne Arsht Latin America Center in 2013 to focus on the role of South America in the trans-Atlantic community. Arsht is a trustee of the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts. She donated $5 million to establish the Adrienne Arsht Theater Fund at the Kennedy Center to support a wide variety of musical productions.

Arsht is a vice chairman of Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts and executive vice chairman of the Atlantic Council. She is on the Trustees Council of the National Gallery of Art and a board member of the Blair House Restoration Fund. She is a member of the Council on Foreign Relations and is former president of the Vice President’s Residence Foundation. At the request of the Secretary of State, Arsht created the Patrons of Diplomacy campaign to create an endowment for the preservation of furniture and works of art for the State Department. She is Trustee Emerita of the University of Miami and an honorary board member of Amigos for Kids. Arsht was recently inducted as an honorary member of the Beta Gamma Sigma society at Georgetown University.

Arsht was awarded the Carnegie Hall 2017 Medal of Excellence recognizing her visionary and outstanding contributions to cultural and nonprofit institutions nationally. She is the first woman to receive this distinction. Recently, Arsht was awarded the distinguished Order of San Carlos of Colombia, which was given to her by the direction of Colombia’s President Juan Manuel Santos. This recognition honors Arsht’s deep commitment and support of Colombia. In 2013, Arsht was presented with the prestigious diplomatic honor, Orden de Isabel la Católica (Order of the Cross of Isabella the Catholic) of Spain. The King of Spain awards this highly coveted honor to both Spaniards and foreigners alike for their contributions toward Spanish-speaking countries.

A 1966 graduate of Villanova University’s law school, Arsht began her Delaware law career with Morris, Nichols, Arsht & Tunnel. In 1969, she moved to New York City and joined the legal department of Trans World Airlines (TWA). She then became the first woman in the company’s property, cargo and government relations departments. Arsht moved to Washington, D.C., in 1979, where she initially worked with a law firm, then started her own title company before moving to Miami in 1996 to run her family-owned bank, TotalBank. From 1996 to 2007, Arsht served as chairman of the board of TotalBank. Under her leadership, TotalBank grew from four locations to 14 with over $1.4 billion in assets. In November 2007, she sold the bank to Banco Popular Español. Arsht was named chairman emerita of TotalBank.

Over the years, Arsht has generously donated funds and resources to numerous organizations. In 2008 she became the first, and still is, the only woman to join the Five Million Dollar Roundtable of United Way of Miami-Dade. Arsht made a $2 million gift to Goucher College, creating the Roxana Cannon Arsht Center for Ethics and Leadership, in honor of her late mother, a Goucher graduate. Arsht committed more than $6 million to the University of Miami to support the university-wide Arsht Ethics Programs, assist the Bascom Palmer Eye Institute of the University of Miami and support other University of Miami priorities. In February 2009, Arsht funded the creation of the Best Buddies Delaware chapter to specifically serve Hispanics and African Americans with mental disabilities. The Chronicle of Philanthropy ranked Arsht number 39 on its 2008 America’s 50 biggest donors list.

She is the daughter of the Honorable Roxana Cannon Arsht, the first female judge in the State of Delaware, and Samuel Arsht, a prominent Wilmington attorney. Upon graduation from Villanova law school, Arsht was the 11th woman admitted to the Delaware bar – her mother having been the fifth. A graduate of Mount Holyoke College, Arsht is a member of the Delaware Bar. She was married to the late Myer Feldman, former counsel to presidents John F. Kennedy and Lyndon B. Johnson.

Adrienne Arsht ’63 Citation

Adrienne Arsht, throughout your career as a lawyer, business leader and philanthropist, you have been met with skepticism — and left it in your wake as you blazed forward. No matter that only a handful of other women had been admitted to the Delaware Bar before you. Or that no other woman before you had served in the property, cargo and government relations departments at Trans World Airlines. No matter that women were not a common sight in boardrooms, much less in the role of chair, as you led TotalBank, dramatically growing both its assets and locations.

Others would be satisfied with shattering those glass ceilings, but you were just getting started. You’ve approached challenges with grit and grace, using philanthropy to direct attention and move/redirect the conversation. By all accounts, people questioned your decision to make a $30-million gift and put your name on Miami’s ailing performing arts center. But you said, “Putting your name on something lets the world know what matters to you. By making a naming gift you take a stand, you show other people what you support.” Your gift and your energy not only revitalized and energized the center. It also lifted the whole neighborhood. In the decade since, the Arsht Center has become one of the most renowned performing arts centers in the country.

The arts have always been a central focus of your giving, partly for their ability to bridge divisions. And, as you have noted, “Artists are almost by definition resilient. They have a saying, ‘The show must go on.’”

Perhaps unsurprisingly, then, resilience has also become a focus of your work, a natural extension of your own indomitable spirit. The newly named — because of your generosity — Adrienne Arsht-Rockefeller Foundation Center for Resilience enables researchers to study and support resilience in many areas, from financial systems to human immunity and refugee survival. Through your philanthropic vision, your courage and persistence that has led you to such successes in law and business are now guiding you to game-changing projects in the arts, in Latin American communities, in global policy, ethics, medicine, against domestic violence — and even a project that addresses the interrelated challenges of climate change, migration and security for one billion people by 2030. Your vision comes from understanding that the promise of progress rests on our willingness to address the hard questions, that “the answers are not always easy,” but that as you say, “our time on earth is a gift,” for which “the rent we pay is how we give back to make the world a better place.”

It is quite fitting that you’ve used the metaphor of a stream to describe your life and your approach to resilience. As the stream trickles down the mountain, it finds small rocks, obstacles and sometimes even boulders in its way. But the stream doesn’t stop, and Ms. Arsht, you don’t either. You find a way around. Your determination and skill inspire us to keep working to find ways around our own obstacles, and to stake our names to the things we love and believe in.

For your exemplary philanthropy to cultural and nonprofit institutions and your continued leadership in the financial, public and legal sectors, Mount Holyoke College is proud to bestow upon you the degree of Doctor of Humane Letters, honoris causa.

Barbara Smith, on stage at Commencement 2019

Barbara Smith ’69, Doctor of Humane Letters

Barbara Smith ’69 Biography

As an author, activist and scholar, Barbara Smith ’69 has played a groundbreaking role since the 1960s in opening up a national, cultural and political dialogue about the intersections of race, class, sexuality and gender. She was among the first to define an African American women’s literary tradition and to build Black women’s studies and Black feminism in the United States.

Smith was a driving force behind the development of the Combahee River Collective, a group identified as a class-conscious, sexuality-affirming Black feminist organization. The Collective emphasized the intersections of racial, gender, heterosexist and class oppression in the lives of African Americans and other women of color. They also worked on issues such as reproductive rights, violence against women, prison reform, and health care. Smith’s breakthrough 1977 article, “Toward a Black Feminist Criticism,” is frequently cited as opening the field of Black women’s literature and the Black lesbian voice.

Smith has edited or co-edited three major collections about Black women: “Conditions: Five, The Black Women's Issue”; “All the Women Are White, All the Blacks Are Men, But Some of Us Are Brave: Black Women's Studies”; and “Home Girls: A Black Feminist Anthology.” She co-edited “The Reader's Companion to U.S. Women’s History.”

Other works include “Yours in Struggle: Three Feminist Perspectives on Anti-Semitism and Racism,” which Smith co-authored; a collection of essays, “The Truth That Never Hurts: Writings on Race, Gender, and Freedom,” and “Ain’t Gonna Let Nobody Turn Me Around: Forty Years of Movement Building with Barbara Smith,” edited by Alethia Jones and Virginia Eubanks with Smith. In 1980 Smith co-founded Kitchen Table: Women of Color Press, the first U.S. publisher for women of color to reach a wide national audience, and served as the publisher until 1995.

Smith has been featured on PBS and in Essence magazine. She was a fellow at the Bunting Institute of Radcliffe College and scholar-in-residence at the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture. Her numerous awards include the African American Policy Forum Harriet Tubman Lifetime Achievement Award, the Lambda Literary Award, an Alumnae Association of Mount Holyoke College Achievement Award, and the Mount Holyoke College Alumnae Association Sesquicentennial Award. Smith was nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize in 2005.

In addition to her B.A. from Mount Holyoke, Smith holds a master’s degree in literature from the University of Pittsburgh and an honorary doctorate from the University at Albany, State University of New York.

Barbara Smith ’69 Citation

Barbara Smith, you grew up with a voracious love of reading. But as you devoured volume after volume, the one thing you did not encounter was a reflection of your own experience as a Black girl. One of your greatest contributions has been to harness those feelings of erasure and of powerlessness, borne from isolation and oppression, and transform them into a motivating force. Because of your steadfast work as a writer, an activist and a theorist, and by asserting your identity as a Black lesbian feminist, the landscape of possibilities for all people has shifted.

Let us for a moment recognize the sheer force of will and the tremendous capacity for work that have allowed you to continue in this revolutionary struggle. You know how to work. When there was only scant writing to describe your experience, you sought it out and, through your critical writings, amplified its reach. Through your revolutionary work defining Black women’s studies and “identity politics,” as well as your unstinting support for the literary endeavors of Black women, you created the space that you were looking for: a space for critical discourse of issues central to the lives of Black women and girls.

Just as with literature, your involvement in political movements was driven by your fundamental desire to see your experience represented. When existing political organizations didn’t recognize the primacy of your experience as a Black woman and as a lesbian, you created the Combahee River Collective, whose founding statement serves as an essential text for understanding the intersectionality of oppression. That statement recognizes that “the major systems of oppression are interlocking,” and that “the synthesis of these oppressions creates the conditions of our lives.” This understanding is now foundational to social justice work, but it was precisely your experience as someone who was triply marginalized that enabled you to articulate that position. Your work has made visible how race, class, sexuality and gender all intersect politically, and has taught us that recognizing such complexity is essential to lifting all the mantles of oppression.

When you needed a publisher to print and distribute the essential writings of Black women that were emerging in this movement, you co-founded one. Kitchen Table: Women of Color Press was the first U.S. publisher for women of color to reach a wide national audience, and it was a labor of love for more than 15 years. Where as a young girl you encountered pages that pushed you away, you have dedicated your life to drawing a road map that pulls people in. Your work has enabled countless others to challenge oppression. As you have said, “We have to always fight for all the people who share an identity and a community, not just be satisfied with the success of a few.”

Years ago, when the Combahee River Collective came together, you wrote that, “Every Black woman who came, came out of a strongly felt need for some level of possibility that did not previously exist in her life.” Your life’s work has been in the service of enlarging the possibilities for so many people. You’ve empowered us to empathize across the lines of our own individual experiences.

For your visionary scholarship, your tireless activism and your revolutionary passion, Mount Holyoke College is proud to bestow upon you the degree of Doctor of Humane Letters, honoris causa.

Gary Younge, on stage at Commencement 2019

Gary Younge, Doctor of Humane Letters

Gary Younge Biography

Journalist, author and broadcaster Gary Younge has covered a remarkable range of stories over since he first started working at The Guardian in 1993. Major highlights of his coverage include the 1994 elections in South Africa, the Iraq War, Hurricane Katrina, the 2008 Wall Street crash, the election of Barack Obama and Brexit.

As a reporter, U.S. correspondent and now editor-at-large for The Guardian, Younge has covered news across Europe, Africa, the United States and the Caribbean. He writes a monthly column for The Nation and has made numerous radio and television documentaries on subjects ranging from gay marriage to the rise of the white supremacy movement in America.

Race is another topic Younge frequently explores, including in five highly acclaimed books: “Another Day in the Death of America: A Chronicle of Ten Short Lives”; “The Speech: The Story Behind Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s Dream”; “Who Are We — And Should it Matter in the 21st Century?”; “Stranger in a Strange Land: Encounters in the Disunited States”; and “No Place Like Home: A Black Briton's Journey Through the American South.”

Younge’s numerous journalism awards include: Feature Writer of the Year at the Society of Editors Press Awards; Feature of the Year from Amnesty Media Awards; the J. Anthony Lukas Book Prize from Columbia University; Foreign Commentator of the Year from The Comment Awards; the David Nyhan Prize for political journalism from Harvard University’s Shorenstein Center; the Sandford St. Martin Award; and the James Cameron Award.

He has received the Laurence Stern fellowship with the Washington Post and honorary doctorates from Cardiff University, Heriot-Watt University and London South Bank University, and the University of Arts in London. Younge is a fellow of the Academy of Social Sciences.

Gary Younge Citation

Gary Younge, you once said that, “We should be above the notion that any one group or any one person has the truth.” Your work as a journalist, an author and a broadcaster has been grounded in this deep belief. And, because of it, you have been able to bring us voices previously unheard and unheeded.

You have said, “The further someone’s value system is from mine, the more interesting I find them.” In today’s highly charged and polarized political environment, your ability to listen and reflect provides a truly exemplary and transformative service. You joked that when you were younger, you wanted to be a doctor, “or maybe a revolutionary, but a doctor in my spare time.” Today we can say that your words are a medicine we rely upon — a potent elixir for the mind, a needed antidote for our world.

We are indebted to you for going off the beaten track and purposely veering into the spaces not sought by other journalists. Whether you were reporting from South Africa before Nelson Mandela’s first election, interviewing unsung civil rights heroine Claudette Colvin, covering Barack Obama’s first presidential campaign, or countering assumptions about knife violence in London with hard data, you have found stories that needed amplifying. In doing so, you have demonstrated your belief that the harder it is to tell a story, the more important it is to tell. And you made it that much harder for us to look away.

Through your acclaimed books and your work for The Guardian, The Nation and other media outlets, you have not only brought us the news, you have brought us the perspectives and empathy we need to break through our complacency, whether the stories you told took place in Europe, Africa, the United States or the Caribbean. Your most recent book, which chronicles 10 young lives cut short on the same day due to gun violence in America, is a testament to the deep respect your show your subjects. You have absorbed the lesson Susan Sontag imparted to you, that as an interviewer, you should give something of yourself, so it becomes a mutual interaction. This practice makes your writing both deeply personal and deeply universal. We can all relate.

As we look for ways to bridge the chasms of diverse life experiences and political stances, we have work such as yours to guide us. You follow your source like a dowsing rod to the center of the story, rather than grabbing a quick sound bite that reinforces the prevailing point of view. You have taken your responsibility as a writer very seriously, especially when representing the experiences of people seldom portrayed in the media. It is this kind of commitment that earned you the James Cameron Award for the “combined moral vision and professional integrity” of your reporting.

Unpacking the treasures of human contradiction can bring staggering surprises and — sometimes — clarity and hopefulness, as your work in taking on difficult and complicated stories has shown. All the patience and groundwork you’ve put in to your stories have the power to shake up rehearsed political stances, adding nuance and humanity in places where euphemism has obscured the truth. You have shown us ourselves.

For approaching all your subjects with open eyes, open ears and open heart, for connecting us to the other side of the story — to our own stories — and for changing what is possible in our world by changing the narrative, Mount Holyoke College is proud to bestow upon you the degree of Doctor of Humane Letters, honoris causa.