Deborah Harkness

Baccalaureatte 2014

Deborah Harkness ’86

What an honor it is to share this proud moment with the class of 2014 and their family, friends, and professors.

Once upon a time, a young woman announced that she was going to attend Mt. Holyoke. She had just turned seventeen, and decided to skip her senior year of high school and head straight for college. People thought she’d lost her mind. She wasn’t ready for such a big step. It was too risky. She was making a terrible mistake she would regret for the rest of her life.

Four years later, she sat where you now sit and walked up to the stage you will soon cross and picked up her degree. Her choice of major, many feared, was also a terrible mistake. “What are you going to do with a degree in Renaissance Studies?” people wondered. “You’ll never get a job.” She should have majored in something useful, like science, or lucrative, like economics, or at the very least taken the LSAT so she could become a lawyer. After all, who had ever heard of a successful Renaissance Studies major?

That young woman was me. Attending Mt. Holyoke was the best decision I ever made—not the worst. My major in Renaissance studies didn’t simply prepare me for a job—it laid the intellectual foundations for the rest of my life.

I wish I could reassure your parents that at some point I wised up and started listening to well-intentioned advice and doing the right thing—the safe thing—but it still hasn’t happened. I went on to attend not one but two graduate schools that people told me were mistakes, have taken jobs that I believed in rather than jobs that would quickly advance my career. Once I’d climbed the career ladder to the top I started writing novels. With witches and vampires in them. Talk about a bad idea! “Aren’t you worried nobody will take you seriously any more?” someone asked me.

I can say with all honesty I wasn’t worried. Long ago, when I was a student here, I learned that you cannot and should not live the life someone else wants for you, no matter how safe and secure it seems.

And so my advice to the class of 2014 is simply: live your life, not someone else’s. Your life’s journey will be full of potholes and dead ends. While on it, you will make decisions no one else understands. You may be taking left turns when everyone else is going to the right. That’s OK. You will still end up somewhere. To live your own life you will have to take risks without being reckless. The former requires courage, the latter only foolishness. Dare to be different. Set out to do the impossible, or at least the improbable. Never forget that changing your route in the midst of life’s challenges is empowering, and that entirely new opportunities will present themselves to those who are brave enough to seek them out.

You might be leaving South Hadley today, but you will forever be part of Mt. Holyoke. It is a resource you will call upon in the years and months ahead: the people you have known and loved, the memories of your time here, the quiet strength that we feel together on this special day of celebration. Live your life. We can’t wait to see how it turns out.