By Keely Sexton
It was Mount Holyoke’s 183rd Convocation, but its first-ever virtual one. And although the venue was different, the enthusiasm and excitement remained the same, as the College welcomed new and returning students to an academic year that is shaping up to be like no other.
The program began with a montage of photos that dozens of Mount Holyoke community members had submitted in honor of the occasion, bearing messages of love and hope. Then, as they do each year, the Five College West African Music Ensemble opened the ceremony with a drumming performance. Kijua Sanders-McMurtry, vice president for equity and inclusion and chief diversity officer, began by acknowledging the Indigenous lands that the College occupies.
“Every day, we must work towards building a world where the racial injustices that we’ve seen in the United States this year are behind us and we can finally eliminate the racial hierarchies that are ever present,” she said, speaking of Mount Holyoke's anti-racism action plan that challenges all members of the community to understand their own privileges and how their perspectives that have been shaped by them.
Karena Strella ’90, chair of the Mount Holyoke College Board of Trustees, then officially kicked off the academic year.
“Challenge yourselves to stretch your perspectives, knowledge and impact,” she said. “Mount Holyoke has always been uncommon. This year will be no different. Embrace each other, stay connected and have a fantastic year.”
When President Sonya Stephens took the stage — the Zoom stage, that is — wearing academic regalia and a string of green beads in honor of the green griffins senior class, she spoke about the particular strength and resilience of Mount Holyoke’s community that lives on even after graduation, with a network of alums that spans the globe.
Highlights from Convocation 2020
“Convocation is the opening stroke in a symbolic circle that binds you together through graduation and the new beginning that is Commencement,” she said. “In that sense it celebrates and connects you, class of 2024 and all new transfer students, to the seniors, the class of 2021, for whom this is the first of many lasts, as well as to the classes of 2022, 2023, and all of our Frances Perkins scholars.”
The tradition of Convocation is just one of many Mount Holyoke traditions that have endured — and evolved — over time to bind the community together, she said.
“What I learned from these beads, class of 2021, is that the real importance of our traditions, like a Mount Holyoke education, is an invitation to insert yourself into the conversation of history, to bring yourself and your ideas, and so to contribute to understanding, to the narrative of the College’s and the world’s present, in order to have an influence on their future.”
Olivia Aguilar, director of the Miller-Worley Center for the Environment, remarked that as a newcomer to the College herself, and as a first-generation college graduate, she empathized with new students embarking on a journey in such uncertain times, and that liberal education is the basis of making sense of, and making change in, the world.
“We are here to learn together,” she said. “Not just about the disciplines, but to learn so that we may better serve. What a beautiful education to be a part of. I hope you are as excited to take this journey with Mount Holyoke as we are with you.”
Wendy Rua ’94, Staff Council co-chair, welcomed students with a reflection that the refrain of the “Alma Mater”, “Mount Holyoke forever shall be,” resonated with truth, as long after graduation, the critical thinking, resiliency and resolve of a Mount Holyoke education persists.
Her comments were similar to the sentiment of Student Government Association president Maya Sopory ’22 that Mount Holyoke is much more than a place and a period of time — it’s belonging and community.
“I firmly believe that Mount Holyoke is not just a physical place,” she said. “It is the friends, staff, and faculty that make it what it is. While we may not all be in the same place this semester, the Mount Holyoke community continues on through the connections that you have made and have yet to make.”
She encouraged her fellow students to take advantage of all the opportunities available to build and strengthen connections and community in virtual space.
“This is a scary and challenging time. We have a long journey ahead,” she said. “However, I know that we will all embody the Mount Holyoke spirit of resilience and perseverance. I look forward to going on this journey with all of you.”
Karena Strella ’90 Convocation speech
Karena Strella ’90
Chair, Mount Holyoke College Board of Trustees
Remarks as prepared.
I’m Karena Strella, class of ’90 and the chair of Mount Holyoke’s Board of Trustees.
On behalf of the Trustees, I welcome all of you from around the world to the 2020-2021 academic year.
This is Mount Holyoke’s first virtual Convocation. While we would rather be filling the amphitheater with class colors, dancing and chanting, our enthusiasm in welcoming you at the start of the year is as robust as ever. We are here because of the pathbreakers who came before us. We will be stronger than ever because of all of you.
Mount Holyoke is your community, continue to shape it. Build the future you want. Challenge yourselves to stretch your perspectives, knowledge and impact. Mount Holyoke has always been uncommon. This year will be no different. Embrace each other, stay connected and have a fantastic year.
Olivia Aguilar 2020 Convocation speech
Leslie and Sarah Miller Director of the Miller Worley Center for the Environment; Associate Professor of Environmental Studies
Remarks as prepared.
My name is Olivia Aguilar, I use she/her pronouns, and I am the director of the Miller Worley Center for the Environment and teach in the eEnvironmental studies department. It is with great honor and excitement that I welcome the class of 2024 to Mount Holyoke College, as you will be the first in a great many things.
And a very warm welcome back to our returning students, our Francis Perkins scholars, and especially our seniors. I think I can safely speak on behalf of the campus to say we are both thrilled and humbled that you have decided to share your journey with us, especially in these unprecedented times.
Having only arrived here myself in January, and only being on campus just a couple of months before the world turned upside down, I can relate to those of you embarking on a new journey in such uncertain conditions. I study how communities can influence learning, specifically how communities can make us more sustainable, and not in my wildest dreams did I imagine a future in which physical distancing would dictate the way in which we work, play, live or teach. There is no rule book or guide for what we are dealing with. As I grapple with this, I recognize the importance of flexibility and resilience, as well as the power of the liberal arts, regardless of the form it might take.
William Cronon once wrote about the 10 qualities he found students with a liberal arts education often exemplified. I won’t bore you with the whole list, but as I reflected on this summer, the value of the liberal arts became so apparent. For instance, Cronon writes, “More than anything else, being an educated person means being able to see connections that allow one to make sense of the world and act within it in creative ways. … A liberal education is about gaining the power and the wisdom, the generosity and the freedom to connect.”
And didn’t we see that during this spectacularly unusual summer? When the world forced uncertainty upon us (a characteristic highly correlated to anxiety and fear), people did not hide from it. Instead, people met uncertainty by playing music to their neighbors, using science to study vaccines, creating art to lift spirits, relying on history to learn from pandemics of the past. People were engaged in the liberal arts as they connected a variety of disciplines to meet the most challenging time of our lives, and they sought connection with each other despite the distance forced upon us.
And then, in the midst of the pandemic, we heard a desperate cry for a mother from an ordinary man who ultimately became a symbol of the fight for justice. To be clear, what happened to George Floyd was not something new for this country. It has continued to happen since. But Mr. Floyd’s death led to a sea change of awareness around anti-blackness and anti-racism. I credit human empathy with how our fellow citizens reacted to the injustice of violence against Black people in this country. And again, in this sea change, I see the value of the liberal arts, for Cronon writes that the liberal arts education “celebrates and nurtures … the growth of human talent in the service of human freedom.”
We are all here today because we believe there is something inherently important about higher education. As a first-generation college student, I know my college education has provided me with opportunities that I might not otherwise have had, and I’m not just speaking about career opportunities. I’m talking about the opportunities to expand my understanding of the world, so that I could better empathize with others and so that I could ultimately connect. We are here to learn together, not just about the disciplines, but to learn so that we may better serve. What a beautiful education to be a part of. I hope you are as excited to take this journey with Mount Holyoke as we are with you.
Wendy Rua ’94 Convocation speech
Wendy Rua ’94
Co-Chair, Staff Council and program coordinator for the Teaching and Learning Initiative
Remarks as prepared.
Hello, Mount Holyoke students!
On behalf of the approximately 700 staff members, I extend to you a heartfelt welcome across the miles. My name is Wendy Rua and I am the co-chair of Staff Council and the program coordinator for the Teaching and Learning Initiative. As an alum from the class of 1994, when I say to you that you will soon become familiar with the phrase “Mount Holyoke forever shall be,” please know that those words have never held more meaning than they do today.
How do I know this? Because I have been connected to Mount Holyoke since I was an anxious firstie dropped off by my parents for my first live-away experience at Torrey Hall in 1990. I never, ever imagined I would one day have the opportunity to speak to incoming students at their Convocation! But here I am!
And if there is one thing that I believe in with all my heart, it is the importance of building community connection. I’m proud to be a part of a group of staff members that work tirelessly and diligently to ensure that the Mount Holyoke experience is, for all of you, one that “forever shall be.”
The spirit of Mount Holyoke is in the joy of the beloved milk and cookies tradition. There is nothing better than gathering with friends for M&Cs. Fun fact: Many alums still gather together to support each other and to share stories by hosting virtual M&Cs!
The spirit of Mount Holyoke is when you experience the chiming of the bells on Mountain Day. The day is memorable and the tradition lives on, for even alums will join with you from across the miles. You become a part of something so much bigger than just having the day off from academics. This year, while you won’t be able to see staff members at the top of Mt. Holyoke, welcoming you with cheers, ice cream, donuts and tattoos, please know that we are still supporting and cheering you from a distance.
The spirit of Mount Holyoke is when you doubt yourself, feel scared, become overwhelmed or question your ability to reach your academic goals, that staff from around our community will be there to remind you that you can. Mary Lyon said, “Go where no one else will go, do what no one else will do.” Staff will be there to shine a light to help you see your path forward.
The spirit of Mount Holyoke can be felt when you are walking the campus. Even the visual of our beautiful trees reminds us that the roots of Mount Holyoke are strong. Staff members will miss seeing you on the campus, at the gym, in the Dining Commons and at concerts and lectures this semester. We will still be busy with our work in LITS, the centers, within the academic departments, in Student Life and beyond, to ensure that you have an amazing, albeit different, experience this year. Remember: Different can be amazing! Just think of the unimagined possibilities.
I’ll end with a short story about what it means to be in community and to be part of something bigger than yourself. In my hometown, I am an elected official on the school board. This year has been fraught with challenges about how to keep students in K-12 public education safe and academically engaged through a pandemic. This has led to some heated public discourse during school committee meetings. After one meeting, I logged on to Facebook to see a post on the MHC alum page which, in summary, said, “There was this badass warrior on the school committee meeting and when I Googled her, I found out she is a Mount Holyoke alum!”
And that, my friends, is why “Mount Holyoke forever shall be.” Because it is not only what happens in the classroom, but it is what happens when we are part of something larger than ourselves, strong in meaningful traditions and with deep roots. So please plant your feet solidly in the ground wherever you are. Let the professors start to water your roots (even if it is a virtual watering!). Let the friendships you make nourish your growth (even if it’s over a Zoom screen). And know that the staff is here to support you as you blossom.
We’ve got this! Let’s build a community so that Mount Holyoke Forever Shall Be.
On behalf of all the staff: Be well. Be safe. Thank you.
Maya Sopory ’22 Convocation speech
Maya Sopory ’22
President, Student Government Association
Remarks as prepared.
Before I begin, I would like to start off with a land acknowledgment for where I am right now in Michigan.
First, I want to reiterate MHC’s land acknowledgment at the top of the program.
Second, I am occupying the ancestral, traditional and contemporary unceded lands of the Potawatomi tribe. I recognize that I am on stolen land, and I extend our gratitude to the many Indigenous peoples who have rich histories here, including the Ottawa, Chippewa and Potawatomi nations for their ongoing stewardship of the land. In naming my positionality as a person not of indigenous descent and as a settler, I commit to recognizing, supporting and advocating for the sovereignty of the Indigenous nations of Michigan. By offering this land acknowledgment, I seek to affirm Indigenous sovereignty.
For those that don’t know me, my name is Maya Sopory. This year I am the president of the Student Government Association. This is not where I thought I would be for Convocation this year, but I am so happy to be here with you today.
I want to give a giant, Mount Holyoke-sized welcome to the class of 2024! I know that we are well into classes, but I think today marks your official induction into our community. Go, blue lions!
Hello to our wonderful class of 2023! Congratulations! You survived your first year at Mount Holyoke and now you are well on your way to being half-way through your college journey. Go, yellow sphinx!
As a member of the class of 2022 myself, I obviously have a very soft spot for all the juniors. While I miss everyone, I especially miss these phenomenal people. Go, red pegasi!
And to the class of 2021: You did it! You are making your way through your fourth year here. I am excited for all that you have accomplished and all that you have yet to accomplish. Go, green griffins!
Last, and by no means least, welcome to our amazing transfer students and fantastic Frances Perkins scholars! I am so happy that you are joining our Mount Holyoke community today.
As I was sitting down to write this speech, I struggled to think of something that has not already been said.
These are unprecedented times. We are in a moment in history. Y’know, with “everything that is going on.”
What could I even actually say that would come anywhere close to adequately capturing what it means to be alive right now, or at the very least a Mount Holyoke student.
Mount Holyoke students this semester are spread out across the globe. We are coming from a vast array of circumstances, time zones, countries, and continents
And the truth is, there isn’t anything that I can say.
There isn’t a single thing that I could say to all of you today that could make up for the fact that this isn’t what we thought this year would look like for ourselves and this isn’t really where we want to be.
I am certainly not a good enough of a writer to communicate everything that I am feeling right now.
However, I firmly believe that Mount Holyoke is not just a physical place.
It is the friends, staff, and faculty that make it what it is.
While we may not all be in the same place this semester, the Mount Holyoke community continues on through the connections that you have made and have yet to make.
Please, take the space and time you need this year.
Foster the relationships that are important to you and watch them grow.
Put yourself out there and reach out to the people you want to get to know.
Participate in virtual opportunities.
Most importantly, be kind to yourselves.
This is a scary and challenging time; we have a long journey ahead.
However, I know that we will all embody the Mount Holyoke spirit of resilience and perseverance.
I look forward to going on this journey with all of you.
Thank you and welcome MoHome everyone!