Commencement Speakers Offer Inspiration

Posted: May 28, 2006

Under blue skies and brilliant sunshine, Mount Holyoke's class of 2006 was lauded, encouraged, and counseled by speakers at the College's 169th commencement Sunday, May 28.

National Book Award winner and best-selling author Joyce Carol Oates told the 590 graduating seniors that they are sharing with graduates throughout the country the "common experience of coming of age in a schizoid time," with today's headlines littered with scandals of leaders and prominent figures. "There is the expectation that a younger generation has the opportunity to redeem the crimes and failings of their elders and would have the strength and idealism to do so," Oates said.

As proof of the power of persistence, Oates provided a litany of famous authors who struggled through school or encountered rejection. "Very few writers of distinction in fact were outstanding as undergraduates," she said, noting examples: William Faulkner received a D in freshman English at the University of Mississippi. Cormac McCarthy was asked to leave the University of Tennessee because his grades were so poor. Stephen King had 60 short stories and four novels rejected before being published. "We need to know that others may be having as difficult a time as we are--in fact, it's heartening to know that some are having worse times than we are."

Oates encouraged students not to focus on traditional measures of success. "America is a wonderful country, but its media focus upon winners, stars, and celebrities doesn't really prepare us for living in the world. … We must rely upon our own judgment and our own sense of self-worth."

Oates, who is the Roger S. Berlind Distinguished Professor of the Humanities at Princeton University, reminded the graduates of the fondness professors have for them. "We never tell you that we actually love you. It's one of those secrets that's embarrassing to acknowledge, but we do love our students."

In repudiating Benjamin Franklin's belief about the certainty of death and taxes, student speaker Mollie McDermott '06 warned her classmates that "nothing is certain but uncertainty," but reminded them that Mount Holyoke has prepared them to handle uncertainty with strength. "Mount Holyoke has taught us not to fear uncertainty. Rather, we've been taught to make the most of it, to sometimes even enjoy it. Our professors and classmates have taught us to ask the hard questions, to not allow ourselves the luxury of engaging in mental laziness or drawing reckless conclusions. We've sought out the grey from the black and white. We've embraced the not-knowing."

McDermott, a neuroscience major from Mandeville, Louisiana, spoke of lessons learned from Hurricane Katrina and of heroes helping others while in the midst of their own uncertainty. "These individuals did not allow themselves to be paralyzed by the painful not-knowing," she said. "The future is uncertain and much of it is out of our hands. But we leave Mount Holyoke today knowing that we will do the best with whatever is left to our hands, and--oh--what capable hands!"

Commencement 2006Members of the senior class echoed these hopes and fears as they face life after college. "I am a bundle of emotions right now--exhilarated to finish, but sad to leave," said Najiyah H. Edun '06, a summa cum laude graduate from Mauritius, who will be pursuing a master's degree in architecture at MIT next year. "Mount Holyoke has opened many doors for me, and I am grateful for the privilege I have had to be surrounded by smart women and supportive professors who have constantly encouraged, stimulated, and challenged me to grow in so many ways."

Danielle Connor, a Frances Perkins Scholar from Ipswich, Massachusetts, who majored in literature and environmental studies, will be able to combine her interests in media, policy change, and grassroots community organizing at the Green Corps Field School for Environmental Organizing. "Green Corps will give me hands on experience running environmental campaigns with the support of classroom training on how to be an effective agent of social change."

The College conferred honorary degrees on Kitty Kyriacopoulos, mining entrepreneur and philanthropist and a 1945 Mount Holyoke graduate; Eric Reeves, professor of English language and literature at Smith College and an activist for human rights in Sudan; Eugenie C. Scott, executive director of the National Center for Science Education, a not-for-profit organization that advocates the teaching of evolution in public schools; Hilda Chen Apuy, a 1944 Mount Holyoke graduate and Costa Rican-Chinese scholar who received Costa Rica's highest cultural award in 2004; and Oates.

As fellow Mount Holyoke alumnae, Kyriacopoulos and Chen Apuy inspired the graduates--and received standing ovations--with their personal stories of women breaking barriers, Kyriacopoulos as a businesswoman and Chen Apuy as a scholar.

In addition to the 590 seniors receiving bachelor of arts degrees, one master's degree and 21 certificates for international students were awarded.

(The transcript of Joyce Carol Oates's speech is not available.)

Related Links:

Commencement Address - Text and MP3
By Margaret "Mollie" McDermott '06

Honorary Degree Citation
Joyce Carol Oates

Honorary Degree Recipient Address
By Kitty Kyriacopoulos '45

Honorary Degree Citation
Kitty Kyriacopoulos '45

Honorary Degree Recipient Address
By Hilda Chen Apuy '44

Honorary Degree Citation
Hilda Chen Apuy '44

Honorary Degree Recipient Address
By Eugenie C. Scott

Honorary Degree Citation
Eugenie C. Scott

Honorary Degree Recipient Address
By Eric Reeves

Honorary Degree Citation
Eric Reeves

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2006 Commencement Home Page