By Keely Savoie
Global health leader Joia Mukherjee stood before the class of 2016 and challenged them to embrace the legacy of Mount Holyoke College founder Mary Lyon—and answer the call to social justice.
“Please, be brave. Walk together. Disrupt this place with me,” she said in her keynote Commencement address to the graduating class of 2016.
The students roared with a ferocity appropriate to their class animal, the lion.
More than 600 graduates and certificate recipients wearing the blue scarves of their class color, filled the center seats of Gettell Amphitheater for Mount Holyoke’s 179th Commencement ceremony. They were flanked by family, friends, faculty, and staff who had come to see them on their way on the momentous day.
Read all of the remarks and citations.
A rallying cry for social justice
Mukherjee, who is the chief medical officer of Partners in Health, a global nonprofit devoted to promoting access to health care for all, has dedicated her life and career to advocating for health care access for the poorest of the poor.
Early in her career, she said, she went to Kenya, where she was told to teach starving mothers the proper foods to feed their malnourished babies.
“I dutifully unfolded a poster and educated their mothers about the right foods to feed [their babies],” she said. “These mothers who themselves were starving, who were shamed by bringing this malnourished child. I educated these mothers. I felt dirty. I felt ashamed. I said to my mentors, ‘I don’t think these women have any food. I don’t think it’s a lack of education. I think it’s a lack of resources, a lack of justice.’ ”
From that moment on, Mukherjee realized that a key piece of making change is listening and daring to speak the truth. She went on to join Partners in Health, which now employs 16,000 people worldwide, many of them poor people. The organization has worked in communities devastated by HIV, Ebola, and cholera.
"We work hard, we work hand-in-hand with communities to build a just world,” she said.
Mukherjee exhorted the graduates to join her in the fight for global social justice.
“There is no way to do this without you,” she said. “We need psychologists, chemists, philosophers, musicians, poets, librarians, programmers, we need all of you. We need to disrupt and rebuild this world. Join me. ”
A baccalaureate service was held the previous night, with speeches from new graduate Alicia Winokur, Amy Camp, assistant professor of biology, and Lucas Wilson, an associate professor of Africana studies and economics.
Commence the Commencing
Barbara M. Baumann ’77, chair of the Board of Trustees, officially convened Commencement by congratulating the graduates under a blue sky, adorned with cottony wisps of white clouds. Buoyed by the camaraderie of classmates, and suspended by the global network of more than 35,000 Mount Holyoke alumnae, she said, the class of 2016 enters the greater world poised to make it a better place.
View the photo gallery.
President Lynn Pasquerella ’80 noted that when Mount Holyoke Founder Mary Lyon named the seminary, she chose to memorialize it for the nearby mountain peak rather than for herself, in recognition that education should be as enduring as an ancient mountain. Ascending the mountain is an annual ritual for Mount Holyoke students, as much a feat of physical endurance as a community activity that symbolises the Mount Holyoke journey.
“As we prepare to move forward, let us remember what endures,” she said. “The sturdy foundation of the old mountain, the footsteps of those behind and ahead of us, friendship, and a perspective so vast it touches the sky.”
Senior class speaker Areeba Kamal ’16 reminded her classmates that the community and sense of home that they had found at Mount Holyoke was not accidental; it was cultivated by a class devoted to continually improving their world. She recalled specific incidences where Mount Holyoke students pulled together to affect a change they wished to see, from confronting transgender issues to raising voices in solidarity with students of color at the University of Missouri.
“Finding home was not always serendipitous,” Kamal said. “We stopped fearing change and we created it.”
She challenged her fellow graduates to become the change they want to see into the greater world, secure in the knowledge of their unbreakable Mount Holyoke bond—and to make the larger world home just as they had done at Mount Holyoke by bravely advocating for just change.
Joining the world community
US Representative Richard E. Neal accepted an honorary doctorate of humane letters, thanking Frances Perkins, class of 1902, for being the vision behind the founding of the modern labor movement and Social Security.
“The genius of community is that in our youth we all pull the wagon because in our aged years we might have to sit in the wagon,” he said.
Sculptor Joan Jonas ’58 accepted an honorary doctorate in fine arts and urged the students to follow their own paths and not to fear decisions, but to “move forward step by step.”
Mukherjee received an honorary doctorate of science. She rallied for the graduating class to fight for justice, to stick by their values, and to promote justice and peace in the world in whatever way was most meaningful to them.
“Find your passion, whatever it may be, and connect it with the kind of world that you want to see when you stand here, 30 years from now, receiving your honorary degree from Mount Holyoke. ” she said.
Mukherjee concluded her speech singing the song “Give Light,” inspired by civil rights activist Ella Baker’s eternal quote, “Give light and people will find the way.”
Go forth. Find your roar.