Iranian Author Azar Nafisi Delivers Mount Holyoke Commencement Address

Wednesday, May 30, 2012 - 12:45

This article originally appeared in the May 21, 2012 edition of the Daily Hampshire Gazette.

By SCOTT MERZBACH
Staff Writer

SOUTH HADLEY — Departing from Mount Holyoke College, their home for the last four years, will be difficult, but the graduating seniors should see this as an opportunity to grow, said Iranian-born author Azar Nafisi, who gave the address at the College’s 175th commencement ceremony Sunday.

In fact, she told the senior class, it can be dangerous to feel too much at home, because it can create complacency.

"This life should be a constant leave-taking, a constant going into the minds and hearts of others," Nafisi said.

Nafisi, educated in Europe and the United States in the 1970s before returning to her homeland in 1979, compared her journey to those in The Adventures of Alice in Wonderland, suggesting that Mount Holyoke students could follow much the same path.

"All great fairy tales begin with leaving home," Nafisi said. "Have the courage to run after the white rabbit, not knowing what risk you take. Jumping down that hole, you get to experience the wonderland."

The 577 members of the graduating class, each dressed in black caps and gowns and carrying a blue flower representing their class color, proceeded into the Richard Glenn Gettell Amphitheater on a sunny, warm morning to receive their diplomas in front of their families and College faculty.

Mary Graham Davis, chairwoman of Mount Holyoke's board of trustees, told the students that they should strive to fulfill the mission of purposeful engagement espoused by the College's founder, Mary Lyons.

"Have the courage to dream big and the fortitude to accomplish great things," Davis said.

Tamar Spitz Westphal, the student speaker, made reference to Mount Holyoke alum and playwright Suzan-Lori Parks' comments that there must be something in the water that inspires Mount Holyoke students. This inspiration is already happening for members of the class of 2012, she said.

"Every day we find new ways of engaging with the world and take steps to effect change in our communities, both next door and around the globe," Westphal said. "My hope is that we continue to do that, that we bring our dedication and passion through the world with us every day."

Westphal observed her classmates will soon be fanning out around the globe.

"This weekend is a celebration of our accomplishments thus far and marks the commencement of our future, but it is also a time to savor what we have here and now, what we have built in the great, big bustling world of South Hadley," Westphal said.

Nafisi, whose book Reading Lolita in Tehran: A Memoir in Books became a bestseller after she lost her teaching position in Iran for failing to wear a veil, encouraged the graduates to use their education to become subversive.

"Every single person who changes this country put the word 'education' next to the word 'liberty,' " Nafisi said.

She said fighting for their beliefs is important because no state or government should tell people how they relate, or don't relate, to their God.

Some graduates already have defined plans for their lives, while others are still searching. This summer, Hannah Braun of Brooklyn, New York, will be working on a salmon fishing boat in Kodiak, Alaska, before she determines what to do with her degree in art history.

"It's beautiful uncertainty going on," Braun said. "Though we all have the tools to do whatever we want, we don't know what lies in store for us."

Thu Nguyen, who came to Mount Holyoke from Vietnam, said she will be using her economics degree in Washington, D.C., where she will work as a consultant. She enjoyed her experience on a campus where students from 70 countries are represented.

"It's been an opportunity to meet people from all over the world," Nguyen said. "My four years here have been fantastic."

Besides Nafisi, three other people received honorary degrees Sunday, each of whom also spoke at commencement. Bernard LaFayette Jr., active in the civil rights movement in the 1960s, talked about how being part of a community gives strength to the students.

"It is only in togetherness that we can individually achieve our purpose," LaFayette said. He suggested that "bread" is the answer to Parks' question about what is in Mount Holyoke's water.

"The difference is when you cast your bread into the water here at Mount Holyoke, it comes back with peanut butter and jelly," LaFayette said.

Mallika Dutt, founder of the global human rights organization Breakthrough, asked the students to not only sit at or be at the head of the table, but to transform the table.

"It is a heavy challenge, but I know with the sisterhood of 35,000 among us, we will rise up to that space," Dutt said.

Neil DeGrasse Tyson, astrophysicist who directs the Hayden Planetarium at the American Museum of Natural History (possibly best known to the students for his appearances on Jon Stewart's The Daily Show), joked that he wanted the students' assistance in straightening out commonsense problems.

"I need the rest of you to help me fix the world. The rest of the world is getting stupider," Tyson said.

"Create the future you'd be proud to bequeath and honored to inherit," Tyson added.

Just before the degrees were handed out, Nafisi asked LaFayette to lead the crowd in a rendition of "Buses are A-Coming," a song used during the Freedom Rides of 1961.

"The whole point here is the buses are coming, so get ready," Nafisi said.