MHC Celebrates 175th Commencement

Sunday, May 20, 2012 - 17:55

Videos of commencement speakers may be seen here.

Speakers brought laughter, tears, and inspiration to the students, families, and friends gathered today in Gettell Amphitheater for Mount Holyoke’s 175th Commencement. Bachelor degrees were awarded to 577 students, including 37 Frances Perkins Scholars; one student earned a master of arts degree, and another 25 received international student certificates.

Despite the College’s long history, there were some commencement firsts: One speaker interrupted himself to tweet; another asked a fellow honorary degree recipient to conduct the audience in a song from the Civil Rights era.

In what became a moving call to action, commencement speaker and best-selling author Azar Nafisi concluded her address by asking Bernard LaFayette, Jr. to render a spiritual--one he sang while waiting for police to arrest him when he worked with the Freedom Riders in Alabama more than five decades ago.

"I always do what women tell me,” LaFayette joked, before leading the crowd in several emotional verses of, “The buses are a comin', oh yeah… They’re a comin’ to Jackson, oh yeah.”

The Civil Rights leader had already earned a standing ovation while receiving an honorary degree from Mount Holyoke President Lynn Pasquerella. During his acceptance speech, LaFayette advised the graduates to “live a noble life of service to others, a life that will fulfill your dreams.”

In her own address, Nafisi recalled a different form of oppression, beginning with being forced to leave her homeland of Iran when she was just 14 and learning “how easy it is to lose all that you have.” She returned to Iran in 1979 after the overthrow of the Shah—only to find “home was not home” and that she “felt like an exile in my own home.” In the face of the religious oppression that dominated Iranian life, “Women became the canaries in the mine in the fight for freedom,” she said.

Likening the historic fight of American women for equality to that of Iranian women, Nafisi stressed the importance of education in the pursuit of liberty.

“There are no commencements like this one in Iran,” she said. She also cautioned the graduates not to impose their personal expectations upon the world as they continue their pursuit of knowledge, but to keep themselves open to new opportunities and experiences. Borrowing from Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland, she urged them to “have the courage to run after the White Rabbit, not knowing what the risks are when you jump down that rabbit hole.”

“Curiosity is insubordination in its purest form,” she said.

Nafisi also received an honorary degree from Pasquerella, as did alumna Mallika Dutt ’83, the founder and executive director of the Breakthrough organization, and astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson, director of New York City’s Hayden Planetarium. Dutt told the graduates to remain connected to their sisters sitting beside them and to reach out to the 35,000 alumnae in the Mount Holyoke network.

“They will always have your back. Never underestimate the power of a Mount Holyoke woman,” she said. She also urged the class to take their places “at the table” of world issues.

“This is a time when instead of trying to sit at the table, or at the head of the table, you actually transform the table,” she said.

Tyson--who stopped to send a tweet mid-speech--repeatedly drew laughter from the crowd, although his underlying message was a serious one. Citing numerous examples, he said, “The world is getting stupider, and I need your help to fix it; I want to make the future smarter."

“Why do people think the world is going to end this year? ...They believe somehow the Mayans knew more about astrophysics than I do. …So the Mayans, in their ability to predict the future, somehow didn't see the end of their own civilization coming?” he asked. “I want you to create the future that you would be proud to bequeath and honored to inherit.”

The graduates endured 80-degree heat under a bright blue sky that matched the blue spider mums they carried to represent their class color. Despite the heat, they cheered each speaker with loud enthusiasm—including student speaker Tamar Spitz Westphal ’12.

“There is passion here. There is solidarity. There is drive to change the world. There is also humor,” Westphal said. “My hope is that we continue to… bring our dedication and passion through the world with us every day. We have been primed to become the leaders of tomorrow, and I have no doubt that we will rise to the occasion. Indeed, we are already stepping up as the leaders of today.”

In an emotional moment, President Pasquerella told the students each of them “will always have a home” at Mount Holyoke.

“As alumnae, you will continue to make us proud,” she said. “But you've already made us proud—more than you’ll ever know.”