New MHC Graduates Exhorted to “Be Brave.”

Sunday, May 18, 2014 - 2:15pm

Mount Holyoke College’s 177th commencement took place under brilliant blue skies, with graduates surrounded by cheering family and friends. Students received 580 bachelor of arts degrees, of which 36 went to Frances Perkins Scholars. In addition, 12 students received a master of arts in teaching degree, eight received a certificate for postbaccalaureate study, and 16 received international student certificates.

• View commencement day photo gallery.

• Read all the greetings and speeches from Commencement weekend.

Mary Graham Davis, chair of the board of trustees, and President Lynn Pasquerella opened the ceremony to enthusiastic applause. Pasquerella implored seniors, "Savor the day. Hug especially hard. Look your family in the eye and tell them how very grateful you are.”

The student address was given by Iman Abdulwassi Abubaker ’14. She grabbed seniors’ attention immediately by noting that “it took only four years of blood, sweat, and tears and a lot of Ramen noodles to get us here.” She urged classmates to find and follow their passion. “We learn. We fall. We crawl. We fall again. And we adapt. We will be flung into the real world. … Soon enough we will have to take that first leap. Whatever our next move, we should not be afraid. Do not fear change, because we have come face to face with new beginnings and challenges many more times than we think. The real world is just an evolved, bigger, scarier, monstrous version of it on steroids. We are transformed young women with a strong voice to express our identity and our beliefs. Here we come, real world; here come the women of change.”

President Pasquerella conferred honorary doctoral degrees on four women, each of whom gave a brief charge to the graduates.

Deborah Harkness ’86, history professor and bestselling novelist, called attending Mount Holyoke “the best decision I ever made. My major—Elizabethan studies—didn’t just prepare me for a job, it laid the intellectual foundations for the rest of my life.” She exhorted graduates, to “take risks without being reckless. Dare to be different. Set out to do the impossible or at least the improbable. Look your fears in the eye and stare them down. Live your life. We will be on the sidelines cheering for you.”

Karen Jennings Lewis ’74, president of the Chicago Teachers Union, told graduates: “You have received the best education possible and it’s what you should wish for every person on this planet." She added, “You must speak up.  Loudly, with conviction. Never let expediency, fear, or complicity stand in the way of joy, truth, and justice.”

Dr. Patricia A. Robertson ’72 makes her career as a physician and professor of clinical obstetrics and gynecology, but calls her work improving healthcare for lesbians “my most important legacy, in addition to my family.” She urged the graduates to be authentic. "Develop your passion," she said, "even if it doesn’t make money. Be flexible, as change happens and your model may need to change, too. Make self-reflection part of you. We are strong women; that doesn’t mean you have to be superwomen.”

Deborah Bial, founder and president of the Posse Foundation, gave the commencement address, “Be Brave.”

She started by acknowledging, “My generation has made a real mess of things. It’s like we’re handing you the keys to a car we’ve completely wrecked and advising you on how best to care for it.” To heal a planet suffering from environmental damage, racism, sexism, and other maladies requires, Bial said, courage.

“You're going to have to be brave. And sometimes even seemingly small things need courage.

“Maybe writing every day about your experiences and thoughts and wishes and dreams seems ordinary. But be brave like Anne Frank.

“Maybe it's hard to imagine that refusing to give up your seat to a white man who demands it because you're black took courage. But be brave like Rosa Parks.

"Maybe speaking out politically is something you have always been comfortable with. But be brave like Gloria Steinem.

“Maybe the idea of going to school despite death threats seems foolish. But be brave like Malala Yousafzai.

“The truth is that in every generation there are heroes, there are heroines,” she continued. “You all have it in you. You don't have to be a revolutionary but you should be brave.”

She referenced courageous acts by Rosa Parks, Gloria Steinem, John Lewis, Eleanor Roosevelt, Frida Kahlo, and Al Gore.

“Their battles were no more important than the ones facing you in this audience. We need our best and brightest—you—to be fighting. It was not too long ago that it was a strange and uphill battle to defend a women's right to autonomy, to a life of the mind, to full-fledged personhood.

“Every single woman in this crowd of graduates today is someone's hope for a better future, for equal pay, for a fair shot at the American Dream. It is on you that we hang our hopes for a more just and reasonable society.”

Invoking poet and Mount Holyoke alumna Emily Dickinson’s lines "The Brain is wider than the Sky" and “Hope is the thing with feathers - That perches in the soul - And sings the tune without the words - And never stops - at all,” Bial said she hoped the graduates “will use your sky-encompassing minds responsibly, for your own good, but also for the good of others, and that as you carve your life's unique path, you hold fast to the hope that sings the tunes without words and never stops.”

The presentation of diplomas was repeatedly punctuated by bursts of whoops of joy and applause. One by one, each senior stepped onto the stage, accepted her diploma, and walked off into her future.

—By Emily Harrison Weir