A jam-packed crowd cheered more than 600 graduates as they received their diplomas Sunday, May 19 in Mount Holyoke College's 176th annual commencement in the Richard Glenn Gettell Amphitheater.
In a notable first, the College conferred its annual honorary degrees to an all-alumnae lineup, featuring commencement speaker and acclaimed social justice advocate Kavita N. Ramdas ’85, nutrition expert Joanne R. Lupton ’66, award-winning filmmaker and Olympian Mary Mazzio ’83, and former White House deputy chief of staff Mona K. Sutphen ’89.
Bachelor degrees were awarded to 616 students, including 43 Frances Perkins Scholars; three students earned a master of arts, two earned a master of arts in teaching, two received certificates for postbaccalaureate study, and another 17 received international student certificates.
Under overcast skies, the four Mount Holyoke alums and student speaker Jenna M. Ruddock ’13 provided moments of light-heartedness, wisdom, and gravity, touching on issues ranging from the weirdness of Mount Holyoke’s traditions to the contradictory demands placed on women in today’s world. Common to all speakers was the conviction that a Mount Holyoke education matters, perhaps more than ever before.
In her remarks, Ramdas, the representative for the Ford Foundation’s office in India, Nepal, and Sri Lanka and former president and CEO of the Global Fund for Women, spoke of the role of women – and the importance of a Mount Holyoke education – in a world facing “uncommon challenges.”
At Mount Holyoke, Ramdas discovered an alternative universe “where no one had to remind you to lean in because every woman … already had her shoulder to the wheel and was moving the needle on everything from microbiology to astronomy.”
It was, she said, a “taste of being a woman leading and learning in a world where women count.”
Yet, after so many years of success in her field, Ramdas acknowledged a wavering in her confidence as she marched this past December in memory of the young woman who died after being assaulted and raped on a bus in New Delhi.
“I walked with my head bowed and an unbearable sense of failure weighing on me,” she said. “What difference had my years of education and activism made?”
A young man marching beside her provided some insight, saying that to “make this right,” men need the help of women to learn what it means to be a man.
With those words echoing in her mind, a few months later Ramdas witnessed her friend, Mallika Dutt ’83 – who received an honorary degree from the College last year – launch the Million Men-Million Promises campaign to help end violence against women. It was all Ramdas needed to cast aside her doubt.
“A Mount Holyoke education – a women’s college education, a liberal arts education – matters,” Ramdas said.
“We need women who are so strong they can be gentle, so educated they can be humble, so fierce they can be compassionate, so passionate they can be rational, and so disciplined they can be free,” she added.
“We need uncommon women for these uncommon problems. And how deeply reassuring to me it is to know that wherever we go, there you will be.”
Lupton, a philosophy major who started her career as a scientist at age 40, exhorted graduates to find and follow their passion, even as late-bloomers.
“I made a conscious decision early in my career as a scientist to consider criticism a ‘gift’ and embrace it,” she said. “Surround yourself with colleagues who are better at what you’re doing. You will get better much faster."
Mazzio, who left a career as a lawyer to become a filmmaker, spoke of the privilege of learning to fail in order to learn what might be possible.
“This is where everything starts and ends for me,” she said. “It was Mount Holyoke that taught me to have a voice. And to use it. Loudly. It was at Mount Holyoke where I was allowed to fail and fail miserably. To push the boundaries of what might be possible. To never give up. To discover that failure is not an end, but a beginning.”
Sutphen, whose work has taken her from Asia and Europe to the White House, shared three career rules with graduates: Play to your strengths, worry less about your title and more about the experience you're gaining, and "don’t be a jerk."
“I’m truly confident that you’ll be successful in whatever path you choose,” she said. “I’d like to think it’s because of my three rules, but the real reason is because of what Mount Holyoke has given you… the knowledge, skills, and confidence to take risks and forge your own path.”
Ruddock spoke fondly of learning the traditions – and “weirdness” – of the College. To loud cheers, she explained that this shared experience would prove invaluable in the years ahead – especially in challenging times.
“Watching many of you spend these last few months of one of the most unique and enriching times of our lives worrying about what’s to come – where will you work, where will you live, who will be there with you along the way – the message I want to leave you all with today is this,” she said. “It’s never too late to make new decisions or fix past mistakes, or even to change the course of your life entirely. It’s true that nothing in life is permanent.”
Among other commencement firsts, families and friends were given reusable water bottles to fill and bring to the ceremony, replacing the hundreds of plastic bottles of water usually distributed to the audience. The eco-friendly change is the result of the initiative taken by the student chapter of Think Outside the Bottle, led by graduating senior Rebecca Neubardt and the College’s Sustainable Water Committee.
And while the College has live-streamed the commencement ceremony for the past several years, for the first time this year’s Laurel Parade and the Baccalaureate service were also live-streamed via the Web around the world.
To loud applause, President Lynn Pasquerella told graduates that she had “a great deal of optimism about the future knowing that you’re the next generation of woman leaders.”
“You’re truly amazing and I’m so proud of each and every one of you.”