Baccalaureate is a cherished tradition

During Baccalaureate, Mount Holyoke seniors gather together in Abbey Memorial Chapel on the Saturday evening before Commencement. They hear remarks from selected faculty members, classmates and College leadership.

During her speech at this year’s Baccalaureate, held on the eve of Mount Holyoke’s Commencement, student speaker Madalyn Nicole Migliorino ’23, a double major in philosophy and politics, zeroed in on the preciousness of the present.

She addressed how some philosophers view time. They can be divided into two camps, she explained. “B theorists,” as they are known, don’t believe that there is anything special about the present moment. Rather, it is the moment that comes immediately after the last one and before the next one that they believe is special. “A theorists,” on the other hand, do believe that there is something special about the present moment that makes it the present moment.

“Reflect for a moment,” Migliorino said during her speech. “What does your intuition tell you about this? Is there something special about right now? How can you even know?”

Identifying as an “A” theorist, Migliorino encouraged her classmates to do the same.

“There is something really special about this moment that makes this the present moment,” she said. “And as we pack up our rooms and we say goodbye to our friends for now, we should take care to live in that present moment.”

Migliorino’s speech was among other meditations on time, ritual and failure that punctuated this year’s Baccalaureate ceremony.

In her speech, sociology professor Eleanor Townsley noted how rituals like the Baccalaureate build meaning into memory and connect individuals into larger social groups. “My best advice is take your time, feel it all, lean into the ritual, let it hold you, let it lift you up and fix the moment in memory,” she said to the graduating class. “You may hail from many different places, speak different mother tongues, study different things. But you are also from this place, and you share this home. Each of you will walk across the same stage tomorrow.”

Townsley encouraged the class of 2023 not to forget that generations past, and generations to come, will engage in the very same rituals of Baccalaureate and Commencement as they are. “There is a collective effervescence, a moral energy generated by shared experience, no matter how different we are or how different we feel we are.”

Andrea Lawlor, assistant professor of English, focused their speech on the importance of failure. They offered anecdotes from their own life: leaving their fancy high school, enormously resistant to fulfill the expectations of their parents; graduating from a state university as a nontraditional student; leaving a career in publishing and web development to pursue creative writing. Each step of the way, Lawlor said, they were on the path of a certain sense of entitlement to “find out who you are and do it on purpose,” as they noted Dolly Parton once said.

“I hated being in the closet. I came out. I hated attending a conservative college. I dropped out. I hated my job. I quit it. I loved books. I began writing,” Lawlor said.

“Why am I telling you about my dissolute early years?” they continued. “It’s because I trust failure. I wish for you all something other than success. I wish for you all the strength you need to continue learning to be yourselves. I wish for each of you the safety and security you need to fail when you need to, the community you need to hold you when you can't hold yourself and the clarity to find your own true north, even if it leads you somewhere unexpected.”

The beauty of poetry also took center stage during the evening. Interspersing the speeches and performances by the Commencement Choir was a poem presented by C.C. Cogswell ‘23, who helped produce Mount Holyoke’s first Student Theater Festival. Titled “Untitled,” the poem’s tone reinforced the themes of the evening:

“And as we drift through the strangeness of this in-between, I hope you take your time,” Cogswell read aloud. “Yes, you who are held so precious in the palm of noon, you who abound with abandoned meanders, you who grow slow as you pearl your way through a landscape of your own. Take your soft time. For we are home in a place where oxbow-gilded rivers wander.” 

But it was arguably the poetry of Marcella Runell’s daughter Aaliyah Hall that stole the night. The vice president for student life and dean of students shared two poems during the evening that her daughter had written.

The first was titled “I Love Mount Holyoke.”

“I love Mount Holyoke. I think you do too,” Runell read. “I love it so much. It would be the place I have strength and courage. There is love there, and there is hope there. It is beautiful. It has faith and kindness. Everybody there is able to say what they need to say. There is culture and history. I love Mount Holyoke, and I think you do too.”

The second poem was titled “One Sad Goodbye.”

“Hello, world. Goodbye, MHC. Hello, cook your own food. Goodbye M&C’s. Hello, freedom. Goodbye, exams. Hello, new friends. Goodbye, old friends, for now. Hello, new job and experiences. Goodbye, homework. Hello, world. Goodbye, MHC, but just for now. Because Mount Holyoke forever shall be.”

At that, students and faculty murmured in awe and burst into applause.

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