Congratulations to the class of 2020

President Sonya Stephens congratulates the amazing, resilient and patient class of 2020 at their in-person Commencement, held on May 29, 2022.

Trustees, honored guests, members of the faculty, colleagues, our distinguished honorary degree recipients, the amazing, resilient — and patient — class of 2020 and your friends and families, good morning! 

I join Kathy Collins ’74, vice chair of the Mount Holyoke Board of Trustees, in extending to you a warm welcome as we celebrate together the exceptionally accomplished graduates of the class of 2020, the Frances Perkins scholars and transfer students among you, graduate students and our exceptional honorary degree recipients.

As we begin this ceremony, I’d like to open the celebrations by taking a moment to recognize the Mount Holyoke faculty who worked with the graduates, and with great dedication and intellectual energy, to encourage your accomplishments and to nurture your aspirations. The Mount Holyoke faculty, if you are able, would you please stand for our acknowledgment? Class of 2020, graduate students, please join me in thanking the faculty and in recognizing them for all that they are and all that they have given throughout your journey with them.

Along the way you were also supported by the generous and loyal staff of the College, and I know that they, too, have worked exceptionally hard to make this day possible and that they join me in welcoming you home and in congratulating you. And then there are all the friends and family here with us today, as well as many who are celebrating you from afar. So before you each — finally — cross the stage to mark the earning of this degree that you so richly deserve, I invite you to take another moment now to acknowledge ALL those who have supported you on this journey. Please give them all a round of applause.

A special mention this morning, too, for the class of 2020 marshals. It is a Mount Holyoke tradition to connect the graduating class with the alums who graduated 50 years before them — their “connections” class. The class of 2020 has taken this connection a step further by asking alums Linda Phelps Graves ’70 and Linda Morehous Goodwin ’70 to serve as their connections class marshals today. 

In the video commencement message of May 2020, I reflected on Ed Yong’s attempt to define that pandemic moment just a couple of weeks earlier to shape a narrative that might make sense of what we were living, what we knew (and didn’t) in April (and May) 2020. What struck me about Yong’s article, then as now, was the motivation captured in the subtitle: “making sense of a problem that is now too big for any one person to fully comprehend” — a moment that required multidisciplinarity, collaboration, connection and synthesis. Yong also invited us to think about that moment in time as an “archetypal plot structure,” one where, as he says, “the protagonist reluctantly departs from normal life, enters the unknown, endures successive trials, and eventually returns home, having been transformed.” As we know, many people worldwide, and over a million in the United States, were lost to COVID-19, and we mourn all the tragic loss of life throughout this pandemic, from COVID-19  to entrenched racial injustice. 

I said at the time that, in that moment, it seemed especially important to think of yourself as the protagonist, both in the narrative of your own lives and of this era, as well as a critical contributor to the collective imagination and action that our future requires.

Much has happened since then. You have brought to new communities and new contexts the individual attributes, critical capacities and knowledge that enable you to address questions big and small. You have brought courage, persistence and creativity to counter uncertainty, pain, loss and recovery. The education you received here at Mount Holyoke helped shape the protagonists that you have become and will continue to become as, individually and collectively, you persevere in forging a path and finding your way. You are protagonists not only because you are the lead character in crafting your own story but also because you champion important causes, advocate for yourselves and for others, counter those who would be antagonists and, indeed, all that constitutes adversity and inequity.

Joining you today to mark this occasion are other exceptional individuals who exemplify the struggles, courage and authenticity of protagonism. You will hear more about them in just a moment, but each of them has crafted a career and a life driven by their values, their commitments and their advocacy, leading in shaping a better future for gender equity, for justice, for higher education, for this society and this nation. In her 2021 book, “Believing: Our Thirty-Year Journey to End Gender Violence,” Anita Hill raises the question at the heart of the protagonist’s quest and her own courageous challenges and distinguished career: “What is my life for?” Helen Drinan reminds us that “it is always important to be as clear as possible about what you would like to achieve and what you are willing to do to get there” and about the centrality of the work we do, as a workforce, and the education, the lifelong learning, that will fuel your talent and your journey. And finally, in “What We Value” (2022), Lynn Pasquerella talks of the need to face what Dr. Martin Luther King calls “the fierce urgency of now” to use this education, your opportunities and your leadership to confront the challenges of this moment — citing an Emily Dickinson letter, to “light the danger up” in order “to distinguish it.”

Class of 2020, we are so very thrilled that you are back here today to be celebrated in this way. You are already doing great things in great places, and we are confident that you will continue to learn and to lead with courage and conviction, to lean and to live fully into your protagonism.