Convocation 2017

In her 2017 Convocation speech, Sonya Stephens focused on the Mount Holyoke community that has endured — and celebrates—180 years of change.

Remarks as prepared

September 5, 2017

Good morning, everyone!

Welcome home Class of 2018, Class of 2019, Class of 2020.

And the warmest of welcomes to the Class of 2021, to our new transfer students, Frances Perkins Scholars,  and all of the students visiting Mount Holyoke this year from another college or university.

To the faculty, in their regalia, here to celebrate you and this new beginning—thank you! And to our extraordinary staff, joining us formally this year—how much you have done to ready this campus for the arrival of the students! Let’s hear it for the staff!

#We are Mount Holyoke!

Photo of Acting President Sonya Stephens giving the 2017 Convocation speechIt has been such a pleasure to spend time with you over the last few days, to welcome those who are new to the campus, to reconnect with those who are returning, and to celebrate this moment with those who’ve been preparing for this moment all summer.

    We are all familiar with the proverb “it takes a village,” and at Mount Holyoke—like many other communities—it’s true that collaboration and commitment to shared goals deliver the experience, every experience, you have.  But, like NPR’s Joel Goldberg, I’ve wondered about the origins of that expression, and reflected, as Goldberg suggests, on what it means to appropriate cultural truths in this way. He found one commentator who was certain that  the proverb had African roots, and in more than one language and community,  meaning that “regardless of a child's biological parent(s) its upbringing belongs to the community.” While, he writes, others cited the saying as Native American. Or perhaps "some sort of pseudo-African mix of Hallmark and folk sentiments"! He goes on to cite Lawrence Mbogoni, an African studies professor, saying: "Proverb or not, 'It takes a whole village to raise a child' reflects a social reality some of us who grew up in rural areas of Africa can easily relate to. As a child, my conduct was a concern of everybody, not just my parents, especially if it involved misconduct. Any adult had the right to rebuke and discipline me and would make my mischief known to my parents who in turn would also mete their own 'punishment.' The concern of course was the moral well-being of the community.1

Others  interviewed felt, like Mbogoni, that it mattered little what the cultural origin was, if there were some human truth—some communication of a “profound statement of collective social responsibility.”2 It matters more that we connect, across cultures, with stories that differentiate us, and universal truths that bind us.

At Mount Holyoke we are a multi-cultural community, with proverbs, insights, and perspectives to share, and we commit to that sharing in ways that are authentic, and culturally tethered.  Our individual endeavors engender collective social responsibility— “collective concern” is “collective power,” as the theme for October’s  Hortense Parker celebration  asserts. We are responsible for each other’s growth and success, and for our village—this campus, the College—and it is a shared responsibility to hold each other accountable for the way we are and the values that we live.

Mount Holyoke is a community that has endured –and celebrates—180 years of change. History whispers in the corridors and seeps from the bark of trees and the brickwork of buildings. The paths have been trodden by generations of students, faculty, and staff before you—and others will follow. On this campus, I often feel the truth of Mary Lyon’s words when she said that “this is an affecting spot to me. The stones and brick and mortar speak a language…”, and that we must here “learn to sit with energy.”  We engage with the history of this place through memories, and archives, and traditions, and we slide into them, like hand-me-downs that fit like a glove—or not.  For I am also mindful of a poem that a student wrote—and shared with me—four years ago, expressing her simultaneous sense of belonging to, and dislocation from, the history of the College.

See, (she wrote of Mary Lyon), I once thought she built this school for the likes of me
Till history showed me
that she founded this in 1837
twenty-eight years before slavery had "ended" 

Recent decades have seen a a reckoning with the past of great universities, and recent months have seen statues removed in a challenge to the white supremacies of history, just as sociologists anthropologists, and philosophers have brought into sharper focus the exclusions inherent in the very notion of community that we so readily promulgate.

Articulations of Mount Holyoke’s commitment have tried to recognize this challenge. The Statement of Community, adopted by the faculty as legislation in 1971 and still current in our handbooks, amplifies the Honor Code in important ways:

Mount Holyoke College believes in the right, indeed the necessity, of free inquiry and free expression for every member of the college community. The College aims to provide an environment hospitable to open interchanges of knowledge and opinion in the terms of reasoned discourse. The citizen’s rights to free speech, free movement, free association, peaceful assembly, and orderly protest extend to every member of the College. So do the citizen’s responsibility to uphold the law and the civilized person’s obligation to respect the rights and feelings of others. The goal for the new century must be to build a community of students, faculty, and staff devoted to intellectual and creative freedom, critical inquiry, personal honor, ethical discernment, and responsibility. We must encourage openness and candor, dialogue and debate, and the creative engagement of all constituencies in building a genuine community.

A College does not become a community by so naming itself. Community is a dynamic condition, difficult and necessary to achieve, reached by active synthesis, by the consensus of free wills and free intelligences agreeing to pursue objectives in common, in an atmosphere of general sympathy, forbearance, respect, and trust. When such conditions prevail, there should be little occasion for coercion or violence, or for punitive response, and the very occurrence of such action will suggest that the community has failed, at least for the time, to achieve its common purposes. Ultimately the quality of life in the College is the property of the conscience of all its members.

This statement expresses a commitment that now underpins an evolved and evolving vital, global, and inclusive community of consequence, understood as a complex concept, that includes individual freedoms, democracy and justice, our values of diversity, equity, and inclusion, free and civil discourse and exchange of ideas, a deep sense for all of belonging here and of contributing to the intellectual and social excitement that makes Mount Holyoke what it is. In many ways, it corresponds to Jean-Luc Nancy’s positive concept of community, which privileges spaces of sharing, of being with, the in-common, and exposition.3 The Mount Holyoke community, by its residential nature, offers you an opportunity to connect, to be with each other, to share experiences—to create and celebrate both difference and the in-common. It proposes, with the right conditions for different values and group identities, the opportunity for what Peter Block has called “the alchemy of belonging.”4  Each of you belongs here. This is your College now. Your campus. Your community. You cannot leave the work of community-building, of engagement and sharing, to others.   

This year will see the opening of a signature building on campus—a connector of lake and greens, of buildings and architectural styles, of facilities and ways of being, of student space and academic contact, of coffee and conversation. It is a place with unity, leadership, creativity and companionship (in its original sense of breaking bread) at its heart; a place fuelled by the sharing of food and drink, and by laughter, friendship, and solidarity. The Community Center will stand and provide for what, together, we will create and be: a community of thinkers and doers, a network of contemporary change agents, a  community for intellectual, creative and social exchange. A microcosm of Mount Holyoke as we conceive of it, it will be a place that is generative of energy, activity, and organization. But, like community, a community center does not become central to our understanding of its purpose by so naming itself. Like the classes you will teach or take, like the commitments that you will make to each other, this Community Center, and the very community it describes, will only be as inclusive, vibrant, and engaging as you make it.

It is a tradition at Mount Holyoke to watch Dirting Dancing together, and to cheer at the line (and the sentiment) that “nobody puts Baby in a corner.”  There are many ways in which one could critique this line, but I want you to take it as an invitation, here at Mount Holyoke and always, fully to own your achievements, and always to position yourself as belonging and emboldened by who you are and what you can do.   

I hope that you will today and always make a conscious commitment to make Mount Holyoke yours. To make your imprint on the paths and greens, and on all those around you.  To fill the library not only with the energy of your work in the moment and the joy of learning here together, but also to fill its future shelves with your histories and your stories. To build the community you want to be a part of and to make the history of Mount Holyoke’s present and its future.

Once again welcome, Class of 2021. Welcome home, seniors, Class of 2020, Class of 2019, and our seniors, Class of 2018—you get the last word!

Everyone--#Welcome MoHome!


1Joel Goldberg, It Takes A Village To Determine The Origins Of An African Proverb, July 30, 2016 [Last accessed 9/4/2017].

2art. cit.

3Jean-Luc Nancy, The Inoperative Community (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1991)

4 Community: The Structure of Belonging(San Francisco: Berrett-Koehler2008), 83 ff.