Graduating seniors treated to an unforgettable Final Lecture

Three Mount Holyoke professors spoke at Final Lecture, giving talks that ranged from aspirational to deeply personal.

You’d think that after more than three decades as a college professor, one more lecture would be a breeze.

But geology professor Steven R. Dunn was nervous, very nervous, on the Thursday of Commencement weekend while waiting for the Final Lecture — a 21-year long Mount Holyoke tradition — to start.

“I can get up and talk about rocks easily, all day, but this is different,” said Dunn. “I’m going to get personal.”

Dunn was one of three professors selected by the senior class to speak at the May 18 event in a near-capacity Gamble Auditorium. Also on the bill were politics professor Calvin Chen and psychology and education professor Becky Wai-Ling Packard.

All three said being asked to present was an honor. Each received hearty cheers and applause from the adoring students.

Earlier, Dunn agreed to Chen’s suggestion to go first, commenting ever so quietly that it would be good to get it over with.

Standing at the podium, Dunn started off with a series of one-liners and had the timing of a stand-up comic. (“We have a lot in common. Most of you are seniors.” Pause. “I’m a senior too.”)

But really, Dunn planned to talk about something quite serious — something almost therapeutic. With timing that seemed no longer comedic but almost suspenseful, the professor held up one hand, folding first a thumb followed by one finger per phrase, announcing slowly and clearly: “I. Identify. As a. Trans. Woman.”

“It took me 65 years to even say that,” said Dunn, their words met by a momentary hush replaced by applause, hoots, cheers, and then a standing ovation. In the audience, students had tears in their eyes and smiles on their faces.

When things simmered down, Dunn, who retires this year, talked about many serious topics, including male privilege (it’s real), white supremacy (still prevalent) and the amazing strides made in some areas, but others — especially racial injustice — where things still remain largely stuck.

They described Zoom classes ushered in by the pandemic, when he saw his face in a box and the identification “Steve Dunn, he/him” day after day after day until he could no longer tolerate it. Dunn began using the pronouns he/they. But they often forgot.

“If I’ve ever misgendered anyone, I apologize. I’m bad at it,” said Dunn. “I think it’s a generational thing.”

They credited young people with leading the way in demanding greater acceptance of gender diversity.

“I’m grateful to all of you,” said Dunn. “It’s what has helped me to be able to admit who I am.”

If it was hard to follow that inspiring and personal testimony, Packard and Chen did not show it. Seniors greeted each warmly as they took the podium.

Packard drew on her years of research, turning them into motivation, mentorship and identity. She talked about the importance of cognitive flexibility when facing the most challenging problems. Cognitive flexibility, she argued, is a practice that allows one to to approach challenges not by being rigid but by being open, adaptive and persistent.

She encouraged students to think of resources not like a pie, which is finite, but more like light, which can be easily shared. Light can even grow when shared.

“That’s the world I want to be in,” she said.

“The winds are strong out there, so protect your light,” she advised. “Protect your light and huddle together.”

Chen delivered a lecture sprinkled with humor and, to the obvious delight of many in the audience, references to Star Wars. It was titled “Comparative Politics and Life.”

“Comparative politics can help you live your best life,” he said, clicking through colorful slides as he argued that lessons learned from the ways different countries develop or fall apart are applicable to life after Mount Holyoke.

“You want to always be true to who you are, be your authentic self, but be open to the growth that will allow you to be the best version of yourself. Embrace your destiny, become who you were born to be,” he said. “Be the baddest badass on the face of the earth!”

After the three lectures, as students crowded around their professors to chat and take pictures, Cal Kern ’23 explained the tears that came when Steve Dunn proclaimed their identity.

“It was really powerful because there are so many messages in the world right now that say being trans isn’t a real thing,” said Kern, tearing up again. They are a psychology and education major from Newton, Massachusetts. Packard is their advisor. They never took a class with Dunn, but in their final days on campus, Dunn imparted a lesson quite profound.

“To see someone who really knows themselves stand there and share their truth,” said Kern, “makes me want to listen to my truth, not those messages of doubt.”

As for Dunn after the lectures, all that anticipatory nervousness was gone. While a small circle of friends and colleagues have known for about the past two years, this event meant that circle expanded dramatically.

“It was therapeutic. I knew it would be, letting out what was trapped in there. I carried a lot of shame about this. The fact that it’s hidden is confirmation that it’s shameful,” said Dunn after posing for pictures with soon-to-be graduates. “Sharing it is a way of allowing it to not be just shame. It’s freeing myself.”

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