Welcome to Commencement 2022

President Sonya Stephens muses on time, place and perspective as the Class of 2022 embark on the journeys of their post-Mount Holyoke College lives.

May 22, 2022

Trustees, honored guests, members of the faculty, colleagues, distinguished graduates, Class of 2022 and friends and families, good morning! 

I join Karena Strella, 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 2022, our Frances Perkins scholars, graduate students and our singular 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 have worked with great dedication and intellectual energy to support the graduates’ academic achievements. Class of 2022, graduate students, will you please join me in thanking the faculty and in recognizing them for all that they are and all that they have given while accompanying you on your journey to this moment.

Along the way you have also been supported by the generous and loyal staff of the College, and I know that they, too, join me in congratulating you and in sending you from this cherished place with their warmest wishes for your continued success and happiness. And then there are all the friends and family here with us today, along with the many who are celebrating you from afar. So, before you each accept the degree that you have earned and 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]

In preparing for this day, for your graduation and Mount Holyoke’s one hundred and eighty-fifth Commencement, I have been thinking a lot about time and place — about the many challenges of this time in our history, of your time at Mount Holyoke and about how this place, nevertheless, anchors us in a sense of possibility and change, of shared pursuits and common values. I’ve been thinking a lot about how time passes — slows down or speeds up — in our perception, about how events in the future that seemed distant are suddenly upon us, and about how memories are often surprising, revelatory or raw. I’ve been thinking about how we work toward deadlines and ends in which there are new beginnings. Sometimes both the ends and the beginnings reveal themselves in the fullness of time, sometimes they seem linear, but often they are not. 

I was thinking about this (about time, place and perspective) as I was walking this beautiful campus, captivated by a connection of the changing views I had of the towers of Mary Lyon Hall and Clapp Laboratory, which shift and coalesce in a dance of perspective as you move around and down the sloping grounds. This brought to mind a scene from Proust’s “In Search of Lost Time,” which goes like this:

At the bend of a road I suddenly experienced that special pleasure which was unlike any other, when I saw the two steeples of Martinville shining in the sun and appearing to change position with the motion of our carriage and the winding of the road, and then the steeple of Vieuxvicq, which, though separated from them by a hill and a valley and situated on a higher plateau in the distance, seemed to be right next to them. As I observed, as I noted the shape of their spires, the shifting of their lines, the sunlight of their surfaces, I felt that I was not reaching the full depth of my impression, that something was behind that motion, that brightness, something which they seemed at once to contain and conceal [emphasis added].1

In this passage, the narrator, a young Marcel, experiences something beyond shifting perspective. And, in the telling of this experience, the narrator, an older Marcel, embeds this prose poem written by his younger self, reframing it both for himself and for the reader. When he recounts it, there is an additional layer of sense-making (the subsequent work of the intellect) that provides a different perspective again as he grapples with the “essence” of the steeples, “the mystery which lay behind them.”2 This is, then, a metaphor to which the narrator returns when thinking about the relationship between how we see and how we make sense of the world and others around us. It’s a metaphor for how perspective changes over time and in relation to place. And it’s a metaphor for sensation, intuition and intellect in an ever-evolving relationship to one another and to reality.

Each of you has embarked upon a journey of self-discovery and of sensemaking at Mount Holyoke, often through the kaleidoscopic perspectives of different courses and approaches and through encounters with one another, both here on campus and on Zoom. Time here is of another order: both impossibly pressured and (very occasionally) seemingly infinite. Visions of futures imagined — both personal and more universal — fragment and reorganize themselves into new and quite different patterns that suggest new ways of apprehending the world and ourselves, of authoring these futures and, best of all, of redirecting our attention in order to reshape and rewrite these futures for the better. Such is the joy of a liberal arts education — to enjoy such kaleidoscopic perspectival shifts, to imagine and explore “essences,” and, as the integrative project “Liberal Arts in a Future Tense” describes it, to do so in educational and intellectual “ecosystems in which individual flourishing and collective well-being are creatively enabled by commitments to the social good.”3

Our honorary degree recipients who join you today are in so many ways — so many different ways — the embodiment of this. You will hear more about them in just a moment, but each of them has brought ambitious imagination and a generous humanity to their work, and each of them has crafted a life’s work in ways that advance their vision, their profession, their art and our human connection and condition.  Two of today’s honorands are alums of Mount Holyoke, and two are award-winning poets and authors. 

Katherine Butler Jones, class of ’57, has dedicated her life to learning — both her own learning and that of others — committing her many talents to racial justice in Greater Boston. She and her family made Newton their home in 1961, and she never stopped working to create opportunities for others in their community through her efforts with the Fair Housing Committee, the Roxbury/Newton Freedom School, the Newton Public Schools’ Metropolitan Council for Educational Opportunities (METCO) program and the Newton School Committee, on which she served four terms, making history as the first successful African American candidate.

Susannah Sirkin, class of ’76, served as director of policy and senior advisor at Physicians for Human Rights (PHR) until February of this year, leading international policy engagement with the UN, domestic and international justice systems and human rights coalitions with PHR for 35 years. She is a international expert who has mobilized medical and scientific expertise to stop mass atrocities and severe human rights violations against individuals, with a focus on sexual violence in conflict zones. Sirkin was deeply involved in the International Campaign to Ban Landmines from 1992–1997, a campaign for which PHR shared in the Nobel Peace Prize.

Natalie Diaz is a Pulitzer Prize–winning poet, MacArthur “genius grant” winner, linguist and activist, whose work explores forms of colonial violence, past and present, particularly those against Native American peoples. Through dazzling imagery and clarity of vision, she insists on the persistence of love in the face of such violence and imagines how to bring into being other futurities. What Natalie Diaz calls “postcolonial love” searingly and compellingly models continued openness, empathy and transcendence in the face of destruction and the “fable” that conceals it and constrains freedoms.

And Ocean Vuong, who was born in Vietnam and raised in Hartford, Connecticut, is a poet, essayist, novelist and, indeed, a creator of forms that escape these categories. He’s also a recipient of a MacArthur “genius grant,” the T.S. Eliot Prize, the Whiting Award and many other distinguished literary awards and fellowships. His work lyrically, movingly, breathtakingly, connects identity to the body, intimacy, destruction and grief, memory, past and future, art, survival and love — always through extraordinary beauty, compulsive curiosity,and transformative metaphors, inspiring awe and deep, raw humanity.

The dance of perspectives, then, the light on Proust’s steeples and Mount Holyoke’s ever-changing surfaces, the search of that surface of things in pursuit of some greater truth, that  “essence,”  the critical motivation that is “behind that motion, that brightness,” the something that seems both contained and concealed — this is the invitation this education provides, and this is the moment when the visions and revisions that are a part of writing ourselves in the past, present and future begin. As one critic of Proust’s novel reminds us, these visions and revisions “never solidify because in the process of writing, editing or reading, the description of the narrator’s life turns into a story which transforms.”

Congratulations, Class of 2022. Wherever the winding path, the long vistas and the forward motion may take you next, I wish you lives of continuing inquiry and meaningful pursuit and opportunities of great purpose and transformation. 

1. Marcel Proust, Swann’s Way, trans. Lydia Davis (New York: Viking, 2003), 184.

2. In “Perspective (Marcel’s Steeples),” Philosophy as Fiction: Self, Deception, and Knowledge in Proust (https://oxford.universitypressscholarship.com/view/10.1093/acprof:oso/9780195169393.001.0001/acprof-9780195169393-chapter-2).

3. See the work of the University of California Humanities Research Institute (UCHRI).