Speech delivered by Mount Holyoke College President Lynn Pasquerella at Convocation, September 2, 2014
We’re so glad you’re here!
Next to graduation day, I think my favorite time at Mount Holyoke College is this moment when we welcome everyone to campus and extend an especially warm and jubilant greeting to our new first years: the Mount Holyoke class of 2018.
Want to know about our newest crew?
The class of 2018—547 in all—represent 36 states and 30 countries. They have completed the largest number of AP, honors and IB courses of any class in College history. They are spelling bee champs, Hebrew teachers, Nordic skiing all-stars, and harmonica players.
If that’s not impressive enough, take a look at how they’re rocking the red Pegasus.
And class of 2017, welcome back Green Griffins! You now know the campus forwards and backwards, and we’re counting on you to show the way.
Class of 2016, Blue Lions. Never too early to start rehearsals for Junior Show, right? Welcome back to you, too, my fellow lions.
And a special salute to all new transfer students, Frances Perkins scholars, teaching associates, post-baccs, exchange students, visitors, and fabulous Posse scholars from Miami, Florida.
Let’s see…did I forget anyone? Oh, yes. I think all that yellow momentarily blinded me. It’s like the rising sun out there. Welcome back, class of 2015! Our super seniors! Our stellar Sphinx! This year you make your mark, and we’re ready for you!
Trust me when I say our Mount Holyoke College faculty and staff have left no stone unturned in their efforts to give you the best liberal arts education in all the land.
Consider these recent accolades. The Princeton Review named Mount Holyoke College at the top of the heap when it comes to:
*Best classroom experience
*Best residence halls
*Best bang for the buck
*Best campus for sustainability initiatives
Of course, University PrimeTime just advertised Mount Holyoke as ranked number one for having the smartest women in the U.S., ahead of Stanford, Wellesley, the University of Chicago, William and Mary, and every other college and university in the country.
I think that acclaim means you can’t take a step around here without bumping into an intellectually-alive-well-fed-economically savvy-environmentalist.
And that’s just the way we like it.
And there’s more!
Over the summer, our College orchestra won finalists honors from The American Prize in Orchestral Programming. Professor Tian Ng and our musicians were applauded for “stimulating,” “diverse,” and “intellectually rigorous” concerts
Then there’s Lia Poulos, class of 2016, who spent the summer with other students and Professor Audrey Lee-St. John building robots for possible use in future search-and-rescue missions.
And Frances Perkins Scholar Stacey Ridel who—sparked by Professor Jane Crosthwaite’s religion class on the Shakers—used her summer to analyze the Shakers’ firsthand accounts of “auditory hallucinations.”
We’ve all had busy summers whether in a lab, an archive, a concert hall, or even slinging burgers (hopefully somewhere near salt air and sea breezes).
How many of you remember writing those first-day-of-class essays about “What I did on my summer vacation”? They were a teacher’s way to jump-start writing; a way to share tales of summer pleasures; a way to get to know each other.
I remember writing a few of those. When I was 8, I was all excited to tell the story of my summer vacation to New Hampshire. We went to Peterborough to visit cousins, and trekked to Franconia Notch with its Lost River Gorge. I wrote about descending into caves and slithering along tight passages with ominous names like “Orange Crush,” “Cave of Silence,” and “Devil’s Kitchen.”
Then there were those stay-at-home summers when the neighborhood kids on Kent Street played pick-up Whiffle Ball and rode our bikes around town until the cicadas started their late August buzzing.
And, if I’m truthful, I have to admit that there were also the summers when I played in a garage band: the Kent Street Band. I sang and played percussion and keyboards. Our specialties were covers of the Monkees and teen-idol Bobby Sherman.
Well, summer is different now and—while we still may love to sing favorite songs when we’re alone in the car—we also know that our world is larger, more complex, more dangerous, and more in need of our attention than ever before.
Our summer of 2014 was also the summer of the Ukraine airline tragedy, of boiling tensions in Gaza, the raging Ebola virus in West Africa, and police facing off against citizens in Ferguson, Missouri.
There is much work to do, and here at Mount Holyoke, we are not afraid to roll up our sleeves.
Let me share with you some of the important work Mount Holyoke has engaged in this summer.
Just days after commencement, Mount Holyoke hosted the Women in Public Service Project Institute in collaboration with Smith and Simmons College. The Institute is designed to build a new generation of women leaders around the globe and move toward 50 percent representation of women in public service by the year 2050. Delegates from Asia, Africa, and South America came to Mount Holyoke, Smith, and Simmons for two weeks of conversation and strategy.
Mu Sochua, a leader of the Cambodian opposition party, was one of the women who joined us. She called upon her country to open doors of free expression and address crises of domestic violence, sex trafficking, and HIV/AIDS. Shortly after her return to Cambodia, she and several colleagues were arrested on charges of insurrection and incitement for leading a nonviolent march to Freedom Park in the capital city of Phnom Penh. Mount Holyoke joined the U.S. State Department in calling for her immediate release. Nearly 30 percent of our Mount Holyoke students come from 80 nations around the globe. We believe that it is the responsibility of a great women’s college not only to educate women on our campus, but also to be vigorous and vigilant in advocating for women around the world. Taking on the world was never far from our founder’s mind. Mary Lyon thought that all lives would be better if women were given every opportunity to live up to their potential. And the courageous leaders of the Women in Public Service Project Institute show us that a free society is one in which all women are respected, encouraged, and heard. I am happy to report that Mu Sochua has been released, and Mount Holyoke College is proud to stand with her in supporting human rights and nonviolence.
And, human rights begin at home. This summer, my colleagues and I worked diligently in continuing to build upon the engagement of the entire community last semester around issues of race, privilege, and inclusion, and we look forward to today’s community conversations in Chapin. In addition, Mount Holyoke and our Board of Trustees took the important step of establishing a policy on transgender students. While we have welcomed trans students in the past and for several years have been in conversation with campus constituencies about how best to foster a respectful environment for all students, we needed a formal policy: one that would articulate our commitment to core values of individual freedom, social justice, and diversity and inclusion. We recognize that what it means to be a woman is not static. Just as early feminists argued that reducing women to their biological functions was a foundation of women’s oppression, we acknowledge that gender identity is not reducible to the body. And we are mindful that exclusion from the category of “woman” based on contingent properties of birth is nothing new. In 1851, African American Sojourner Truth took men to task for linking fragility with the idea of a “true” woman.
“Look at me,” Sojourner Truth said. “Look at my arm. I have ploughed and planted and gathered into barns. ...And ain’t I a woman?”
Then, as now, we must look at identity in terms of the external context in which women are situated. Transwomen and ciswomen share what theorists call “positionality.” And it is this relationship to the dominant culture that is relevant as women’s colleges accept all those aspiring to live, learn, and thrive within a community of women.
Our new policy formally welcomes applications from any qualified student who is female or who identifies as a woman.
I think it is important to remember that your college years are a time of reflection. And one of the hallmarks of a great liberal arts education is time to think about your place in the world and your place in the world of others. I am proud that Mount Holyoke College chooses to lead with our policy on trans women—a policy that reinforces our commitment to access, diversity, and the dignity of every woman’s life.
One more note on “What Mount Holyoke did on summer vacation.” Last month, Dean of Faculty Sonya Stephens and I traveled to South Korea, where I spoke to the World Congress of Global Partnership for Young Women—a meeting cosponsored by Duksung Women’s University and the United Nations. One question that came up again and again during the meeting was how we speak for other women without speaking at their expense. It’s a tough question and one that Mu Sochua’s arrest and our new policy on trans students raises.
Certainly the empowerment of women around the globe and on this campus cannot come on the backs of other women. We are at our best when we don’t so much speak for other woman as work alongside them.
So look to your left and your right.
Look behind you and ahead of you.
This is Mount Holyoke College.
These are the women and men who stand alongside you.
And now it’s time to get going.
Let us ring the bell, open the gates, unleash our minds and hearts, and begin the hard work ahead.
We couldn’t be more ready.