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(Virtual) Convocation 2020: Your Mount Holyoke

This, Mount Holyoke, is not how Convocation is supposed to be. Or at least, it is not Convocation as we have known it.

Our Convocation could not be further from social distancing. We pack into the amphitheater, share warm hugs and water bottles, chant class loyalty and sing our hearts out. It is the most joyous and the noisiest of gatherings, celebrating your arrival or return to campus. It is, to use a baseball metaphor, our “home-opener.”

Convocation has serious academic roots. It is a call to academic pursuits in community, led by a group of scholars — this amazing faculty — who normally process in symbolic colors that speak to higher education’s history and to their learning and specialism, to their collective belonging here and their connection to other forms of membership that form a bridge between this intellectual community and others. It is a moment that marks membership, a bonding ceremony of sorts. It is, as I said on this occasion in 2016, “an enactment of our collective incorporation and, most importantly, of Mount Holyoke’s regeneration.” 

It celebrates a newly constituted community (welcoming new students, faculty and staff), lifts up the opportunity for belonging, to be a part of this social fabric, “and to make our conversations not only about the challenges of community, but about the possibilities of community.” This ceremony, like so many others in higher education and especially at Mount Holyoke, is “a dialectic between the communal and the individual and the universal and the particular.”(1) 

Convocation is the opening stroke in a symbolic circle that binds you together through graduation and the new beginning that is Commencement. In that sense it celebrates and connects you, class of 2024 and all new transfer students, to the seniors, the class of 2021, for whom this is the first of many lasts, as well as to the classes of 2022, 2023, and all of our Frances Perkins scholars. It celebrates, too, the graduate community that is also a part of Mount Holyoke. It joins lions to griffins, as well as to pegasi (2022), sphinxes (2023), phoenixes (FPs) and owls (PaGE students). 

Like other traditions — Elfing and Big/Little, to name just two — Convocation helps connect new students to returning classes, and connects all of you to generations past and future in shared experience and in  the friendly rivalry of class colors and spirit, class symbols and complementing, competing and sometimes even conjoined costumes! 

So, sitting here today, in the uncommon quiet of campus on Convocation day, dressed in a costume myself — in academic regalia for a procession that must this year be only in the mind’s eye — I find myself reflecting on what our virtual Convocation represents, on this tradition in this most challenging moment, on how we will together build spirit and community in these times — on what it means and what it will take to be closer apart. In our virtual M&Cs this week, Lasya Priya Rao, class of ’23 and your SGA vice president, asked me and others about our favorite traditions at Mount Holyoke. I love them all, and I miss them all, so Lasya’s question also invited reflection on traditions as an intentional piece of history, gifted from one generation of students to the next in continuity and connection.  

In “Campus Traditions,” Bronner comments that “campus traditions refer inevitably to connection—to the past, to people, to place.” (2) What links these three is symbolized in many ways by the laurel chain — and parade — that binds the graduating glass to each other and to others before them (the alums who share in their success and line their path) through a inheritance represented both by experience and by a shared sense of place that goes beyond bricks and mortar. 

Over the last 50 years, the number of traditions at Mount Holyoke has doubled. New symbols, rites and events have been developed that better express the interests, needs, identities and commitments of the student body, and the social purpose and cultural work of this community. As Azulina Green, class of ’17, pointed out in a Mount Holyoke blog, traditions are constantly evolving, so that, for example, what was called Freshman Day in the early 1900s became Hazing Day by the early 1940s and, since 1989, has been known as DisOrientation or Dis-O.(3) 

The strand of green beads I wear today in honor of the graduating class is just one many that were left under seat cushions, hung from plants, hidden in drawers and anywhere they could later, gradually and joyfully, be discovered, some still with the “anti-Alma Mater” attached. In this fun act, the classes of 2017 and 2021 literally left their mark (all over the house!), claiming their presence and reclaiming a tradition for themselves through interpretation and invention. 

Without rediscovery, without such invention and reinvention, traditions do not live on or grow, and they become history rather than legacy. Interrogating our history and traditions opens up new possibilities and horizons. As Pelikan asserts in “The Vindication of Tradition,” we must resist the deadly effects that tradition has on insight and on progress,(4) and instead see them as heritage, and through rediscovery, refinement, reinvention and indeed invention of traditions (both intellectual and collegiate), to find a starting point, not only in making important connections (of every kind), but in developing, furthering, changing, improving [and] understanding culture and the community of which you are, now and forever, a part. Traditions then empower those who participate in them, while having a pervasive, far-reaching influence on the life and culture of the College. What I learned from these beads, class of 2021, is that the real importance of our traditions, like a Mount Holyoke education, is an invitation to insert yourself into the conversation of history, to bring yourself and your ideas, and so to contribute to understanding, to the narrative of the College’s and the world’s present, in order to have an influence on their future. 

As I reached this point in the writing of this Convocation address, I happened upon another connection, this time through social media. A Facebook friend, and an academic colleague, shared that her daughter, Nora, had published her first op-ed in a university newspaper. Nora is a first-year student at an institution that, like Mount Holyoke, places great value on its shared traditions. In this op-ed, Nora writes that, while she understands the desire to perpetuate important campus traditions, the virtual versions “lose the heart” of them, providing instead “another glimpse of what we are missing of the traditions we simply couldn’t follow.” She continues:

Instead of perpetuating traditions through adaptations that diminish their experiential value, I challenge our class to build our own new ones. … let’s create new ways of being members of the same community.


By acknowledging this shared, disturbingly different reality, the Class of 2024 may in fact become the most tightly-knit of all … communities. And we may also wind up innovating along the way with some new traditions to carry forward far beyond the pandemic. (5)

And so, Mount Holyoke, this is not Convocation as we know it, as we have known it. In so many ways, we do not want the world and its legacies to continue in the ways we have known. It is an invitation, and in so many ways — from the excavation of Mount Holyoke’s history as a part of our Anti-Racist Action Plan to our Common Read, The 1619 Project, and even and always to the examination and renewal of our most beloved traditions — to bring new vision to what we know, to bring new questions to the legacies of history and time, to reject certain kinds of  traditionalism in order to renew tradition. 

Engaging in Mount Holyoke traditions, like this one, is to ask how you might engage creatively with them, and to see in them the opportunities for our future and for our community. This, too, is the adventure of a Mount Holyoke education: to take “what you have as heritage … now as task,” as Goethe said, “for thus you will make it your own!” (6)

Welcome to a new academic year, Mount Holyoke. Make it your own!


  1.  Kathleen Manning, citing Durkheim, in Ritual, Ceremonies and Cultural Meaning in Higher Education (Westport, CT: Bergin & Garvey, 2000), 33.

  2. Simon J. Bronner, Campus Traditions. Folklore from the Old-Time College to the Modern Mega-University (Jackson,: University Press of Mississippi, 2012), xiii.

  3.  See Azulina Green ‘17, “Say Hello to Dis-O,” The Gates. The Blog for the Mount Holyoke Community. April 14, 2017.

  4. Jaroslav Pelikan,The Vindication of Tradition. The 1983 Jefferson Lecture in the Humanities (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1983), 66.

  5. Nora Fellas, “Class of 2024, COVID presents an opportunity to forge our own traditions,” Vanderbilt Hustler, September 4, 2020.

  6.  Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, Faust, lines 682-3. Cited by Pelikan in conclusion, op. cit., 82.