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President Steinmayer's Commencement Address

President Janet L. Steinmayer delivered the following remarks to Lesley University’s Class of 2021 during a virtual Commencement ceremony on May 22, 2021.


Thank you for your kind words, Hans.

And thank you, Jonathan and Nathaniel, for being here today—and for all you do for Lesley, day in and day out.

On behalf of the entire Lesley University community, I joyfully welcome all who are participating remotely in our 2021 Commencement ceremony—and most especially this year’s graduates and their families.

So….. this has been anything but a normal year, right?

And as our Board Chair just noted, for the two years that I have had the privilege of serving as Lesley’s president, the COVID-19 pandemic has caused us to rethink many of our normal traditions including this most special day.

To Lesley’s 2021 graduates and to those who graduated in 2020: please know that we all share your disappointment in it not being safe for us to celebrate together, in-person.

Commencement Day is a high point for the entire Lesley community. Each spring, all of us look forward to gathering to congratulate our graduates and our colleagues on the successful completion of the academic year.

Today, we all are missing each other’s physical presence, as we have over the past year.

I am mindful, too, that the pandemic has taken the lives of over 3 million people globally in just over a year, and that the toll continues to climb.

Some of you have lost a loved one or a friend to the virus—someone special who in a normal year might have attended Commencement with you.

To those of you who are holding a chair empty in someone’s memory, I send my deepest sympathy.

I realize that some of you are unhappy with our decision not to hold an in-person Commencement.

These feelings may even make some of you want to fast-forward through my speech.

But to those willing to listen, please understand that it is my responsibility as Lesley’s president to make difficult decisions with the best interests of the entire community in mind.

It was not a decision taken lightly. We considered and reconsidered it repeatedly this spring, knowing how disappointed many of you are.

Perhaps a decade or two from now, we all will look back on this year and feel differently.

Today, our goal is to focus our energy on doing the very best we can to celebrate the accomplishments of this year’s Lesley graduates, knowing they will continue to give us many opportunities to celebrate their accomplishments well into the future.

And to that end, I’m very pleased to announce that we will plan a special celebration for members of our Classes of 2020 and 2021 next spring when we hope it will be safe bring everyone together.

We will involve students in planning how we celebrate you, so please stay tuned and in touch.

In many respects, we are living through an “era of reconsideration.”

Almost a year ago to the day—May 25, 2020—George Floyd was killed, igniting an historic racial justice movement.

For those of us born with white privilege, the Black Lives Matter movement has laid bare the pervasive systemic injustices that have long been known to, and suffered by, BIPOC people.

The trial and the verdict have forced us to confront the gaping distance left in the journey between marking a milestone victory for police accountability and reaching the ultimate destination of justice.

The past year has demanded that we hold ourselves, our institutions, and our democracy up to a mirror and to acknowledge how much of our work remains unfinished.

As a nation, we will be climbing Amanda Gorman’s “hill” for many years to come.

When Amanda read her poem “The Hill We Climb” at President Biden’s Inauguration, she gave us a glimpse into a future led by young people of conscience.

Through the artful wisdom of her words, the potential of that future shone as brightly as her yellow coat.

Those of us who have chosen to work in schools and colleges have always known that the future lies in our students’ hands.

A deep commitment to improving people’s lives is what calls Lesley students to study the most human of arts: teaching, counseling, and the visual arts.

It’s the same calling that motivates Lesley faculty and staff to work hard every day to prepare our students for the future they will confront and shape.

In these uncertain times, Lesley students and faculty are first responders to some of the most essential human needs: education, mental health, and creative expression.

The pandemic has only underscored what we already know: that the work you do is essential on the climb up that hill.

At Lesley, we are inspired every day by young people with the commitment to right historical wrongs, to make our world more just and more environmentally sustainable.

Your passion activates us; your idealism gives us hope.

And we know we can count on you to hold us accountable to do right and do better.

This year’s graduates have needed more than the usual amount of emotional strength and resilience to complete their degrees.

Never has Lesley’s motto: “I would have perished had I not persisted”—felt more apt.

With about 1,300 graduates this year, I’m afraid it’s not possible to give each of you the well-deserved shout-out you have earned.

But I would like to highlight a few stories of 2021 Lesley graduates whose persistence inspires us.

Amber Joy is a first-generation student completing her degree in Holistic Psychology and Wellness. She overcame the mental health impacts of generational trauma to thrive as a student of the healing arts and to embrace her Indigenous identity. She will return to join our Expressive Arts Therapy master’s program.

Eileen, who is graduating with an MFA in Visual Arts, used her experience undergoing chemotherapy to inspire a joyful and witty exhibit called “Can You Make Hair For Me?”. Working with students in our Expressive Arts Therapy master's program, Eileen staged and photographed unusual hair and headpieces. The images turned a lot of heads and made us think differently about identity and what we value.

Elizabeth is earning a PhD in Education, which might surprise some of her high school teachers (she dropped out). It was the lack of a culturally sustaining curriculum in high school that inspired her research at Lesley, which explores the ways in which creative writing can help high school students on the margins develop literacy skills and agency.

Debe, is earning a master’s in Art Therapy to begin a second career as a Licensed Mental Health Counselor, a 12-year journey due to health struggles including two bouts with cancer. She previously had a successful 25-year career in production design, persisting to succeed in making a midlife reinvention.

David overcame childhood trauma and depression through therapy and found his way to our Center for the Adult Learner. He is earning a degree in Liberal Studies and has his sights set on earning a master’s in social work, so that he can help others get their lives back on track.

Alice returned to Lesley this year to complete the remaining credits of a degree that she began in 1998. Emotionally drained after 9/11, she left Lesley during her senior year and later became a licensed preschool director. The pandemic gave her the impetus and the opportunity to re-enroll remotely. Two decades later, she is finally graduating with a Liberal Studies degree with a concentration in education.

Two of this year’s graduates are exemplars of what it means to be a lifelong learner.

Our most senior graduate degree recipient this year is in her 80s and already has a law degree from Yale. Now, after retiring from a successful career as a prosecutor, Mary is earning an MFA in Visual Arts.

And our most senior undergraduate degree recipient is 73-year-old Pamela. A widowed pastor who immigrated from Honduras, she returned to the classroom to study holistic psychology after decades away.

In addition, I would like to recognize the persistence of our Threshold Program students and those in the first cohort of graduates from our partnership with the Urban College of Boston.

Many other graduating students have addressed issues of equity and justice in their coursework and research.

This, too, is a hallmark of the Lesley experience, and this year has highlighted how essential connecting research to real-world practice is.

Here are just a few examples:

Natasha studied the role of mindfulness for health care workers experiencing burnout and compassion fatigue during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Sixteen seniors in our College of Art and Design helped Native American leaders develop materials to support the legislative initiative to replace the harmful iconography on the Massachusetts state flag and seal and are working on a related traveling exhibit and podcast.

Serena focused on chronically homeless men and their experiences seeking affordable housing in her doctoral research in Counseling and Psychology.

Jonathan focused his dissertation research on how leaders of predominantly white schools can better support students of color.

Kimberly’s doctoral research centered on transgender and nonbinary therapists and psychologists, whose voices and identities are often erased in their clinical training.

Jacqueline examined the factors that contribute to the academic success of first-generation college students in her doctoral research.

Again, these are just a few of the many examples of ways Lesley students have engaged with real-world problems and identified broken systems in need of repair.

Their commitment to being agents of change makes us proud and gives us hope.

Later in this ceremony, we will hear directly from Lesley students representing each of our four colleges and schools and the Threshold Program.

I thank them all for sharing their personal stories with us.

Years from now, your children and grandchildren will ask you what it was like to be a student during these tumultuous times.

They will want to know not only what aspects of your life were affected by the confluence of the pandemic and the racial justice movement, but how you responded—what actions you took to change the world for the better.

They will want to know what you learned about yourselves and others.

They will want to hear your stories. It is through stories that we create empathy and deepen our understanding of different perspectives and lived experiences.

Through the ages, it has been through the process of shaping memory into narrative that humans construct meaning.

Research shows that choosing to frame your narrative into a redemptive arc can lead to greater resilience and psychological well-being.

You have borne witness to suffering, hatred, and violence.

But you have also seen everyday heroes step up to offer comfort, love, and compassion to strangers, and it is their actions and voices our stories must center and amplify.

I recently read an obituary of a 91-year-old British woman named Lyn MacDonald who interviewed thousands of World War I veterans.

In collecting their behind-the-scenes stories, she become known as “the recoding angel of the common soldier.”

To fully understand history as it was experienced by individuals, we need all of these narratives.

Your generation will have important stories to tell. Remember this chapter of your lives.

As you look back on this chapter of your Lesley story, I hope you will appreciate the moments of kindness and mutual support you have experienced and that you will find strength in the human connections you have forged despite the challenges.

I send you my warmest congratulations, and I wish you the very best of health as you commence the next chapters of your lives.

I now invite our Board Chair and our Provost to join me in announcing our 2021 honorary degree recipients.