The challenge for the new graduate – and any person, really – is to carve out an authentic identity in the world and to oneself.
The approximately 900 recipients of master’s and doctoral degrees from the Graduate School of Arts and Social Sciences and Graduate School of Education heard a variety of speakers echoing that theme during Commencement, held Saturday, May 18 at the Rockland Trust Bank Pavilion on the Boston waterfront.
President Richard Hansen encouraged graduates to build relationships, foster communities, listen carefully, allow for vulnerability and be present with others.
“Changing the world by yourself is a daunting, lonely proposition,” said Hansen. “Communities are not built in quick bursts, but through sustained engagement.”
Commencement speaker and honorary degree recipient Dr. Beth Harry recalled how her life changed dramatically when her daughter, Melanie, was born with cerebral palsy.
“I think that to enter the world of people in severe need — whether through disability, abuse, homelessness, poverty, discrimination — is to entirely change your perspective on what you’re supposed to be doing with your life,” Harry told the graduates. “I found that I could not open just one door because each door led to another and another until I found myself living in an entirely new household.”
Inspired by her daughter, who died unexpectedly at age 5, Harry’s new household would be in Trinidad and Tobago, where the Jamaica native moved and established a school for children with disabilities. The school and Harry’s subsequent work to bring awareness and equity to special education for minorities taught her an important lesson: “Don’t assume you know someone just because you know their name.”
Now a professor of special education at the University of Miami, Harry spoke about how easy it is to label people and for that label to obscure the “whole, unique person behind it.” As an illustration, Harry told graduates about a Trinidadian student named Daniel who has Down Syndrome. The genetic disorder often comes with below average hand and eye coordination, motor skills, memory and focus.
However, “Daniel defies all of these expectations,” Harry said.
After seeing his father and older brother play the steel pan, Daniel taught himself to tap out music. He even composed his own songs. As word spread, Daniel went from being a spectacle in their town to becoming a local celebrity with people calling out a proud “Look meh boy!” as he passes by.
People should not have to prove their worth to fit into their communities, Harry stressed. Daniel’s example demonstrates how inadequate labels are and the unexpected qualities human beings possess when given the space to be themselves.
Harry also paused to highlight Lesley graduate Dee Genetti, who recovered from a traumatic brain injury despite doctors who said she would never complete her PhD.
“Despite that, you have gone on with total determination and persistence and all the imagination, I know, that you could pull together to bring you here this morning,” she said.
Genetti’s perseverance turned what could have been an ending into a fresh start.
“Don’t be afraid to open the doors life presents you with,” Harry said in closing. “That’s the challenge, to turn the ending into a beginning.”
Rediscovering one’s identity
Graduate School of Arts and Social Sciences student speaker Donna Kareen Charles spoke about the challenges she faced as an outsider, and trying to open doors to establish her identity on campus, but also in herself. She relayed her “transformation” as a Lesley student who immigrated to the United States from the “the tiny, beautiful island of Dominica” and was soon confronted by the bleakness of the New England winter, as well as “East Coast drivers with a penchant for using their horns.”
But it wasn’t only the external factors that troubled Charles.
“For decades, I walked in the shadows, suppressing parts of my identity, consciously stifled my accent for the comfort of others,” she said. “I thought to myself, ‘I don’t want to offend, and I don’t want to explain myself either, so I guess I’ll assimilate.’ Meanwhile, my confidence diminished.”
However, she added, “At Lesley University, I rediscovered my voice and found the courage to stand up against injustice and reclaim my identity. … My hope is that you see this commencement transition not as an end, but instead as a celebration of a new beginning.”
GSASS Dean Sandra Walker, in introducing Charles, alluded to that new beginning, saying to graduates, “You are now equipped with the tools to fight ignorance.”
Later, Alumni Association President Julie Farnam ’05 urged graduates to use Lesley’s “Boundless network of leaders, experts and innovators” who, like the new graduates, “are steadily moving the world forward.”
Lesley educators model how to “persist and thrive”
Graduate School of Education Dean Amy Rutstein-Riley said this is “no ordinary time for public education,” as we face direct challenges to the public nature of our school systems amid ever-increasing expectations of teachers and schools.
“This is an awesome responsibility, and one that is never more important than it is today,” Dr. Rutstein-Riley said to the graduates, who are “modeling how to persist and thrive.”
Lorraine Brontë Magee, the Graduate School of Education student speaker, said she’s grateful for the Lesley faculty who changed the way she thinks and the classmates who helped her consider different perspectives.
“Lesley has opened door after door, connecting us with others,” said Magee, who earned an M.Ed. as a specialist teacher of reading.
Magee recalled how she wove her studies at Lesley into her elementary school classroom in Natick, creating a biography project through which her students interviewed members of the community and built incredible connections among people who would not have met each other otherwise.
“When we prioritize connection, … we make the world a bit smaller,” said Magee. “In doing so, we change it, little by little.”
Through persuasive writing, one of Magee’s third-grade students prompted a clothing brand to increase representation of children with Type 1 diabetes in their catalogs.
“As we carry our Lesley experiences with us, may we all be in the mood to change the world,” said Magee. “Our time at Lesley has taught us that we can’t make change in isolation. Change requires connection. Together, we have started to build a brighter future.”