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NewsMay 22, 2021

Finding community and facing the challenges

Virtual Commencement celebrates stories of persistence, excellence and hope as relief from prolonged pandemic appears

The hardships of the COVID-19 pandemic cannot be overlooked. Nor, however, can the perseverance, compassion and ingenuity of the graduates of the Lesley University Class of 2021 be overestimated. In our virtual Commencement today, the entire Lesley community celebrated the determination of the class to rise above the burdens of life under lockdown and to prevail against the forces of fear and uncertainty amid the lives lost and economic challenges of the pandemic.

“This year’s graduates have needed more than the usual amount of emotional strength and resilience to complete their degrees,” President Janet L. Steinmayer said in her remarks. “Never has Lesley’s motto, ‘I would have perished had I not persisted,’ felt more apt.”

The president highlighted the achievements and drive of many graduates who overcame daunting obstacles, from childhood trauma to cancer to national cataclysm, to earn their respective doctoral, graduate and undergraduate degrees and certificates, sometimes after decades away from school.

Hans Strauch, Jonathan Jefferson, Janet Steinmayer, Nathaniel Mays in graduation regalia
Trustees Chair Hans D. Strauch, Provost Jonathan K. Jefferson, President Janet L. Steinmayer and Dean of Students Nathaniel Mays at the hooding ceremony for PhD graduates.

With its focus on the arts of human connection, Lesley prepares its students to be what the president described as “first responders to some of the most essential human needs: education, mental health and creative expression,” fields whose value the pandemic underscored.

President Steinmayer also referred to what she called “an era of reconsideration,” not just in rethinking cherished traditions like Commencement during the pandemic, but engaging in a national reckoning regarding racism, social inequity and other injustices that Lesley students and graduates are committed and equipped to battle.

“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 (Black, indigenous and people of color) people,” Steinmayer said. “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.”

But the president, as well as other university officials, said they believe the Class of 2021 is up to the task.

Provost Jonathan K. Jefferson thanked our faculty and staff for adjusting to the vicissitudes of delivering a Lesley education remotely during the pandemic, which he called “both a sprint and a marathon,” and thanked the parents of the graduates for their patience and resilience along the way. He added, though, that while the experience was different than in years past, the outcome of their schooling remains promising.

“Trust me,” Jefferson said. “You graduates are more than ready, and very well-prepared, to be out into the world, making a difference.”

Board of Trustees Chair Hans D. Strauch applauded the graduates for withstanding “a truly extraordinary set of circumstances over the past year” and demonstrating “remarkable persistence and determination in crossing the 2021 finish line.”

Honorary degree recipients: Be fearless, but know when to take a break

President Steinmayer awarded honorary Doctor of Fine Arts degrees to philanthropists Peter and Paula Lunder ’59 for their steadfast support of Lesley throughout the years, particularly as lead benefactors of Lesley’s Lunder Arts Center in Porter Square.

Steinmayer awarded an honorary Doctor of Humane Letters degree to Trustee Emeritus Donald M. Perrin, whose son, Scott, is an alumnus and a special education teacher.

Two other honorary degree recipients — Dr. Elizabeth Broun and Dr. Laurie Santos — addressed the students as the designated Commencement guest speakers, keeping the end of the pandemic at top of mind.

“Now you stand on the brink of a new chapter, stepping into a world that is turned upside-down. All the usual expectations have been disrupted,” said Broun, Smithsonian American Art Museum director emerita.

And, as America emerges from lockdown, “the post-pandemic world needs you,” said Santos, a professor at Yale.

Broun extolled the young people who have become well-known voices in our current culture — climate activist Greta Thunburg, inauguration poet Amanda Gorman and Parkland survivor and gun control advocate Emma González.

“They are fearless. They act as if they have only one life to live,” Broun said. “They act as if the truth is really in fact true. Their example inspires each one of us as we work toward an era of just redemption.”

The Smithsonian’s first female director, Broun expanded the Smithsonian’s collections to include the work of under-represented artists during her nearly three decades of leadership at the museum.

“We thought a lot about how art informs the big issues in our society. We worked conscientiously to build a collection that would truly reflect the diversity of this country’s peoples...,” she said. “We discovered forgotten masters and stories that shattered the traditional canon and narratives.”

Sometimes the result was controversial, but the exhibits challenged the way the public thought about “who we are and how we made this country,” Broun said. She challenged graduates to do the same in their own lives and work.

“There are sweeping issues of racial and social and climate justice, commanding our urgent attention,” said Broun. “I know your generation is already taking charge, already making a contribution to solving these issues.”

Christine Armstrong in a graduation cap
Graduate School of Education speaker Christine Armstrong

On the journey to social justice, no matter what the avenue, Yale’s Laurie Santos advised graduates to adopt one crucial strategy: “give yourself a little grace.”

A psychologist, happiness expert and the host of the popular podcast “The Happiness Lab,” Santos said the cultural norm to “push, push, push” ourselves doesn’t work.

“The science shows that this culture of productivity-at-all-cost isn’t just toxic, it’s also surprisingly ineffective,” said Santos. “So, my advice, Class of 2021, is to fight the toxic hustle culture that says you’ve got to push yourself to the brink. The post-pandemic world needs you, in particular, to get it right. And that means you’ve got to listen to the science.”

Not only will this approach prove healthier, but it means being more effective amid the challenges that will come after graduation and being ready for the opportunities that will come in the next act of our collective history.

Said Santos to the graduates, “You’re all entering this exciting new chapter of post-university life at a time when the entire world is entering a new chapter of a post-pandemic world.”

Student speakers: The art of persistence, the joy of community

One of those graduates, Christine Armstrong, was the designated student speaker for our Graduate School of Education. In earning her Master of Education in Art, Community and Education, she has worked to achieve equity in arts and academia for other women of color, considering herself a scholar-activist.

Andrew Solem and his dog
Graduate School of Arts and Social Sciences speaker Andrew Solem

“We have to keep pushing and keep fighting so that others, specifically women of color, have the same opportunity to fulfill their potential,” Armstrong said.

Graduate School of Arts and Social Sciences student speaker Andrew Solem spoke about his family in the Philippines and his academic and professional journey, first through the building trades, and ultimately as a graduate of our International Higher Education program, and the shared desire for community.

“Lesley offered an opportunity for all of us to create a community. Irrespective of the size of your cohort, that feeling, that sense of belonging persisted,” Solem said. “As we enter a post-pandemic reality, we will encounter change and I hope that through that change you are all able to find that feeling of community, that sense of belonging.”

The two undergraduate student speakers also touched on aspects of Lesley as a community.

College of Art and Design speaker Maddie Silva spoke of her experiences as a Portuguese student transitioning to life in the United States.

Madalena Almeida Da Silva in cap and gown
College of Art and Design speaker Maddie Silva

“Four years ago, I was just a Portuguese girl getting ready for the biggest adventure in my life, which was to move from the small and cozy country I’ve always known to the massive and unknown American culture,” said Silva.

Joining Lesley’s a cappella group, trying new restaurants in the Boston area and getting to know her peers changed Silva.

“Because Lesley consists of so many different communities, I’ve always had the possibility to be introduced to different points of view and collaborate with people with completely different backgrounds. It was through these experiences that I’ve been able to grow as a person and have the professional resources to expand my career,” said the Graphic Design major.

Anahí Alarcón sitting on an outdoor step
College of Liberal Arts and Sciences speaker Anahí Alarcón

Adult learner and College of Liberal Arts and Sciences graduate Anahi Alarcón shared her own story of persevering in her path to Lesley. A first-generation college student from Buenos Aires, she worked for an American cable company in her hometown for ten years before immigrating.

“Customers made sure to let me know my English wasn’t perfect. My self-confidence plummeted and I felt vulnerable,” said Alarcón, who studied Early Childhood Education with a minor in Psychology.

In vulnerability and introspection, she found strength to heal and confidence to pursue her degree.

“Here I grew up professionally as well as personally,” Alarcón said of Lesley. “I found emotional support, academic challenge and an environment of compassion and kindness that enabled me to safely explore my identity and my place in the world.”

On the Threshold of Their Future, Ready to Make a Difference in the World

Paraphrasing country singer Luke Bryan’s song “Fast,” Threshold Program student speaker Helen Slager said that her time at Lesley taught her “to slow down and enjoy the moment.”

Slager, the first Threshold graduate to speak at a university-wide Commencement, said, “I learn a little differently than most people.” A doctor told the three-year-old Slager’s parents that she would never speak. Later, teachers said she’d never be able to read. Slager proved them wrong and, during her two years at Threshold, a program for people with learning and developmental differences, she said, “I have become so much better with my independence. I have become a better student by advocating for my needs.”

Helen Slager sitting on an outdoor bench
Threshold speaker Helen Slager

With advice, encouragement and hope, Lesley University officially said farewell to 2021’s degree and certificate earners — 574 undergraduates, 612 graduate students, 31 doctoral students, and four Threshold students — to face the world on their own terms, and marshal their talents, passion and knowledge to make a difference.