The members of the classes of 2020, ’21 and ’22 feted at the afternoon Commencement are characterized by courage, gusto and community.
They prevailed against the pandemic, kept showing up in the face of personal adversity and overcame countless obstacles, major and minor, to achieve their goals.
And they did it together.
Following graduates’ ebullient, occasionally raucous, procession onto the stage of the Leader Bank Pavilion — heard in shouts of joy and seen in ornately designed mortarboards — university Board of Trustees Chair Hans Strauch remarked, “I feel excitement is in the air today.”
President Janet L. Steinmayer followed by offering the graduates of our College of Liberal Arts & Sciences, the College of Art and Design and the Threshold Program a “jubilant welcome.” She then addressed the students and well-wishers in attendance with a speech heavy with culinary imagery. But she also invoked the challenges facing the graduates, from racial unrest, war, a persistent pandemic and other troubles.
“The shockwaves keep coming,” the president said, later adding, “you are the first responders to our most fundamental human needs.”
“Our bruised and imperfect world is hungry for what you can and will bring to the table,” she said.
Didn’t fit the picture
The table imagery returned with the undergraduate guest speaker, National Endowment for the Humanities Chair Shelly Lowe. She urged graduates to embrace the cultural lessons passed on in the home, and apply them to their future endeavors.
Lowe kicked off her remarks with a Navajo greeting, congratulated the graduates and mentioned that her own daughter graduated from Lesley in 2019. She shared tales of her own journey, which involved years of feeling that she was inferior to those whose education and upbringing seemed to afford greater advantages.
“Last year I was challenged to broaden my own thinking about my personal path in life when I was asked if I would interview for the position of chair of the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH),” Lowe said. “I’m going to be honest with you all. I genuinely didn’t feel or think I was good enough to fill the position. I had served on the advisory council for the agency under two male leaders, and I knew there had been a female chair in the past, but there had never been a non-white female heading the agency.
“I was intimidated, and the thought of me in the top position didn’t feel like I fit the ‘normal’ picture I had in my head of what a federal agency head looked like. I didn’t attend an Ivy League university, or go to a prep school, or grow up in an affluent urban area with top-rated schools. I’m a product of public schools and I didn’t know half of the authors and scholars my fellow NEH council members spoke about or that we read about when we reviewed applications for funding.”
However, Lowe was buoyed by the example of Deb Haaland, the first Native American to head the Federal Department of the Interior, and realized the gifts of her own upbringing and culture.
“As you move forward out into the world, my hope for you is that you will draw upon the cultural lessons first passed down to you at the kitchen table, and put them to use as informed and engaged citizens,” Lowe said.
“As you leave Lesley University and go out to conquer your dreams, I want you to tap into the lessons of the kitchen table and invite others to sit at it with you,” Lowe added. “Take time to share your story, and learn to listen closely to the story of others. Practice asking each other: ‘What is your history, and how does that interact with the history as I understand it of my own place, my own people, my own community and this country?’”
Collaboration and community
Undergraduate students speakers Elise Parker from our College of Art and Design, and Bailey Haines, from our College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, discussed a variety of setbacks — from the pandemic and its associated challenges, to personal tragedy — and how Lesley’s sense of community kept them going.
In her remarks to her fellow graduates, Parker discussed how the pandemic, and the eventual return to in-person learning, helped her to become more collaborative and less competitive than when she first entered Lesley.
“Since coming back, I have felt deeply that creative collaboration is not a luxury but has since become a necessity.”
Parker added that, as students returned to campus, they realized the “individual ideas incubating throughout isolation” became further developed once she and her peers were able to work together in person.
“Soon enough, I discovered I was surrounded by some of the most earnest, honest and empathetic creatives. Through learning more about my peers, I quickly began to rely on them,” Parker said. “The culture of working together in a shop, lab or classroom ignited the fervor and yearning to make work amongst others.”
Haines also highlighted the positive impact of the Lesley community in helping her overcome her own “toxic positivity,” and in helping her cope with the deaths, five days apart, of her father and grandmother at the beginning of the school year.
“While nothing can reverse the impact of the tragedies we have faced and will continue to face in this world, I know that the love and sincere care I felt from the Lesley community and other pockets of people in my life are what have sustained me personally, bringing joy to help me face the grief,” Haines said. “I would not be here today without my own support system.”
Retiring Professor of Design Geoff Fried spoke with thoughtful candor about the mix of emotions that graduates may be experiencing and about the courage that he has observed in his students.
“Emotions bind us together, perhaps even more than logic and reason,” he said.
“While the mood here today is one of great shared joy and celebration, we cannot ignore an undercurrent of fear or trepidation as we contemplate next steps and face the challenges of today's world.
“In my design classes I try to give words of encouragement as students face their own fears: fears about showing work, fears about work not being perfect enough, or fears about making presentations while applying for internships or jobs. What I emphasize is not that you shouldn't be afraid — our fears are normal and widespread — but that we find ways to move past fear in order to achieve our goals.
The power of persistence
Fellow undergraduate speaker Dr. Uma Chandrika Millner, an assistant professor of Psychology, applauded the graduates for their resilience at facing the challenges of the pandemic, as well as during the national reckoning with structural racism. But she also recognized that they persisted as a community.
“From our perspective, from the faculty, the only thing that matters is: you showed up.”
“More than any other recent generation, you know what it means to be awakened to the things that matter. You have been there for each other, been there for us all,” Millner said. “You showed us that we can be a community that breaks down all the unnecessary boundaries of state, country, the world — and that distance only ignites our fierce compassion.”
Millner applauded the class’s fiery persistence, adding, “This world is not ready for you, but you, you already rock our world.”
And, to amplify the point, she quoted the movie “Kung Fu Panda”:
“Take destiny by the horns and have fun.”