Words to Live By
Commencement speakers inspire college graduates to seek change
Over the next month or so, thousands of visitors will descend upon the Berkshires—not to see a high-profile musician or actor onstage. Instead, they will congregate on the campuses of our higher institutions of learning to send off more than 1,300 graduates into what some see as a seismically shifting socio-political landscape. Confronting the most urgent questions of the day, our liberal-arts schools are also becoming progressive platforms. “We are clearly embedded in the culture of the country,” says MCLA President Jamie Birge. “Today more than ever, it’s becoming quite visible that what’s happening in the broad community is also what’s happening here on campus.”
As graduates step fully into their emerging adult life, there’s a sense of both hopefulness and anxiety—for good reason. Foreign students face uncertainty about their legal status and visa policies. Proposed deep cuts in funding of the National Institutes of Health, the National Endowment for the Arts, and the Department of Education will greatly affect colleges as well as job prospects for graduates. “I’m hyper-aware of the government freeze, and it’s changing my job outlook,” says Meagan Bacher, 21, of Belchertown, a physics student at MCLA.
“I’m feeling absolute anxiety of what will happen to the Department of Education, of what ways higher education, specifically in liberal arts and humanities, will be valued. We just don’t know,” says Bard College at Simon’s Rock provost Ian Bickford. “Students are unsettled by the political landscape and want to be involved and are looking for ways to make change.”
And the commencement speakers are there to guide and inspire them. They include Teen Vogue contributing editor Lauren Duca at Simon’s Rock, U.S. Representative John Lewis at MCLA, Nigerian writer Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie at Williams College, and Massachusetts Commissioner of Higher Education Carlos Santiago at Berkshire Community College.
The W.E.B. Du Bois Lecture at Simon’s Rock, considered the lead into commencement season, will be delivered this year by NAACP president and CEO Cornell William Brooks on April 26. Then on May 20, Duca (pictured left) will give the class of 2017 commencement address, a new platform for someone whose main discourse is through social media and stories. Her focus once was on cultural journalism and writing about “funky items and characters” for Teen Vogue. After the 2016 presidential election, the political situation demanded her focus change. “There’s no other option,” she says.
Her piece “Donald Trump Is Gaslighting America” in Teen Vogue went viral, and her writing has ignited conversation about political dishonesty, and about the engagement of publications for younger audiences. The reorientation of Teen Vogue has drawn much attention, partly because of Duca and her premise that young people—young women—are listening, have powerful ideas, and want to make change.
The conversation can begin via social media, but it needs to move beyond, as was the case in the North Dakota Pipeline protests and the Women’s March, says Duca. “This is about activating their college education.”
“We don’t assume anything about our individual students’ political perspectives, and their perspectives are relatively diverse,” says Bickford. “The way to encourage open discourse and respect for diversity of ideas is a thoughtful country. The model in our classrooms is forms of communicating and ways of listening to allow for the ability to learn from each other.”
Simon’s Rock is an early college where students enter in tenth or 11th grade. And Bard Academy, which is attached to the college, is the nation’s first two-year boarding and day program designed to prepare ninth and tenth graders to start college early. This reflects a growing awareness that high school and college need to be in closer communication with each other. The schools strive to enable even those at a younger age to be fully engaged and responsible.
People in the Berkshires have always been active in the public realm, coming together when problems arise, says Birge, who grew up in Lee. As an institution, MCLA must look within to examine who it is, “particularly when it comes to diversity, equity, and inclusion.”
The timing of Lewis (picured right) addressing MCLA graduates couldn’t be better. (He is also delivering the commencement keynote at Bard College in the Hudson Valley on May 27.) Lewis, senior chief deputy whip for House Democrats, has served as a U.S. Representative of Georgia for 30 years, and graduates are eager to hear what he has to say. “He actually created change in his lifetime,” says Jackie Kelly, 22, a senior English/public-relations major at MCLA from Tewksbury. “A lot of people want to create change, and he can provide insight into how to do that.”
At 77, Lewis is a piece of living history, having played several key roles in the civil-rights movement. He is the only surviving speaker of the March from Selma to Montgomery, or "Bloody Sunday," in 1965, where he was beaten so badly that his skull was fractured. When he was 17, he met Rosa Parks, and the following year he met Martin Luther King.
“If someone had told me when I was growing up that I would be able to play a role in having to change things, I would’ve said you must be crazy, out of your mind. But I’ve seen it, and I tell young people if you believe things can change, come and walk in my shoes and I can show you change.” Individuals need to be active locally, Lewis adds. “So many people start at the grassroots level, and they start fires of hope and change burning from one neighborhood to another, and one community to another community. What gives me hope is the belief in the possibility of change and possibility of people of conscience coming together for a common good.”
Campuses are making strong statements of inclusion in their schools, says Bickford. “Immigration, gender, gender binary, nonconformity, race, class, religion. We are concerned about students and people broadly in our community—their identity and the way they are represented.”
Apprehension about the new administration is greatly affecting students, especially immigrants and the poorest and most vulnerable. They are concerned about deportation and anti-Semitic, anti-immigrant, anti-gender sentiments, says Williams College President Adam Falk. “Our campuses aren’t an island. Many of our students have families who are eligible for deportation. We are offering counseling, advice, support. If they’re not American citizens, we are in regular contact with legal experts and legal organizations to navigate the system.”
Fittingly, Williams College’s June 4 commencement speaker is Adichie, novelist and short-story writer who is attracting a new generation of readers to African literature, speaking to a broad set of experiences of immigration, race, and feminism. She is also Williams’s first African-born commencement speaker.
“It’s important for younger people today to be able to see the world from the perspectives of others who have really different experiences,” says Falk. “All of us in our country seem to be increasingly driven into silos of our own experiences. There are reasons for that. We follow our own media. We live in a society more segregated than it has been in a long time.”
Many students enter school without an experience of diversity that media should bring, and encounter students that are totally different. Campuses bring students together who may be in conflict and engage them with productive discourse to create positive results. These students now understand the importance of the electoral college on presidential elections, says Falk.
“They didn’t realize that this election was something that they needed to be invested in, and that the way the country goes really depends on who is elected.” Instead, they have seen national politics as dysfunctional, a president and Congress who were deeply at odds, and an environment that has been about political points and not policy. They now see the importance of elections and engaging in real politics, letting Congress know what they think.
“We’re in one of those moments of refocusing ourselves on what it is we do and what it is that’s valuable about us,” says Falk. “It’s a strong case to make, and we, as educators, are happy to make it. Young people are the entire hope of the future. We need to invest in them and help navigate that future. That’s why people in higher education are in this.”
John Lewis speaks to 380 grads at MCLA on May 13;
Lauren Duca talks to 150 grads May 20 at Simon’s Rock;
Carlos Santiago (pictured right) to 300 grads at BCC June 2;
and Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie addresses 525 Williams College graduates June 4.
Most will stream live; details on each college’s website.