Remarks from the 2016 Convocation Ceremony

Remarks as prepared

September 6, 2016

SS_Convocation_2016.jpgGood morning, everyone!

Welcome home, class of 2017, class of 2018, class of 2019.

And a warm welcome to the class of 2020 and all other new students. As you poured into Mount Holyoke over three days, through the Field Gate and other entrances to this beautiful campus, you crossed a threshold beyond which you caught a glimpse of the world into which you have been admitted—the first time for the class of 2020, the first time as seniors for the class of 2017. This was the beginning of your rite of passage and this is the moment—the opening-of-school moment—when, for each of us, change occurs. So I want to dwell on that for a moment, on the question of Convocation and what it represents, on the question of community, on the question of identity and individual action, and on the very question of questions.

Let me take you back to the moment when the first class arrived. One student, writing in a letter dated November 8, 1837, recalled:

How well I remember November 8, 1837… how uninviting the plain brick building! The bare walls seemed almost insecure from their narrow height. There were no trees, no fence, and not a blade of grass, but a deep bed of sand lay all around the house.… Presently Miss Lyon appeared, her face all aglow under the traditional turban, and gave us the welcome of a mother unto daughters. “Come right up stairs,” she said, “you have come to help us,” in a voice that had a true home ring. Heart met heart, teacher and pupil were one, and we followed her into the seminary hall.  Deacon Safford, with his coat off, was on his knees tacking straw matting on the platform. Looking up with a bright smile he said, “We are in glorious confusion now, but shall soon be in order.”1

Walking past Blanchard, with its large mound of sand and active construction site, you might be forgiven for thinking that not much has changed. But the grass and landscaping have been groomed for your arrival, those insecure walls now bear not only fresh paint, but the weight of much history and knowledge, and, I hope, that the brick buildings all around you now feel inviting, and your rooms filled with things that make these spaces home—MoHome.

There was no Convocation in 1837, just a bell at four o’clock to announce that the seminary was open. “No other day could be thought of,” wrote this same student, “for this was the one appointed.”2

“Rites of passage,” Van Gennep explains, “are ceremonies whose essential purpose is to enable the individual to pass from one defined position to another.” More than an act of symbolic representation, this Convocation, like the ringing of that bell, installs admitted students as the new class, the class of 2020.3 Today and always, you will be blue lions. You join new FPs and transfer students, sophomores, juniors— and seniors, who today processed into the amphitheater in another rite of passage, that of the graduating class of 2017.

This ritual of convocation is a liminal space—a space in which we will transition from one state and status to another—after which you will be fully fledged seniors, juniors, sophomores, first years, and community members according to the norms and standards of those who have gone before you, and with all the rights and responsibilities that membership confers. In some ways, convocation and commencement are the bookends of the liminal experience that is college. A transformative experience during which time you pass from adolescence to adulthood, from student to graduate, developing, among a host of other things, understanding, critical thinking, independence, purpose, and integrity.

You will be taught this year by some first-time assistant professors, some newly tenured faculty, and some newly promoted full professors. The colors of the faculty’s academic regalia represent just the beginning of their achievements. Some staff are in new positions, as are some of the College officers, and our presence here on stage is also a rite of passage, a space and a moment in which we assume, in your presence and in this congregation, the roles with which we have been entrusted.

By now, too, you have all signed into another portal, a virtual community that is as individualized as we are, and yet connects us to this place—to this community of learners—as much as and more routinely than Convocation. I am talking about our new IT portal, MyMountHolyoke. And remember each time you log in, this is your Mount Holyoke. Our Mount Holyoke. The stream of resources to which this portal connects us is our learning and working community writ large, writ virtual. Much like 1837, when “Miss Lyon was everywhere, helping, guiding, inspiring, cheering,”4 MyMountHolyoke admits us all to the stream of this College’s information flow, and, as importantly, to the stream of its history as both the defenders of its traditions and values and as the harbingers of its future.

Many moments at Mount Holyoke are marked by such tradition, punctuated by such ritual. This is the first (and the first of each year) and it is mirrored by the last—Commencement—for the end is always a new beginning, like the laurel chain carried by generations of students. A chain, writes Kathleen Manning, that represents “commitment, constancy, and continuity,”5 and connects you to each other as well as to those classes who came before and will come after you. All this to say that this is your moment, your time in the chain of events and days and classes that is Mount Holyoke’s history. 

And this is a good time to be at Mount Holyoke. The Princeton Review just ranked us fifth in the nation for best classroom experience, ninth for being LGBT-friendly, and 12th for the best college library—go LITS! Our professors get high marks (ranked 14th) and we are ranked 15th for the best college dorms. We are also among the best for impact, colleges in the Northeast, and colleges that pay you back. And we are ranked in the top 20 or 25 in more categories in this year’s 381 Best Colleges than any of our peer women’s colleges and most other campuses, period! This is Mount Holyoke. This—to give you a great classroom experience and the best in residential life, to support an outstanding faculty, scholarship, and identity development—is why we are here.

And we are here, together in this. And this moment of Convocation, this assembly of students, faculty, staff, and administration is more than an opening ceremony. It is an enactment of our collective incorporation and of Mount Holyoke’s regeneration. It is our opportunity to be a part of this social fabric and to make our conversations not only about the challenges of community, but about the possibilities of community. It is a moment of connection, emotion, and collective support. It is also a moment to express our devotion to the ideals of education, to what Mount Holyoke represents for each of us: “a bond uniting us, over and above any [existing] social bonds.”6 Convocation is an opportunity to connect with affinity groups, including a class identity expressed through this array of colors, and to boldly and loudly declare that affinity. And while in this rowdy, rousing ritual of community everything seems to have a purpose, an order, and indeed a hierarchy, we also know that this exists in a tension with what our community of learners represents: unconventional opportunities for social and intellectual engagement, democracies of thought and knowledge, challenge to authority of every kind, and energetic activism. What helps us bridge this tension is the associational life that Mount Holyoke symbolizes and makes possible, and the opportunity to commit together and independently to create a future that is distinct from the past.

We are a student body, a faculty, a staff, and an administration with individual identities, experiences, and aspirations—and the shared commitments underscored by our presence here, now, at Mount Holyoke College. This does not mean that we can’t have different opinions or disagreements about what is best for the College or the world. On the contrary, this is a place and a moment to challenge yourselves, each other, and the social order. It means that we are motivated by the common cause of making this College and our society the best that they can be, and by creating opportunities for each of us as individuals to do our best work. To do this, we need to commit to being inclusive and to being accountable to each other. We need to do as Jay Smooth last night urged us to do: to be present in the conversation and in the work of listening, with “that mix of being kind and being real,” and, every day to “practice the hygiene of enlightenment and self-awareness.”7 Change happens, at Mount Holyoke and elsewhere, because of the way we speak and listen to each other, through the power of language, and through our willingness to engage with others, with ideas, and with possibility.

Ceremonies such as this one importantly and reaffirmingly create, argues Kathleen Manning, “a dialectic between the communal and the individual and the universal and the particular.”8 So while this is indeed a community moment, it is also a moment for us to commit to personal goals. It is a moment for reflection in a moment of change—and, perhaps for many of you, in a moment of paradox and confusion. You have before you opportunities not just to choose courses, majors, and minors, but to forge friendships and affirm affinities, to imagine identities and a multiplicity of possible futures, both personal and professional. This is most of all a moment in which to ask questions, to ask questions of yourself, of your faculty, and the staff, and of your fellow students.

For what is education if not the opportunity to raise and pursue questions? It is important, as Peter Block suggests, “to value questions more than answers, by choosing to put as much thought into questions as we have traditionally given to answers.” Questions, he argues,“are the essential tools of engagement. They are the means by which we are all confronted with our freedom.… Questions create the space for something new to emerge.… Questions that have the power to make a difference are ones that engage people in an intimate way, confront them with their freedom, and invite them to cocreate a future possibility.”9

So, as you step out of this space and enter classrooms and dorm rooms, eat together and work together, never stop asking questions. Ask yourself and others the difficult questions, even if answers seem beyond reach. Ask yourself the question that Mary Lyon asked of the first students: “What kind of a mind have you got?” And use your questions, as she advised, to “bring your mind to perfect abstraction and let thought after thought pass through it.”

This is a new academic year and a new chapter for all of us. What questions will you ask and pursue today? And how will you engage those around you in those questions?

This is Mount Holyoke. This is the next stage in your adventure, in our adventure. Welcome home!

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1Reminiscences collected by Mrs. Stow, Mount Holyoke College Archives and Special Collections cited by Marion Lansing, ed., Mary Lyon through her letters  (Boston, MA: Books, Inc., 1937), 217.

2Also in Reminiscences, and cited by Lansing, ibid., 218.

3See Kathleen Manning, Rituals, Ceremonies, and Cultural Meaning in Higher Education (Westport, CT: Bergin & Garvey, Critical Studies in Education and Culture, 2000), 28.

4Lansing, ibid., 218.

5ibid., 134.

6Turner, 1974, 45.

7Jay Smooth, lecture at Mount Holyoke College. 9/5/2016.

8See Emile Durkheim, The elementary forms of the religious life: A study in religious sociology (New York: Macmillan, 1915).  Citation is from Manning, ibid., 33.

9Community. The Structure of Belonging. (San Francisco: Berrett-Koehler, 2009 [2008]), 105 and 107.