Commencement Remarks 2020
Kathleen McCartney, President of Smith College
Welcome, class of 2020, to Smith College’s first-ever virtual Commencement ceremony. I am honored to share this moment with you. I hope you are surrounded by your friends and family as we celebrate one of the most important milestones of your life.
This is not the Commencement you imagined for yourself or for your class. Although we may not be able to gather together in person today, Smith College will honor you in newfound ways. And eventually we will welcome you back to celebrate here on this campus, a place you once called home. How special is having two Commencements?
You have worked hard to reach this moment. Your family, friends, faculty, and fellow students who are watching today are proud of you, as I am. So is the alumnae and alumni network—52,000 strong—that you are about to join. You can count on your fellow alums to guide and sustain you in the years ahead as you make your mark on the world.
We are inspired by your goals and dreams—and I am excited to see what comes next for each and every one of you. For me, you have made these past four years extraordinary. In typical Smith fashion, you have been passionate, original, creative, outspoken, audacious and connected—connected to one another.
Are you watching this virtual Commencement on Zoom while FaceTiming with a friend? I suspect many of you are. Everyone is using these platforms more—and maybe differently—because we have never yearned more for human connection. After all, we are social animals. And so it is not surprising that we are doing whatever it takes to stay in touch with family and friends.
Since moving to Northampton, my husband and I have been intermittent attendees at a book club we co-founded in 2003. I was thrilled when friends from Boston emailed us to say, “The book club is meeting via Zoom. You must join us.” The pandemic necessitated a virtual meeting, which enabled Bill and me to participate with friends we love and miss. The book selection was Elizabeth Strout’s Olive Again, a novel that consists of a series of interrelated stories about a retired math teacher named Olive Kitteridge.
Olive is an antihero to be sure—critical, defensive, and opinionated. In the final chapter, she is in a nursing home, where, not surprisingly, she is having trouble making friends—until she meets Isabelle. They discover that their husbands, both deceased, were both pharmacists. With that small commonality, their friendship is off and running.
Soon each of them begins to disclose intimate details about their lives. Through her conversations with Isabelle, Olive learns how to self-reflect; she even decides to start writing about her life. After one good talk, Isabelle tells Olive, “I’m awful glad I met you.” Olive returns to her apartment and thinks to herself, “I am not unhappy”—perhaps a new experience for her.
While sheltering in place and working remotely, I have been connecting more than ever with good friends, near and far. I was especially touched when a beloved former psychology professor of mine organized a Zoom call with two of her former students, me and a friend who is a professor at UCLA. Ever the teacher, she asked us, “Is there a silver lining to this virus? What are we learning?” I gave her a one-word response: “This.” She smiled as I added, “The three of us wouldn’t be Zooming together if the pandemic hadn’t happened.” We spoke for 90 minutes and eagerly agreed to speak again soon.
Of course, everyone vastly prefers face-to-face interactions with their friends. But I think we have all relearned something valuable while staying at home—the simple things matter most. For me, it’s things like gazing at the magnolia tree in full bloom by JMG, smelling my husband’s apple crisp baking in the oven, and philosophizing with friends about the meaning of it all, even if it is via Zoom.
Strangers and acquaintances are yearning for connection as well.
When I walk through campus wearing my mask, others on the pathways say hello, ask how I am faring, and tell me to stay safe. And I do the same. Essentially, through our brief conversation, we are acknowledging that we are sharing an unprecedented moment in time, one we will get through together.
When you first arrived on this campus, everyone was a stranger. Soon enough, however, you had a set of close friends. In an essay for The Atlantic, Julie Beck, class of 2015, wrote that “Friendship is a relationship with no strings attached except the ones you choose to tie, one that’s just about being there, as best you can.”
Sometimes when we meet someone, there is immediate resonance—something like friendship at first sight, so we choose to tie the strings.
Olive and Isabelle’s deep friendship enabled them to share their stories, thereby experiencing what psychotherapist and author Stephen Cope has called “the thrill of reciprocity.” Close friends confide in one another openly—in this way, we come to feel both cherished and known.
For the past seven years while serving as president, I have had the opportunity to ask so many students and alums what you love most about Smith. You tell me two things— that you found your voice at Smith and that you made lifelong friendships here. I have come to believe that close friendships are a defining part of the Smith experience.
Here is one example. The co-presidents of the class of 2008, Natasha McGlynn and Maya Howe, organize regular Zoom get-togethers, including class yoga sessions, Friday teas and what they call a “yappy hour.” They say these regular virtual reunions provide an opportunity to unwind, destress and get their minds off of what can seem like an endless stream of bad news. The experience of connecting, they say, reminds them “that, no matter the uncertainty, we are not alone. We have our Smith family.”
Here is another example. The thirty-one students from the class of ’77 who spent their junior year in Geneva have remained close these past 43 years. One of those students is Debbie Duncan, who is finishing her term as chair of the board of trustees for Smith College. Two of Debbie’s classmates, June Roberts and Jorie Roberts, have been instrumental in keeping this group connected. They have already had two Zoom calls since the pandemic. Throughout the years, they have organized reunions of their own in various cities, where they are sure to save lots of time for just being together.
Debbie told me, “It is hard to describe the friendship of this group. Perhaps it is because of the unique shared experience that was transformative for many of us—being in a new country, new schools, new language, new living situations, new friends. We have gone in many different directions, but this connection has remained and gotten stronger over the years.”
Students, in a future with many uncertainties, there are two things you can be sure of:
First, you and your Smith friends will enrich one another’s lives. Over the years, you will hold one another up when you struggle with disappointment. You will share the stories that define your life lessons. And you will laugh together—I promise there will be lots of laughter, especially during reunions. Second, Smith College will always and forever be your home.
Graduates of the class of 2020: The time has come for you to join a most distinguished community—the alumnae and alumni of Smith College.
Last night they illuminated the world in your honor!
This community will be yours for life—you will stand with graduates who, like you, will change the world. Who will challenge the world. And who will carry Smith with them in all that they do.
Know that, as much as Smith has changed each of your lives, you have changed Smith just as much. You have been part of its evolution and left your mark on it in countless ways.
As you go forth today, I leave you with this: Smith College is a movement, and today that movement carries you forward. May you make that movement your own.
Seniors, I have mailed you two gifts. The first is a coin with the Grécourt Gates on it. In my change purse, I have a coin with an angel on it, which belonged to my mother before she died. Whenever I come across the coin, it reminds me of her. Perhaps you will stumble upon your Grécourt Gates coin from time to time, and it will remind you of all you love about Smith. I hope so.
The second gift is a cap to remind you of this moment. Congratulations, class of 2020. Be well—and I can't wait to welcome you back to campus!