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Commencement 2021 Opening Remarks

Kathleen McCartney, President of Smith College

Kathleen McCartney photo


Watch on Facebook: President McCartney’s remarks start at 48:42.

Presentation of the Honored Professor Award

Each year since 1987, Smith College has presented the Honored Professor Award, in recognition of long and distinguished faculty service to the college.

It is now my pleasure to present the 2021 Honored Professor awards to two distinguished members of the faculty.

The first of this year’s honored professors joined the faculty in 1987 as an instructor of English—though she first came to Smith in 1974 as a student, majoring in the department she would one day come to chair.

In her time at Smith, she has helped shape the intellectual and curricular landscape of the college, for example, by chairing the English department from 2008 to 2011 and directing the Book Studies Concentration from 2016 to 2017. She has provided outstanding service to her alma mater in her role as a faculty member serving on nearly every committee at the college, including the Library Programming Committee, which I know was a labor of love for her, as well as the Landscape Master Plan Steering Committee.

Her scholarship, reflected in books, articles and conference papers, spans the poetry of Chaucer, medieval romances and tales, and 19th-century medievalism. Her most recent book is a collection of essays titled Medieval Women and Their Objects, co-edited with Jenny Adams.

Her courses have introduced students to English literary tradition, Victorian Medievalism, Arthurian legend, and much more. She offers a first-year seminar, Eden and Other Gardens, in cooperation with Smith’s Botanic Garden. By creating courses that draw on Smith’s unique collections, from plant specimens to rare books, she makes visible for her students connections that were once hidden, and she offers an alternative perspective from which students can experience our world.

Students, please join me in congratulating Professor of English Language and Literature—and now Honored Professor—Nancy Bradbury!

The second of this year’s honorees began his career as a teacher of English, special education and general education development in Brooklyn, New York. Joining the Smith faculty in 1999, he rose through the ranks of the education and child study department, serving as its chair in 2012–13.

Throughout his years at Smith, he has served on key committees, like the Committee on Academic Priorities; however, his greatest service to the college was volunteering to serve as the interim head of the Campus School. Our athletes and fans appreciate his abilities as a play-by-play broadcaster for the women’s basketball team.

He is the co-founder of Project Coach, an innovative program whereby inner-city teens coach, teach and mentor elementary students. Project Coach serves as a lab for much of his research. He has written and edited six books, including Leading From Within: Poetry That Sustains the Courage to Lead, which received the 2009 Nautilus Book Award Gold Medal for Poetry.

His passion for teaching urban education has inspired many of his students to become teachers. A master teacher himself, he was awarded the Sherrerd Prize for Distinguished Teaching in 2006.

Students, please join me in congratulating the Elizabeth A. Woodson 1922 Professor of Education and Child Study—and now Honored Professor—Sam Intrator!

I now ask Professor Bradbury and Professor Intrator to stand and be recognized.

Conferring of Honorary Degrees

We now turn to the awarding of honorary degrees.

By virtue of the authority of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts vested in the Board of Trustees of Smith College and by them delegated to me, I now confer these honorary degrees and admit their recipients to all the rights and privileges pertaining thereto.

Gwen Agna, Educator and Children’s Advocate

In your 24 years as leader of Northampton’s Jackson Street elementary school, you earned the moniker the “people’s principal.” Not one to simply sit behind a desk, you made it a point to greet students every morning as they entered the school, making them feel welcome and seen. Fridays were reserved for lunch with students, whose names you knew by heart. Your empathy and caring nature made a lasting impact, with one former student recalling: “I knew I could go to her. I remember thinking, ‘This is a person I can trust.’” After a childhood that took you from Burma to Ohio to Haiti, and included stints of being homeschooled, you eventually put down roots in our Paradise City and devoted three decades to its public schools, beginning your career as an early childhood and civil rights coordinator. At Jackson Street, you made space for practices like meditation, yoga and therapy dogs. When you announced your retirement, you wrote, “I can say, without qualification, that it has been the most rewarding, most challenging and the very best job I could ever have dreamed of.” For your passionate dedication to education, as well as your tireless advocacy on behalf of students and teachers alike, Smith College is proud to award you the degree of Doctor of Humane Letters, honoris causa.

Deborah Bial, Founder, The Posse Foundation

While spending the earliest years of your career as a public school teacher, you witnessed the challenges that some students, especially those from underprivileged backgrounds, experienced in transitioning to college campuses far from home. But you also noticed that those students who did succeed had something special by their side—their friends. Visionary that you are, you harnessed this revelation and created The Posse Foundation, a national organization that sends supportive teams (or “posses”) of public high school students from diverse backgrounds to selective colleges and universities. “This is more than a college-access program,” you have said. “This is about ensuring new pathways to success and giving the best, most deserving students opportunities to bloom.” Since its founding in 1989, Posse has transformed the lives of more than 10,000 young scholars who might otherwise have missed out on the college experience. I am proud to say that 60 Posse Scholars have attended Smith, and their contributions have made our campus stronger. A recipient of the prestigious MacArthur Fellowship, you envision a future shaped by the leadership of young people whose backgrounds and perspectives are more reflective of the beautiful diversity of our nation. For your deep commitment to access and social justice and your visionary leadership across higher education, Smith College is proud to award you the degree of Doctor of Humane Letters, honoris causa.

Joanne Campbell, Affordable Housing Advocate

During your 20-year career as executive director of the Northampton-based Valley Community Development organization, you saw firsthand how home ownership lifts families, empowers people to envision a better future for themselves and their loved ones, and builds wealth for future generations. Colleagues and others who have benefited from your advocacy call you “big hearted” and “compassionate.” Your work to develop affordable housing in the Pioneer Valley was rooted in your optimistic belief in the power of public service to transform lives. Under your leadership, Valley CDC has developed more than 300 new affordable housing units across the Pioneer Valley and has assisted countless first-time homebuyers and small businesses in planning their futures. As a result, the lives of low-income people and underserved populations are more secure and our community is stronger. For your distinguished accomplishments and commitment to the security of families across the Pioneer Valley, Smith College is proud to award you the degree of Doctor of Humane Letters, honoris causa.

Christiana Figueres, Diplomat and Environmental Activist

As executive secretary of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change from 2010 to 2016, you carried the burden of convincing nations around the world to work together to limit emissions of greenhouse gasses. Although the assignment was monumental, your passion for a cleaner, healthier world was equal to the task; your extraordinary efforts in collaborative diplomacy culminated in the historic signing of the Paris Agreement of 2015. Adopted by 195 countries, the agreement provided a comprehensive set of strategies to limit global warming. This stunning achievement spurred you forward. Through Global Optimism, the international nonprofit you co-founded, you have been changing the narrative around climate change, from “one of doom to one of opportunity.” Undergirding all of your work has been an unwavering belief in the power of the human spirit to take action to save the planet. “We are all interlinked, inextricably,” you have said. Your belief in our collective ability to end climate change led to your induction into the Earth Hall of Fame in Kyoto, Japan, in 2019. For your much-needed “stubborn optimism” in the fight against climate change, as well as your brilliance as an international negotiator, Smith College is proud to award you the degree of Doctor of Laws, honoris causa.

Cristina Jiménez Moreta, Advocate for Immigrants

For most of your teenage and young adult years, you lived in a state of fear. At the age of 13, you came with your family to the United States from Ecuador, attending high school and then college as an undocumented student. The anxiety you felt over the uncertainty of your future ultimately fueled a fire in you to fight for justice and dignity for undocumented immigrants—particularly DREAMers like you. For nearly two decades, you have been a frontline advocate for comprehensive immigration reform, providing hope and optimism for untold numbers of undocumented immigrants. In 2008, you co-founded United We Dream, the country’s largest immigrant-youth-led network with close to a million members across 28 states. With such power behind it, your organization inspired President Barack Obama to enact the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, or DACA, policy in 2012. In recent years, as one of the most charismatic leaders of the immigrant rights movement, you have continued to push against setbacks in our immigration policies as well as the sting of discrimination that so many immigrants face every day. Through it all, you have maintained a vision of a more just society, one where all voices are welcome. For your activism, leadership and dedication to what it truly means to be an American, Smith College is proud to award you the degree of Doctor of Humane Letters, honoris causa.

Audra McDonald, Actor and Singer

“Angelic,” “simply the best,” “a force,” “almost supernatural.” These are just some of the accolades that have appeared on theater marquees and in playbills across Broadway and beyond to describe your iconic performances. After graduating from Juilliard in 1993, you launched a remarkable career that has taken you from stage to screen to concert halls around the world. An unforgettable performer, you have won an astonishing six Tony Awards, two Grammy Awards and an Emmy Award. Every role you have taken—whether Billie Holiday in Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar and Grill or Ruth Young in A Raisin in the Sun or Liz Lawrence in The Good Fight—is rooted in truth. When awarding you the National Medal of Arts, the nation’s highest honor in your field, President Barack Obama called you one of our “brightest stars.” Understanding the power of your celebrity, you have used your voice to lift the underserved and marginalized in our society. You are a founding member of Black Theatre United, a board member of Covenant House International and a staunch advocate for the LGBTQIA-plus community. Art, you have said, “keeps us in touch with our humanity.” For the joy of your performances and your enduring contributions to our culture, Smith College is proud to award you the degree of Doctor of Fine Arts, honoris causa.      

The Rev. Gloria White-Hammond, M.D., M.Div., Pastor, Physician and Humanitarian

In 2001, when you began traveling to Sudan to help combat the humanitarian horrors erupting there, you were asked whether you ever felt fear going into war-torn areas. “I have,” you responded, “but you do it because you’re called on and you must, not because it is comfortable.” In Sudan, you participated in an underground railroad that helped free more than ten thousand women and children who had been enslaved during the region’s brutal, decades-long civil war. Your desire to help others began early in life. At 9 years old, you decided that you wanted to be a doctor. Later, as a physician, you took your practice to neighborhoods in and around Boston, sharing medical advice in local churches and community health centers. Then, in the mid-1990s, you received a second calling—this time to the ministry. You began offering spiritual counseling to some of the young women you had seen as patients at Boston’s South End Community Health Center. Inspired by their desire for a creative outlet to express themselves, you launched Do the Write Thing, a creative writing program that now serves more than 300 inner-city girls ages 8 to 17. Later, you co-founded the humanitarian group My Sister’s Keeper, which is helping the women you freed from enslavement rebuild their lives and communities. For your activism and advocacy on behalf of women and girls, and your courage to go where others might not, Smith College is proud to award you the degree of Doctor of Divinity, honoris causa.

Hanya Yanagihara ’95, Author and Editor

You live a life bursting with words. By day, you serve as editor of T, the award-winning style and culture magazine published by The New York Times. By night, you craft sweeping, majestic novels that have earned international acclaim. In both of your roles—as editor or author—you mine the human experience for stories that illuminate the beauty, creativity and eccentricity of life as well as the traumas that trouble our souls. Your 2015 novel, A Little Life, established you as a formidable voice in the literary landscape. At more than 700 pages, it is an unsparing meditation on the long-term effects of abuse on those who survive it. In writing the book, you said you wanted readers to experience the “terrifying unpredictability and uncontrollability of life.” A year after its release, the book was selected as a finalist for both the Man Booker Prize and the National Book Award in Fiction. A writer of rare perception and daring, you want every story you write to inspire readers to “think anew about what they already think or feel.” For your powerful words, cultural observations and uncanny ability to captivate our imaginations, Smith College is proud to award you the degree of Doctor of Fine Arts, honoris causa.

Joy Harjo, U.S. Poet Laureate

Your poetry moves through divergent worlds—the ancestral and the present, homelands stolen and rediscovered, harsh city lights and the dreamworld of the American Southwest. Yet, through it all, you provide a vibrant and transcendent map, drawn with jazz, verse and spoken word. As Poet Laureate of the United States, you carry and weave together identities and histories that you honor not only through art, but also through advocacy. You founded For Girls Becoming, a program that provides mentorship and fosters intergenerational connection to young girls of your Mvskoke Nation. You have a responsibility, you tell us, “to all voices, all women, all of my tribe, all people, all earth.” You have honored that responsibility through boundless creation—nine books of poetry, several plays and children’s novels, two memoirs, and seven music albums. After all, you have said, “When poetry came into the world, it did not arrive by itself, but it came with music.” For your art, which you call a doorway of hope and a healing agent against a divided world, and for your advocacy on behalf of indigenous heritage and rights, Smith College is proud to award you the degree of Doctor of Fine Arts, honoris causa.

It is now my great pleasure and honor to present to you the 2021 Commencement speaker, Joy Harjo.