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Speakers & Honorary Degrees

Joy Harjo, Smith College Commencement Speaker 2021

Following a distinguished tradition of speakers offering wisdom, advice and commentary to graduates, Commencement speaker Joy Harjo, 23rd United States Poet Laureate, will deliver the Commencement address in this year’s ceremony. Also providing remarks are Smith College President Kathleen McCartney and Senior Class President Jane Casey-Fleener.

Since the awarding of last year’s honorary degrees was delayed because of pandemic precautions, this year’s honorands are many—and their contributions to their specific fields and to society in general are extraordinary and wide-ranging. These individuals serve as role models and sources of inspiration as the college sends graduates forth, empowered to forge their own inventive paths in a changed world.


Joy Harjo

U.S. Poet Laureate
Born in Tulsa, Oklahoma, Joy Harjo is an award-winning poet, writer, performer and saxophone player of the Mvskoke/Creek Nation. As the first Native American to be named U.S. Poet Laureate, she launched Living Nations, Living Words, a website to introduce readers to the many Native poets in the U.S. Harjo is the author of nine books of poetry, including the acclaimed An American Sunrise, as well as several plays and children’s books. Her 2012 memoir, Crazy Brave, won both the American Book Award and the PEN USA Literary Award for Creative Nonfiction. Harjo’s many other honors include a Guggenheim Fellowship, the Wallace Stevens Award from the Academy of American Poets, and the Poetry Foundation’s Ruth Lilly Prize, which honors lifetime achievement. A renowned saxophone player, Harjo performs solo and with her band, The Arrow Dynamics. She is a chancellor of the Academy of American Poets and chairs the board of Native Arts and Cultures Foundation.


Kathleen McCartney

Smith College President 
Kathleen McCartney is the 11th president of Smith College. A summa cum laude graduate of Tufts University, she earned master’s and doctoral degrees in psychology from Yale University. Prior to Smith, McCartney was dean of the Harvard Graduate School of Education—only the fifth woman dean in Harvard’s history. McCartney has conducted research on childcare and early childhood experience, education policy and parenting. She is the author of nine volumes and more than 160 journal articles and book chapters. 

McCartney is a fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, the National Academy of Education, the American Educational Research Association, the American Psychological Association and the American Psychological Society. She has served on the boards of a number of nonprofits, including the American Council on Education, the Consortium on Financing Higher Education and Bellwether Education Partners. The Boston Globe named her one of the 30 most innovative people in Massachusetts in 2011. She received the Harvard College Women’s Professional Achievement Award in 2013, and the Boston Business Journal named her one of its Women of Influence in 2016.



Jane Casey-Fleener

Senior Class President
A driven advocate for students at Smith College, Jane Casey-Fleener has served as a senator in the Student Government Association and as class president for both her sophomore and senior years. Through her involvement in student government, Casey-Fleener has worked with members of the administration and the board of trustees to advocate for students. Graduating this year as a sociology major and an education minor, she hopes to bring her passion for advocacy work into the educational nonprofit world. After her sophomore year, she worked at The Partnership for Afterschool Education in New York City, where she taught at a summer school program for fourth and fifth graders. Upon graduation, Casey-Fleener will attend Smith College’s Master of Arts in Teaching Program. As unpredictable as her senior year has been, she feels honored to serve and represent her class.

Honorary Degrees

Smith College will award honorary degrees to eight distinguished guests at its 143rd Commencement ceremony on Sunday, May 30, 2021. In addition to speaker Joy Harjo, the honorary degree recipients are:

Headshot of Gwen Agna, a white woman

Gwen Agna

A tireless advocate for students and teachers alike, Gwen Agna recently retired after 24 years as principal of Northampton’s Jackson Street School. A 31-year employee of the Northampton Public Schools, she had previously served as the early childhood and civil rights coordinator. Before that, Agna was an elementary school and preschool teacher in Rhode Island and Ohio. Born in Burma (Myanmar), and educated there, in Haiti and Ohio, Agna earned her undergraduate degree from Nottingham University (U.K.) College of Education and her master’s degree from Antioch University New England. She has traveled extensively and in 1999 received a Fulbright Memorial Fund Teacher grant to study in Japan. Gwen Agna had been scheduled to receive her honorary degree in 2020.



Deborah Bial

Founder, The Posse Foundation
An expert in the field of higher education administration, college success and leadership development, Deborah Bial is president and founder of The Posse Foundation, an organization that sends teams (posses) of students from diverse backgrounds to selective colleges and universities. Since 1989, The Posse Foundation has identified 10,000 Posse Scholars—including 60 who have attended Smith in the past six years. Nationally, these young people have won $1.5 billion in leadership scholarships from Posse’s partner colleges and universities and are graduating at a rate of 90 percent. In 2010, President Barack Obama named Posse as one of 10 nonprofits with which he would share his Nobel Peace Prize money. Bial has received a prestigious MacArthur “genius grant” from The John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, as well as the Harold W. McGraw Prize in Education. A member of the Brandeis University Board of Trustees, Bial earned her undergraduate degree at Brandeis, and holds master’s and doctoral degrees from Harvard.



Joanne Campbell

Affordable Housing Advocate
In her 20 years as executive director of Valley Community Development, Joanne Campbell transformed the landscape for underserved residents of the Pioneer Valley. Before her retirement in 2020, Campbell oversaw the development of more than 300 homes and apartments, ranging from single-person housing to family housing. She was also instrumental in creating a housing pipeline of nearly 120 homes that have been successfully zoned, funded and approved; those homes are expected to come online in the next two years. During Campbell’s tenure, Valley Community Development provided counseling and support for more than 8,000 homeowners and more than 2,000 small businesses. Campbell’s leadership has extended beyond the Pioneer Valley: she chaired the board of directors of the Massachusetts Association of Community Development Corporations and served for more than 20 years on the board of directors for Way Finders, Inc., a regional housing agency.


Headshot of Christiana Figueres

Christiana Figueres

Diplomat and Environmental Activist 
A Costa Rican citizen, Christiana Figueres was the executive secretary of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change from 2010 to 2016, overseeing the delivery of the historic Paris Agreement on climate change. For this achievement, Figueres has been credited with forging a new brand of collaborative diplomacy and received multiple awards. Since then, Figueres has continued to accelerate the global response to climate change. Together with Tom Rivett-Carnac, she founded Global Optimism Ltd., a purpose-driven enterprise focused on social and environmental change. Figueres is also a co-host of the podcast Outrage and Optimism and co-author of The Future We Choose, her first book, published in 2020. Christiana Figueres had been scheduled to receive her honorary degree in 2020.



Audra McDonald

Actor and Singer 
Audra McDonald is one of the world’s most recognized and accomplished singers and actors. In addition to being honored with a record-breaking six Tony Awards—distinguishing her as the most decorated performer in American theater—she is the recipient of two Grammy Awards, an Emmy Award and a 2015 National Medal of Arts bestowed on her by President Barack Obama. A luminous soprano with a gift for dramatic truth telling, she is as much at home on Broadway and concert stages as she is in film and television. As a recording artist, she has released six solo albums. Her training in classical voice at Juilliard has led to appearances with leading opera companies and orchestras around the world. A founding member of Black Theatre United, board member of Covenant House International and prominent advocate for LGBTQAI+ rights, she has said that her favorite roles are those performed offstage, as an activist, wife to actor Will Swenson and mother.


Cristina Jimenez headshot

Cristina Jiménez Moreta

Advocate for Immigrants
Cristina Jiménez Moreta is a community organizer, political strategist and storyteller. She is co-founder and former executive director of United We Dream (UWD), the largest immigrant youth-led organization in the country. She migrated to the United States from Ecuador with her family at the age of 13, growing up undocumented. Over the past decade, UWD, under Moreta’s leadership, has grown into a powerful network of nearly one million members and has played a pivotal role in shifting the politics and narrative about immigrants and immigration, ultimately influencing policy. Moreta was instrumental in United We Dream’s successful campaign for President Obama to sign Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) into law. In recognition of her work as a social justice organizer, Moreta received a 2017 MacArthur Fellowship, the Four Freedoms Award and was named among the world’s most influential people on the 2018 TIME 100 List. Cristina Jiménez Moreta had been scheduled to receive her honorary degree in 2020.


Headshot of Gloria Elaine White-Hammond

The Rev. Gloria Elaine White-Hammond, M.D., M.Div.

Pastor, Physician and Humanitarian
The Rev. Gloria Elaine White-Hammond, M.D., is Swartz Resident Practitioner in Ministry Studies at Harvard Divinity School and co-pastor (with her husband, The Rev. Ray A. Hammond, M.D.) of Boston’s Bethel AME Church. White-Hammond co-directs the Harvard Divinity School and Harvard Medical School course Medicine and Spirituality in Healing and facilitates the group Meaning Making: Understanding the Minister's Role in Making Theological Sense of Life Experience. At Bethel, she founded Shatter the Silence, a faith-based network committed to addressing sexual victimization in African American communities, and Planning Ahead, a ministry to encourage conversations about end-of-life decisions. She also is co-founder of My Sister’s Keeper, a humanitarian and human rights organization that champions social justice for women and girls in conflict zones. In 2008, White-Hammond retired from Boston’s South End Community Health Center after 27 years as a pediatrician. The Rev. Gloria Elaine White-Hammond, M.D., had been scheduled to receive her honorary degree in 2020.


Hanya Yanagihara

Hanya Yanagihara

Author and Editor
A 1995 graduate of Smith, Hanya Yanagihara is the author of three novels, The People in the Trees (2013), A Little Life (2015) and the forthcoming “To Paradise.” Her first book was a finalist for the PEN/Robert Bingham Award; her second won the Kirkus Prize and was shortlisted for The Man Booker Prize, The National Book Award and the Bailey Women’s Prize for Fiction, among others, and has been translated into 27 languages. Yanagihara was born in Los Angeles in 1974 and raised in California, New York, Maryland, Texas and Hawaii. She currently lives in New York City, where she is editor in chief of the National Magazine Award–winning T: The New York Times Style Magazine. Hanya Yanagihara had been scheduled to receive her honorary degree in 2020.