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News & Events for the Smith College Community
Events May 21, 2017

Live With Intention, Oprah Winfrey Tells Smith Graduates

Oprah Winfrey speaking at the Commencement podium

At Sunday’s 139th Commencement, global media leader Oprah Winfrey urged Smith graduates to live with intention, and to seek fulfillment by “shifting the paradigm to service.”

“This understanding that there is an alignment between who you are and what you do is the real, true empowerment,” Winfrey said, in a speech that was received with moments of both pin-drop quiet and raucous applause from the audience.

A turning point in her career, Winfrey said, came when she decided “I would no longer be used by television; I would use television to create a platform that could be of service to its viewers.”

“Shift the paradigm to service and the rewards will come,” she added.

At Sunday’s ceremony, Smith awarded bachelor’s degrees to 640 students, and 49 students earned advanced degrees. This year’s graduates came to Smith from 41 states and 42 countries.

Among the graduates gathered with their families in the filled-to-capacity Quadrangle was Morgan Mpungose ’17 who was handpicked at age 12 to be among the first students at the Oprah Winfrey Leadership Academy for Girls in South Africa. (Mpungose’s mother and brother traveled from Durban, South Africa, to attend graduation, marking the first time her mother had been on a plane.)

Winfrey cited the transformation that Mpungose, her academy “daughter,” underwent during her time at Smith.

“She came here praying that she’d measure up,” Winfrey said. “She leaves confident and assured, with her heart on fire to serve a cause greater than her own.”

Winfrey said the hope of seeing such transformations in other young women is what led her to found the academy after a visit with Nelson Mandela—and to want to speak at Smith’s Commencement.

“When you educate a girl, you are not just educating her,” Winfrey said. “You are educating her to create opportunities” for others.

In a ceremony translated into Mandarin and Spanish, the college awarded honorary degrees to Winfrey and four other remarkable women leaders:

  • Clare Higgins
  • Michelle Kwan
  • Henrietta Mann
  • Erin O’Shea ’88

John M. Brady, the Mary Elizabeth Moses Professor of Geosciences at Smith, received this year’s Honored Professor Award for what Smith President Kathleen McCartney described as his unique ability to prepare his students “to look at the world around them with wonder and inquiry.”

Smith’s commitment to preparing women for lives of purpose was a theme woven throughout the weekend’s commencement and reunion events.

Badriyyah Alsabah, president of Smith’s senior class, cited the many ways this year’s graduates had worked to effect positive change on campus, from advocating for the admission of trans women to supporting undocumented students and students of color.

You all epitomize what it means to be an agent of change, both accepting and creating it,” she said.

Alsabah—whose family traveled from Kuwait to watch her graduate—said being invited to speak at the same podium as Winfrey was no easy task.

“I was nervous enough,” she noted, with a smile. “But OPRAH, really!? Well, that’s Smith for you!”

Near the close of the ceremony, President McCartney recognized Margaret Bruzelius, associate dean of the college and senior class dean, who is retiring in June after 17 years of service to Smith.

McCartney described Bruzelius as “an advocate for students, a wise counselor, a treasured friend and colleague—and an unparalleled fashion icon,” sparking appreciative laughter from the audience.

Bidding farewell to the class of 2017, McCartney urged graduates to have faith in their bond with Smith, and in their own abilities to shape the world around them.

“This community will be yours for life,” McCartney said. “You will stand with women who, like you, will change the world—who will challenge the world—and who will carry Smith with them in all that they do.”