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Musings from the Medalists


Rally Day honorees impart powerful life lessons and words of advice

The 2024 Medalists with President Sarah Willie-LeBreton

Left to right: Cheryl Brown Wattley ’75, Brenda Ekwurzel ’85, President Sarah Willie-LeBreton, Tomi-Ann Roberts ’85, and Sarah Belal ’01. Photos by Shana Sureck.


Published February 26, 2024

Cheers, foot stomps, songs, big announcements, and, of course, hats of all shapes and sizes—this year’s Rally Day ceremony had all the elements that make this celebration one of Smith’s best. 

Students reacted with whoops and hollers when President Sarah Willie-LeBreton announced a new twist on an old Commencement tradition: Instead of having one speaker, this year’s ceremony will feature short remarks from all five of the honorary degree recipients. “I’m someone who believes in multitudes of excellence,” Willie-LeBreton said.

Receiving some of the biggest cheers were the four alums who received Smith Medals for their contributions to shining a light on the ways society treats girls and women, fighting for justice, giving voice to the voiceless, and advocating for the health of the planet.  

Each medalist was given the chance to share a few words of thanks and inspiration with the students, faculty, and staff gathered in John M. Greene Hall. Following are excerpts from their remarks:

Cheryl Brown Wattley ’75


“When I was a freshman at Smith, more than 50 years ago, Michael Jackson and the Jackson 5 had a hit song, “ABC”—it’s easy and simple, as ABC. For some reason, when I was thinking about coming to Smith for this ceremony and what I could possibly say, that song started playing in my head. And as I thought about what I’ve learned about my Smith education and the impact of the Smith experience upon my career and life—well, it’s as simple as ABC.

“A – appetite. You have to want it: your education, your career, your family, your role in the community, your impact on issues—whatever it is, whatever the goals are that you are setting for yourself, they must speak to you, they must be your goals, not something that you’re doing for someone else. It is the passion of your dreams that will carry you through the challenges, obstacles, and setbacks; those exhausting times when you wonder what sleep is; those frustrating times when you wonder if there is success anywhere. You must keep that passion, that appetite alive. Even if it changes directions and gets a new focus, it still has to live within you.

“B – bold. Smith is a wonderful place to get an excellent liberal arts education, develop a vision of the world, and experience the power of women. The Smith experience provides a firm foundation that allows and empowers you to be confident, to take risks, and to be courageous. Be bold, using that boldness to stand up for what is right, to seek justice, and to help build a world that values every person’s life.

“C – compassion. Compassion for yourself as well as others. Treat yourself with the patience and understanding that you would show a dear friend. Allow your compassion for others to cut through the noise of today, the vitriol, and anger, to focus on our shared humanity.”

Brenda Ekwurzel ’85

Climate scientist

“Let’s talk about some climate numbers. When Smith College opened its doors to students in 1875, the global atmospheric concentration of the heat-trapping gas carbon dioxide was close to natural levels. When I graduated from Smith a little more than a century later, the CO2 in the atmosphere was around 346 parts per million. Last year, the CO2 concentration was 421 parts per million and we logged the hottest year on record. 

“The production and sale of fossil fuel products for energy use are major contributors to the dramatic increase in atmospheric CO2 concentration. That increase over the last six decades was one hundred times faster than previous natural increases. Science historians inform us that the fossil fuel industry adopted big tobacco company’s ‘playbook’ of deliberate disinformation to delay any move away from the use of their products. And their efforts kept a large segment of the population from ‘seeing’ the severity of the situation. 

“So where do we go from here? 

 “Addressing climate change is a path we can embark upon together from our various vantage points and disciplines. I’ve learned that we craft more innovative and effective approaches when scientists collaborate with experts from a variety of liberal arts disciplines. It will require a multigenerational effort that taps modern and ancient solutions. 

“Although the challenges may be mighty, the adventures can bring joy! Thank you, Smith, for investing in geothermal energy on this campus! Thank you to those who came with me today and beyond who buoyed me along my journey.  Thank you President Willie-LeBreton for aligning Smith to meet the challenges of today and tomorrow.”

Tomi-Ann Roberts ’85

Psychologist and author

“The summer of my junior year at Smith marked a watershed for me. I was sexually harassed by a man who stood between me and an acting job. It wasn’t as though this was the only time I’d been treated like an object. But something really sunk in for me then. I saw that one of the cruelest con jobs misogyny accomplishes is to convince you, if you identify as a girl or a woman, that your appearance is the most valuable thing about you. 

“I was on the brink of fully internalizing this, along with its accompanying anxiety and shame, when I returned to Smith for my senior year. I finished my degree in psychology [and] by the time I got to the diploma circle that May, I was fortified to go on to graduate school, earn a Ph.D., and develop the tools to do feminist research on the very things that had threatened to consume me: sexual objectification, and its con job of internalized self-objectification. You could say that my work on these issues has been my clap-back to that summer. And it was Smith’s warm embrace that helped me see myself as capable and worthy and strong enough do that clapping back.

“What a thrill to be back ‘home,’ accepting this honor. If the medal is for my work entitling women, girls, and female-identifying folks to their own embodied agency and wellbeing, then this is another diploma circle. 

“To the seniors here in this great raucous hall: keep doing what you’ve been doing here, keep rooting for one another, caring about one another’s passions, celebrating each other’s successes, and crying with each other’s losses. Instead of leaning in for yourself, climbing your own lonely ladder, competing for recognition and reward, lean into the sisterhood around you and find what to do for and with them. Because if you do that, then years from now, when you get to have a day like I’m having, you’ll know the award came through the circle to you, and therefore it belongs not only to you but to them as well.”

Sarah Belal ’01

Human rights advocate

“Smith College, for me, was more than just an educational institution; it was a sanctuary where I could breathe freely and learn fearlessly and ferociously; a place where I felt liberated to explore and grow without constraints. Smith College granted me the invaluable opportunity to navigate the world as a woman in an environment that not only cherished but uplifted every aspect of my identity.

“Navigating this post-Smith world can be confusing, infuriating, and demoralizing…. As you embark on your own journey beyond these familiar grounds, I can't predict the challenges you'll face or the injustices you'll encounter daily; however, I offer you these words of encouragement and advice for the lowest of times:

“Discover your passion. A life lived in service is a life lived well. But remember, finding your passion takes time and effort. In the meantime, if you feel restless or bored, don't give up.

“Seek out the camaraderie of women and cultivate a supportive community around you. Understand that not all women in the world beyond Smith will be allies. Recognize those who aren't, forgive them, and move past their negativity. 

“Recognize and appreciate genuine male allies, while also remaining vigilant of those who may let you down.

“Embrace your vulnerability and never lose sight of your sincerity. These are not weaknesses but strengths.

“Remember, you are not alone. There exists a sisterhood aboard the mothership that is Smith. Reach out to it whenever you need to recharge. 

“Above all, never lose hope. The Smith experience and education has armed you with the skills necessary to slay any beast or system of oppression you may face. Just remember that you are, above all, a Smithie. And you stand on the shoulders of a remarkable lineage of women who have broken boundaries, shattered barriers, fought injustices and emerged victorious. You will too.

“May the force of the Smith mothership be with you.”