Skip to main content

Poet Joy Harjo: ‘Remake Our World’

Campus Life

Published May 30, 2021

In a commencement speech alive with her own literary art, United States Poet Laureate Joy Harjo urged members of the Smith class of 2021 to avoid a “turn back” to a pre-pandemic reality, and instead, to map a different future, using the tools of “truth, wildness, beauty, transformation, bravery.”

Addressing graduates gathered in person in Smith’s Indoor Track and Tennis Center for Smith’s 143rd Commencement on Sunday, Harjo shared some of her poetry, touching on themes of connection, gratitude and healing.

“Let your moccasin feet take you to the encampment of the guardians who have known you before time, who will be there after time,” said Harjo—the first Native American to hold the title of national poet laureate. “Watch your mind. Without training, it might run away and leave your heart for the immense human feast set by the thieves of time.”

In an address shared virtually with students, family members and alums located around the globe, Harjo also cited lines from poems by “inspired mapmakers” Adrienne Rich, Audre Lorde and Smith graduates Sylvia Plath ’55 and Laurie Ann Guerrero AC ’08.

“These poems acknowledge the past, give us grounding to recognize the place on which we are standing and include the needed mythical elements to open doorways to fresh understanding beyond the present,” Harjo told graduates. “The younger poets continue the mapmaking, as you as you will in whatever discipline you have embraced, for each discipline, each art, embodies a kind of mapmaking.”

She praised members of the class of 2021 for their resilience during a period of isolation and uncertainty. “You have found your way through the dark to this moment in time of celebration,” Harjo said. “You will be telling stories for years in the aftermath, of how it was in these times.”

Noting that “we have much to do as we remake our world,” Harjo called on graduates to “go forward giving gratitude for the challenge of the story, for all the tremendous struggle, beauty and power of it.”

“As you step into your future together, know that the challenges will grow physical, mental, emotional and spiritual muscle, for you personally, for your family, your class, your community, this world family, this earth,” Harjo said.

The college awarded 644 degrees on Sunday: 607 undergraduate degrees, and 37 advanced degrees. Members of the class of 2021 came to Smith from 45 states and 32 countries.

Smith awarded honorary degrees to Harjo and three other remarkable women:

  • Deborah Bial, president and founder of The Posse Foundation
  • Joanne Campbell, affordable housing advocate and longtime executive director of Valley Community Development in Northampton
  • Audra McDonald, award-winning singer and actor

Honorary degrees were also awarded to five individuals who had been scheduled to receive them in 2020: Northampton educator Gwen Agna; diplomat and climate change activist Christiana Figueres; advocate for immigrants Cristina Jiménez; pastor and educator the Rev. Gloria Elaine White-Hammond, M.D.; and author and editor Hanya Yanagihara ’95.

Addressing her fellow graduates, Senior Class President Jane Yuanyuan Casey-Fleener ‘21 acknowledged the challenges of the past year of the pandemic, but also the opportunity it has provided “to connect with each other in ways we never thought possible.”

In addition to their academic achievements, the class of 2021 represents future doctors, lawyers, artists, historians— “people who aren’t afraid to take risks,” Casey-Fleener said, “People who won’t take no for an answer. People who are unapologetically themselves.”

President Kathleen McCartney echoed those sentiments in her closing remarks to graduates, noting that “Smith will tell your story with pride for generations to come.”

“This community will be yours for life,” McCartney said. “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.”

Sofia Perrotto ’21, who earned her degree in sociology, summed up the feelings of many fellow seniors when she described being in-person for commencement as “a privilege.”

“The pandemic has made me cognizant of this privilege that I didn't know I had—being physically close to people,” Perrotto said.

For Perrotto, Sunday’s ceremony brought home the feeling that, “this is real. I am graduating from Smith College!”