Drawing Strength From Others: Smith's 137th Commencement Celebrates Gratitude, Leadership

The processional exit marking the end of Commencement ceremonies May 17 in the Quad.

In her commencement address, pioneering educator Dr. Juliet Garcia urged members of the class of 2015 to “build bridges, not fences.”

“The window of opportunity is still closed to too many women, too many Latinos, too many first-generation poor of all kinds,” said Garcia, a first-generation college student who went on to become the first Hispanic woman to lead an American college or university.

“We must all accelerate our efforts. We must re-spirit each other’s souls and continue to push ahead,” Garcia told the audience of some 8,000 students, faculty, family and friends gathered Sunday in the sunlit Quad. (A video of Garcia’s address is available online.)

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Dr. Juliet Garcia

Themes of gratitude, equity and the importance of women’s leadership were woven throughout Sunday’s celebration. The college awarded 735 degrees at Commencement: 666 undergraduates received A.B. or S.B. degrees, and 69 students earned advanced degrees.

This year’s graduates came to the college from three-fourths of the 50 states and more than 35 countries, from Rwanda to Nepal.

Smith awarded honorary degrees to Garcia and to six other women leaders: social psychologist Mahzarin Banaji, climate scientist Sally Benson, African American studies pioneer Adelaide M. Cromwell ’40, peace activist Frances Crowe, global business leader Marilyn Carlson Nelson ’61 and dramatic soprano Deborah Voigt.

(Voigt sparked delighted laugher and applause when she sang a few bars of “Happy Birthday” to President Kathleen McCartney, who was celebrating her birthday May 17, as well as Commencement.)

Susan Etheredge, professor of education and child study at Smith, received this year’s Honored Professor Award.

For the first time, the commencement ceremony was translated live into Mandarin and Spanish—the two languages chosen by the senior class—to make the event more accessible to family and friends whose first language isn’t English.

Garcia—whose father emigrated to the U.S. from Mexico, and whose mother grew up in a small South Texas border town—delivered part of her address in Spanish, and senior class president Milanes Morejon ’15 spoke directly to her parents in Spanish during some of her remarks.

“Dad, mom, I am here because of you,” said Morejon. “Te quiero mucho.”

In her address to seniors and alumnae gathered for Ivy Day festivities Saturday, President McCartney cited her own feelings of gratitude—both for the class of 2015 and for past graduates of the college.

McCartney thanked alumnae for “keeping Smith forever in your hearts” and “for your leadership and passionate pursuit of fairness and equality in the world.”

“And thank you, class of 2015, for enriching our community through your studies, your passion and your efforts to make Smith College better,” she said.

Afreen Seher Gandhi ’15, student speaker at the Ivy Day Awards Convocation, described how Smith had supported her own transformation from a shy theater major to a budding film director—and one of the college’s 19 Fulbright scholars this year.

“Smith was the first place I felt comfortable taking creative risks,” said Gandhi, whose entire family was present for the weekend’s celebrations—including her sister Suroor Gandhi ’18.

“Because of your generous support, dear alumnae, today, young women from all corners of the world can dream of coming to Smith because they want to and deserve to, without worrying if they can afford to,” said Afreen Seher Gandhi, who plans to pursue a graduate degree in film.

In sharing her personal experience during her commencement address, Dr. Garcia reminded Smith graduates that true strength comes from others.

“The diploma you receive today only has room for your name on it,” she said. “But wouldn’t it be wonderful if we could add to it the names of all those who have helped us along the way?”

Garcia recalled her mother, who died of breast cancer at age 40 and who taught her to believe in women’s education, although she herself did not attend college.

“She also believed that to those whom much is given, much is expected. Sound familiar?” Garcia said, to applause from the graduates.

Garcia emphasized that education has helped to transform the lives of thousands of people in South Texas, where she served from 1992 to 2014 as president of the University of Texas at Brownsville, and before that as president of Texas Southmost College. During her tenure, those institutions significantly increased the number of higher education programs offered in the lower Rio Grande Valley, increased access for students, grew retention and expanded both schools’ academic offerings.

Garcia, who is currently the inaugural executive director of the University of Texas Institute of the Americas, said she draws her strength “in part from having had the great privilege of doing important work in my community on the southern edge of the United States border…because I could never find another place that seemed to need us so badly to help it succeed.”

“Today, you must seek that which gives you strength,” Garcia told the class of 2015. “And having discovered it, you must run toward it.

“We are the privileged few,” she added. “We must not squander the opportunity that we have been given. We must use it to find our own strength and, having found it, to become steadfast, powerful and incessant advocates for others.”