'Hold On To Your Dreams with Dignity': Poet Rita Dove Tells Smith Graduates

In her Commencement address Sunday, two-time U.S. Poet Laureate Rita Dove invited members of the class of 2018 to tweet a graduation poem capturing “your feelings, your fears and hopes—whatever details you intend to carry with you on your way into the future.”

In her speech at the college’s 140th Commencement, Dove described poetry as a process of “making the language your own”—an exploration she likened to the transformative education the graduates received from Smith.

“Whether you end up as a politician or a painter, a novelist or a neurologist, this you all have in common: You have learned how to pursue thoughts and ideas, and hopefully you have grown to love that pursuit,” said Dove, winner of the 1987 Pulitzer Prize in poetry.

Pursuing knowledge is more important now than ever, said Dove, at a time when the “sheer weight of information” is overwhelming and “truth has become a rather insecure commodity.”

In a speech that drew inspiration from sources ranging from Mother Goose to ancient Rome—as well as her own poetry—Dove urged graduates to ask themselves how to “hold on to your dreams with dignity.”

“Start with the thing you know,” she advised. “Then, as you venture into the world—taking the road of education into ever broader avenues of possibility—apply what you’ve learned along the way, never forgetting that the key to the kingdom of knowledge is linked to curiosity and appreciation.”

At Sunday’s Commencement, Smith awarded 693 degrees: 646 undergraduate degrees, and 47 advanced degrees. This year’s graduates came to Smith from 40 states and 41 countries.

The college awarded honorary degrees to Dove and four other outstanding leaders in higher education and the arts:

  • Carol T. Christ, chancellor of the University of California Berkeley, and president emerita of Smith College;
  • Kimberlé Williams Crenshaw, professor at UCLA and Columbia Law School and a leading authority on civil rights, Black feminist theory, and race, racism and the law;
  • Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy, an Academy and Emmy Award-winning filmmaker who graduated from Smith in 2002;
  • Robert L. Pura,who is retiring this year after nearly two decades as president at Greenfield Community College.

Two longtime Smith faculty members received this year’s Honored Professor Awards: William Allan Oram, Helen Means Professor of English Language and Literature; and Robert Merritt, professor of biological sciences.

Sunday’s Commencement ceremony—held in the Indoor Track and Tennis Facility due to predicted thunderstorms—was festive, with graduates and family members using balloons and mortarboard signs to greet each other across the sea of 6,000 chairs. (“Thank you, Mom!” read one of them).

Making the most of life’s journeys was a motif throughout the weekend’s commencement and reunion events, which included time-honored traditions of ivy garlands, parades and special gatherings on campus.

As part of Saturday’s Ivy Day celebrations, President Kathleen McCartney led a conversation with the honorary degree recipients about new beginnings they had experienced.

“The narrative of your life is never over,” said Smith President Emerita Carol Christ, who, at age 73, is serving as the first woman chancellor of the University of California Berkeley. “It helps to be open to the unexpected.”

In navigating a complex world, McCartney advised members of the class of 2018 to rely on their bonds with Smith.

“You are part of a remarkable community of change-makers and barrier-breakers, artists and activists, teachers and scholars,” McCartney said, in her remarks to graduates on Ivy Day. “In the years ahead, you will gain strength from this community.”

Student speaker Syeda Zainab Aqdas Rizvi ’18 described how Smith helped her discover a passion for computer science.

Arriving on campus “too scared to take a STEM course,” Rizvi was “empowered” by her experiences in the classroom, as a founder of the campus chapter of Girls Who Code and as an intern at Google in Mountain View, Calif.

“The opportunities I’ve had here are more than I could have imagined,” said Rizvi, a Pakistani native and the first in her family to earn a college degree abroad.

In her speech on Sunday, Senior Class President Latifa Al-Mohdar ’18 said she is excited about what her classmates will achieve in the near future.

“Smithies are hard workers,” Al-Mohdar said. “We do our best, get things done, and change the world around us while we’re doing it.”