Sweet Briar College’s 104th commencement exercises were held Saturday, May 18, on the College’s main quad beneath a chilly blanket of gray clouds. Thunder occasionally rumbled overhead, as 105 undergraduate and 11 master’s degree candidates waited to be recognized.
The threatening weather was nothing for the Class of 2013, as senior class president Lauren Morgan noted in her remarks at the podium.
Among the many lessons she and her classmates shared during their four years together, she said, “We learned that we can survive whatever Mother Nature throws our way including snowstorms, earthquakes, derechos and seventeen-year cicadas.”
Morgan began by speaking about how much change they have experienced — changes in friends, faculty coming and going, changing political and religious views, even their feelings for the College from day to day, she said, drawing a chuckle from the crowd.
“One thing that change always brings is the opportunity to learn,” Morgan said. “My mother gave me one piece of advice before first leaving for college. She told me, ‘Never let school get in the way of your education.’ That’s one thing Sweet Briar has given us, an education. Not just a liberal arts education, but it has given us some lessons on life.”
2013 Presidential Medal winner Elizabeth Hansbrough followed Morgan at the podium, after an introduction by President Jo Ellen Parker. In a fitting prelude to the keynote address, Hansbrough encouraged her classmates to use their education not only to serve others, but to be true to their own values. She pointed to first lady Eleanor Roosevelt as an example.
“[Roosevelt] once said, ‘Remember always that you have not only the right to be an individual, you have an obligation to be one. You cannot make any useful contribution in life unless you do this,’ ” Hansbrough said.
“ … Remember that you have the ability to think and make your own decisions, and much power lies within that ability. Don’t waste your power; you must use it to defend your beliefs and make change where you see necessary.”
To Hansbrough’s advice, human rights activist Allida Black would add don’t be afraid to make trouble. Black, a research professor of history and international affairs at George Washington University and executive editor of fdr4freedoms Digital Resource, gave the keynote address. She also is the founding editor and chair of the editorial advisory board for GWU’s Eleanor Roosevelt Papers Project, whose mission is to preserve, teach and apply Roosevelt’s writing and discussions of human rights and democratic parties.
Black set the tone for a rousing speech by asking the Class of 2013 to rise to their feet and scream at the top of their lungs. She wanted them to be heard.
She acknowledged the role of parents and faculty in getting them ready to face the world, then turned to shake President Parker’s hand.
“Jo Ellen — Madame President, a title I hope to hear soon in a different arena — thank you for your work. Because if women don’t lead, we are in trouble,” Black said, with a gusto not often seen on such occasions.
Women lead every day in their professions and family life, she said, but that’s not enough. Women need to work hand-in-hand with men to set public policy, and build humane businesses and the kind of world community we aspire to.
Turning to the theme of change, she told her audience to embrace it, noting most people will have three distinct careers in their lifetimes. She never thought she’d go from running a rape crisis center to small-business owner to historian to working with human rights leaders around the world. Change requires risk-taking, but Black said they should draw courage from those who came before them, as she is inspired daily by Eleanor Roosevelt.
“She has taken me into the world to meet people that I never would have met and into arenas that I never imagined — like flying in a fifty-year-old Soviet aircraft whose radar was not really effective, landing in Roberts Airport in Monrovia [Liberia] at the end of the civil war, praying with every fiber of my being that in fact the landing gear would work,” she said. “You know, my sphincter muscles were working overtime.”
She found herself in that situation because other women who were her teachers and mentors encouraged her to take risks and that it’s OK to fail.
“What’s bad is not trying,” she said. “We need you to take these risks because you will be our doctors, our lawyers, our business leaders, our teachers, our community leaders, our international representatives, our artists, our performers, our reporters. Without you, we are toast.”
Black asked the graduates to think about the thing they really want to do and then what about the job scares them. “And then I want your joy to stamp out that anxiety, because it’s OK to doubt but it’s not OK to stop. … I cannot say enough that the world is in your hands.”
She said if she could impart just one thing, it is to know the power of the human spirit — because it shows us what a gift courage is and what a difference it makes. She left the graduates with a charge.
“The world can be thrilling and terrifying. No matter how many friends you have, you ultimately face it alone. You are stronger and smarter and braver than you think. Don’t be afraid. Fear will shrink your heart,” she said.
“Tackle injustice and selfishness with a boldness you didn’t know you had. It will swell your soul, bring remarkable people into your family, and show you how indescribably magical the human spirit can be.”
Following the presentation of the candidates’ diplomas and award announcements by President Parker and dean of the faculty Amy Jessen-Marshall, Alumnae Association president Mollie Nelson ’64 was invited to the podium. She implored the graduates — no longer alumnae-in-training but after today the “real McCoy” — to stay involved, support the College and, above all, visit often.
“Driving up the driveway is better than Prozac, I promise you,” she said.
Parker brought the occasion to a close with her own charge to her “classmates” of 2013 — they arrived at Sweet Briar in her inaugural year four years ago.
Observing that a liberal education might better be called a “liberating” education because it frees the human intellect, she charged them to use it to improve the others’ lives.
“Use your influence to uphold the freedoms of speech and worship for others — especially those with whom you disagree. Use your talents and skills, your professional and civic activities, to free others from want and fear. Let your work, and your example, demonstrate the liberating power of education not only for individuals, but also for communities and nations.”