Hira Humayun ‘17
On Feb. 23, Smith’s annual Rally Day introduced the 2017 commencement speaker, honorary degree recipients and Rally Day medalists. The event began with the class of 2017, clad in graduation caps and gowns –a tradition that has been part of Rally Day since 1944. Seniors wore their commencement attire in public for the first time, met in the campus center and proceeded to John M. Green Hall.
Matilda Rose Cantwell, the interim director of Religious and Spiritual Life, delivered the opening address to the class of 2017 and alums and explained the history of this longstanding Smith tradition, which dates back to 1894.
The Smith College Glee Club started the event off with their rendition of the Backstreet Boys’ “I Want It That Way,” and a procession of faculty and medalists. President Kathleen McCartney then took the stage for some introductory statements before the Student Government Association presented the faculty teaching awards to celebrate the professors that have displayed exceptional teaching and an ability to connect with and impact their students.
The Faculty Teaching Award went to Professors Will Williams and Gary Felder of the physics department, followed by the Elizabeth B. Wyandt Gavel Award for individuals who have contributed significantly to the Smith community. The service staff award went to Talbot House’s Paula Pawloski and the administrative staff award went to L’Tanya Richmond of the Office of Multicultural Affairs.
McCartney then presented the Smith Medal to five alums, an ongoing tradition since 1973, meant to commemorate outstanding Smith alums. This year’s medalists included Gloria Steinem ’56, Laura D’Andrea Tyson ’69, Vickie Shannon ’73, Ellen Weiss ’81 and Helen Keplinger ’94.
Writer and activist Steinem spoke about the progress that the women’s movements have made over the years, and how Smith had taught its students to achieve what they wanted, instead of marrying who they wanted to be. She remarked on the progress in terms of women’s roles on intersectional issues, from the civil rights movement of the 1970s, led primarily by men, to the Black Lives Matter movement led by three, young black feminists.
Tyson, an economist, policymaker and former member of the State Department’s Foreign Affairs Policy board and former chair of the Council of Economic Advisors under the Clinton administration, spoke about the confidence that Smith gave her to pursue a career in economics. “Smith women should lead the way,” she stated.
Pulmonary and critical care specialist Shannon spoke about the double glass ceilings she had to break on her path to success, being both a woman and African-American. She emphasized the “need for higher education to focus on women.” One of the first African-American women to attain full professorship at the University of Texas Austin’s MD Anderson Cancer Center, Shannon stated, “there is nothing minor about educating women.”
Journalist Weiss spoke about the confidence Smith gave her to enter into a field she initially did not have much experience in and that was male-dominated. “I’ve learned to expect the very best from women,” she said. She spoke about the need for “creating an increasing role of women in journalism,” and expressed gratitude for the abilities Smith helped her develop.
Winemaker and entrepreneur Keplinger, award winning owner of an artisanal winery, stated how Smith helped her pursue her passion and helped her access “the freedom to find [herself].”She cited her mother as one of her inspirations when it came to pursuing her passion for winemaking.
McCartney then announced the commencement speaker, global media leader, philanthropist, producer and actress Oprah Winfrey. Along with Winfrey, the 2017 Honorary Degree recipients were also announced: Clare Higgins, executive director of Community Action and former mayor of Northampton; Michelle Kwan, Olympic Medalist and world champion figure skater; Henrietta Mann, founding president of the Cheyenne and Arapaho Tribal College, and Erin O’Shea ’88, president of the Howard Hughes Medical institute and Harvard professor.
“My heart just about stopped,” said Maya Bonner ’18, in response to the announcement about the commencement speaker. “I started crying and a friend of mine just laid down on the floor. We went running out of JMG and I called my stepmom yelling, ‘It’s Oprah!’ before hanging up on her. It was glorious.”
“I cant believe that Oprah is coming to campus,” said Becca Damante ’17. “She is a huge icon ad has done so much important work for women of color. I’m so excited!”
Wrapping up the ceremony with some concluding remarks, McCartney invited the graduating class to the campus center to celebrate with food and a chance to meet and speak with the medalists.
“it’s an absolute pleasure to have a woman who has fought and prevailed, and whose success will serve as an inspiration to all in our community,” said Marta Gonzalez ’17.