Authenticity is the watchword at Holyoke Community College commencement

By Melissa Karen Sances

For the Gazette

Published: 06-06-2023 2:22 PM

SPRINGFIELD — “Make some noise! Yeah, make some noise!” yelled an excited father from the rafters.

On cue, the Holyoke Community College band began playing “Pomp and Circumstance” while 686 students proceeded to their seats. Each time the revved-up dad took a photo, his phone emitted a gleeful bark.

Just a few minutes earlier, before the graduates sat in neat rows fiddling with their programs, the students made some noise of their own. Back stage, in what might be the commencement equivalent of a locker-room pep talk, Amanda Sbriscia stood before a nervous procession and blasted “I Want It That Way” by the Backstreet Boys. HCC’s vice president of institutional advancement joined the school mascot — a cougar in graduation regalia — and a few volunteers who started busting a move. Students squealed like there was actually a ‘90s boy band there to cheer them on. Some started dancing and held up their phones to take video or wave their flashlights.

Southampton success story

Everyone was pumped, including one of the valedictorians, Shawn Mitchell. The 37-year-old from Southampton worked in construction for 20 years before deciding that he craved “mental cultivation.” His wife Jessica and 8-year-old daughter Nora were waiting inside the arena to celebrate him.

“I was not a successful high school student at all,” he told me. “I barely got out of there.”

His only goal was to make money, and he achieved it. But on long drives to and from commercial sites, he would do a lot of thinking, and by the time he was in his 30s he came to an important realization: “The paycheck wasn’t everything to me anymore.” After falling in love with philosophy at HCC, he’s transferring to Williams College on a full scholarship.

In her opening remarks, President Christina Royal acknowledged that, like Mitchell’s, many graduates’ dreams were decades in the making. More than 48% of the school’s 76th class was age 25 or over.

Royal is retiring after seven years as HCC’s fourth president — and as the first female, queer person of color to hold the position.

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“The messages about what I couldn’t be or do when I was younger were louder than the ones telling me that anything is possible,” she said. “I wanted to wear pants, but was asked to wear dresses. I was encouraged to omit that I’m half-Black because I could pass for being white … Somewhere along the way, I realized that I had to become an example of the authenticity that I wanted to see in others.”

Student Senate president Kelandra Hurd, a resident of Amherst who studied veterinary and animal science, presented Royal with the class gift, a dedicated bench.

“We are ensuring that future students not only know her legacy,” said Hurd, “but that they also know her name.”

“You’re not going to remember who I am, but you will never forget this day,” remarked Massachusetts Commissioner of Higher Education Noe Ortega, who, while relatively new to his position, was visiting HCC for the third time. “This day is special, y’all,” he drawled in his Texas accent. He urged students, when choosing between “right and right,” to consider their vision and, more importantly, their mission. Later on, for her 43-year-long mission in support of early childhood education, Mariah Levine of South Hadley received a Distinguished Service award.

Before the degrees were conferred, Minoshkielee Serrano shared her spoken word poem, “Lessons from Redirections.” An acclaimed Puerto Rican poet and activist, Serrano started journaling at 15 because her mom couldn’t afford therapy.

“Because of that I developed a love for poetry and I was determined to write something that didn’t sound like Shakespeare but sounded like my hometown,” she said.

“But today I am simply here to remind you / Why we remain rooted. / A generation of / Beautiful children …Who deserve to be called more than just resilient,” said the Latinx major.

Twenty-two percent of the graduates were Latino or of Hispanic origin.

But her message — to embrace authenticity —– was an all-inclusive echo of Royal’s: “I am more than their assumptions / More than the idea and thoughts they believe me to be / For to live my life through their lenses / Is to envision a reality of mental slavery / A never ending battle / For an ending greater / Than their applause.”

The crowd roared when the graduates gave her a standing ovation.

Melissa Karen Sances can be reached at melissaksances@gmail.com.]]>