Smith College holds commencement after year of turmoil

  • The Holyoke Caledonian Pipe Band warms up before the procession at the Smith College commencement ceremony, Sunday, in Northampton. FOR THE GAZETTE/Sabato Visconti

  • Drum Major Jay Kelly of Holyoke leads the Holyoke Caledonian Pipe Band as the procession begins for the Smith College Commencement Ceremony, Sunday in Northampton, MA. Sabato Visconti—Copyright.2021

  • Graduating students at Smith College walk down the Indoor Track and Tennis Center as part of the commencement ceremony procession, Sunday, in Northampton. FOR THE GAZETTE/Sabato ViscontI

  • Smith College Graduating Class of 2021 Students walk down the Indoor Track and Tennis Center as part of the commencement ceremony procession, during a rainy Sunday in Northampton, MA. Sabato Visconti—Copyright.2021

  • Graduating students in Smith College’s Class of 2021 walk down the Indoor Track and Tennis Center during their commencement ceremony procession, Sunday in Northampton. FOR THE GAZETTE/Sabato Visconti

  • Smith College graduating seniors listen to the opening remarks during the 2021 commencement ceremony, Sunday in Northampton, MA. Sabato Visconti—Copyright.2021

Staff Writer
Published: 5/30/2021 8:18:31 PM

NORTHAMPTON — Rain forced the ceremony indoors, and safety procedures designed to combat COVID-19 limited attendance to students, some faculty, presenters and technical staff.

And everyone was wearing a face mask.

But Smith College still held its 143rd commencement on Sunday, where nearly 600 undergraduates and 36 graduate students received degrees, and nine honorary degrees were awarded as well.

Students were praised for persevering during a year in which many had to do much of their coursework online and the pandemic limited most of the social interaction that’s normally part of the college experience.

As Matilda Rose Cantwell, the college’s chaplain and director of religious and spiritual life, put it, graduates deserved to be congratulated for having “shifted, pivoted and adapted” during a year of turmoil and difficulty “that no one could have imagined.”

The commencement was livestreamed from the college’s indoor track and tennis (ITT) facility and attended by most undergraduates and some faculty. Others, including parents, some students and faculty, and alumnae watched remotely; a large video monitor suspended from the ITT ceiling showed a rotating group of faces.

Native American Joy Harjo, the U.S. poet laureate and a member of the Muscogee Nation who lives in Oklahoma, gave the commencement speech, one that included examples of her poetry and that of Smith’s most famous poet, Sylvia Plath. She also said poetry offered a means for reconnecting with one’s spiritual self and for better understanding the strange era COVID-19 has brought forth.

“Class of 2021, you’ll be telling stories for years of how it was like in these times,” said Harjo, one of the honorary degree recipients.

Harjo, whose award-winning work has embraced Native American storytelling traditions as well as feminist and social justice themes, said the upheaval of the pandemic has made many of the fractures in U.S. life more visible, including gun violence, racial hatred and “the debasement of women.” As such, she added, poetry could provide a way for reshaping American values, from creating greater equality to a renewed appreciation of nature.

“We can see that we are at a shift point,” she said. “We need a new direction. Poets are some of our most inspired mapmakers, and one of them is Sylvia Plath.” Plath, she noted, had grown up with certain privileges, being white and from a solid economic background, but she also found herself “trapped in 1950s maleness.”

Harjo recited Plath’s poem “Mad Girl’s Love Song,” which deals with heartbreak and mental illness and was published in 1953, when Plath was still at Smith. Harjo also began her speech by reciting her poem “For Calling the Spirit Back from Wandering the Earth in Its Human Feet,” an ode to cutting through the noise and ugliness of modern industrial society to find greater spiritual awareness and fulfillment.

“Turn off that cellphone, computer, and remote control,” it reads in part. ”Open the door, then close it behind you. // Take a breath offered by friendly winds. They travel the earth / gathering essences of plants to clean. // Give it back with gratitude. // If you sing it will give your spirit lift to fly to the stars’ ears and back.”

And Harjo praised the 2021 Smith graduates for persevering through an unprecedented year, telling them they’re leaving “with one of the most powerful educations possible.”

Jane Yuanyuan Casey-Fleener, the 2021 senior class president, joked that the first thing her mother had said to her when she told her she’d be speaking at commencement was “you’d better thank (your family).”

Casey-Fleener did, and she also thanked her classmates, saying she was honored to graduate alongside “the most determined, kind, and intelligent people I’ve ever known,” all of them caught up in a senior year that was not “what we hoped for and expected.”

But, she added, “We’ve demonstrated resiliency. We have future doctors, lawyers, artists, engineers, historians, teachers and others here. We have people who are not afraid to take risks.”

Among the people receiving honorary degrees at the commencement were two with local ties: Gwen Agna, the former principal of Jackson Street Elementary School, and Joanne Campbell, former executive director of Valley Community Development.

Also receiving honorary degrees were Deborah Bial, president and founder of The Posse Foundation, an organization that helps students from diverse backgrounds attend college; environmental activist Christiana Figueres, a key figure in shaping the Paris Agreement on climate change; actor and singer Audra McDonald; immigration activist Cristina Jiménez Moreta; social activist, doctor and Harvard Divinity School teacher the Rev. Gloria Elaine White-Hammond; and novelist and editor Hanya Yanagihara, a 1995 Smith graduate.

Steve Pfarrer can be reached at

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