At every Wellesley commencement ceremony, I think back on my own. But this year, sitting at the media table in the big white tent on Severance Green, I was especially nostalgic. My classmate Jocelyn Benson ’99, secretary of state of Michigan, delivered the commencement address to the class of 2023—another yellow class, serendipitously. Remembering our graduation, 24 years earlier, Benson told the audience, “I still remember the words and advice of my commencement speaker, Lynn Sherr ’63, who told us a lot of things, including never to use exclamation marks in our emails because, she said, as women we wouldn’t be taken seriously if we used exclamation marks. … And to this day, I do not use exclamation marks in my emails. Sometimes during my texts or tweets, but really, I think long and hard about throwing one in before using an exclamation mark in any of my correspondence.”
I remember Sherr’s advice about the judicious use of exclamation marks, too. I haven’t followed that advice as closely as Benson has—but then, I’ve had the great benefit of working at Wellesley College for the past 17 years and emailing, for the most part, members of the Wellesley community.
Benson went on to say that while she knew her immediate plans after graduation, she didn’t know what her future held. None of us do, really. “You cannot predict the challenges, the great achievements or the terrible tragedies, the wins or losses life is going to throw your way, any more than any of you could have predicted the way in which a global pandemic would have upended your education and lives for much of these last four years,” Benson said. “Life is going to undeniably continue to throw you curveballs.”
I have certainly found this to be true. There have been plenty of curveballs in my own life—but none have been thrown at me by the president of the United States. After the 2020 election, Benson and her colleagues thought they had “overcome it all”—running a smooth, strong election in the midst of a pandemic. “Nope. We hadn’t. Because instead we found ourselves, nearly the minute those final votes were tallied, battling a fierce, nationally coordinated effort to interfere with the certification of our election results and an attempt to submit a false, alternate slate of electors to Congress.”
Benson described the harrowing scene at her home on a December evening after the 2020 election, when armed individuals appeared and “demanded I ‘come outside’ and ‘show myself’ so that they could confront me about the results of the election, results that the votes—and the will of the people—had made abundantly clear.” In that frightening moment, at home with her then-4-year-old son and running bathwater to muffle the noise outside, Benson found power in choosing how to respond, “which was to not allow fear or threats to deter me from protecting our elections and defending every vote,” she said. She told the audience, “And so that’s the truth I share with you today: You can all stand, undeterred, at the foot of the metaphorical Edmund Pettus Bridge, today and every day. You can all choose to find courage to keep going in service of who we are and the world you seek to inhabit, no matter what life throws your way.”
In a world full of uncertainty and injustice, I find hope and inspiration in people like Benson, and in the many people participating in the “woman, life, freedom” movement that Narges Bajoghli’04 writes about so movingly in our cover story, “Iran and the Era of Global Feminist Uprisings.”.And, as always, I find hope in Wellesley College students. Congratulations to my fellow yellow alums in the class of 2023—I look forward to hearing one of you delivering a commencement speech in the big tent on Severance Green someday.