Attorney, author and Brandeis University professor Anita Hill took the stage to deliver the commencement address to graduates and well-wishers of the Wellesley College Class of 2019 on Friday, May 31. Hill exhorted students in the 30-minute speech to use and exercise their voices, appreciate and give thanks for all they have received, and find a way to pass their good fortune forward and give back.
The day was sunny, like the almost 600 graduates, and somewhat humid with temperatures that settled into the high 60s outside. Under the tent, which held the candidates for the degree of Bachelor of Arts and around 1,800 of their supporters, it felt more like a sticky mid-70s as the crowd took their seats and used their programs as fans. Professor Hill kept cool with occasional sips of water and long years of experience speaking in front of crowds, some not as friendly as the Wellesley College contingent.
At times Hill’s delivery and content sounded like the professor of Social Policy, Law, and Women’s Gender and Sexuality Studies could have been lecturing to one of her Brandeis classes. The Oklahoma University and Yale Law School graduate cited statistics about female sexual assault in the military and discussed the role of intersectionality in discrimination. She reminded listeners that the move to end gender violence is ongoing and just the start of a more seismic wave of change toward dismantling cultural disparities and disadvantages.
It was a serious-minded speech that called for graduates to bring forth into the world “the new way of thinking that we need, that the world needs. Bend the arc toward freedom,” Hill said. “I have the privilege to speak my mind freely. I must never take it for granted and never abuse it. I must never give up my voice, and I will not. Class of 2019, live, learn, and lead. Are you ready to lead? Yes, you are, and I believe you will, and I look forward to seeing where you will take us in the future.”
President Paula Johnson, in her third time presiding over a commencement, noted that six graduates were not in attendance at the exercises. The crew team members were instead competing at the NCAA Rowing Championships in Indianapolis.
For this year’s student speaker Kavindya Thennakoon, the day was mostly sweet, but tinged with bitter. The crowd experienced a moment of collective, stunned silence when Thennakoon shared that her mother was supposed to have travelled from Sri Lanka to celebrate commencement. Instead, she was denied a visa and remained home on her daughter’s big day. “This speech is for my mother, who moved oceans so that we might someday sail smoothly,” she said to the audience, many of whom grew teary.
The first-generation college graduate then went on to offer her Wellesley siblings a Sri Lankan tradition of seven gifts, which were a combination of memories of the past four years and reminders that they were all now about to seize their rightful places in the world. The speaker’s bright spirit took over as she reminded her sibs to “think of Lake Waban at 5:30pm on an evening in April.”
Then, with stridence and to a standing ovation, Thennakoon said, “My gift to you is to unapologetically take up space and audaciously use it, because we made it…Let’s go out there and make some trouble.”
Congratulations, Wellesley College Class of 2019.