Skip to main content

President Valerie Smith

Congratulations to our honorary degree recipients. On behalf of the Swarthmore community, we are both inspired by and grateful for your words here today, as well as your lifetime of achievements and contributions to society. Thank you! 

Critical thinking, resilience, empathy and adaptability. These are all hallmarks of a liberal arts education, and they have been crucially important during the past fourteen months.  As you begin the exciting adventure that is the rest of your life, I hope you will take with you a passion for and a commitment to these qualities of a liberal arts education. They have certainly served you well on your journey so far.

You didn’t make it to this moment alone. I invite you to pause with me to recognize  all those who’ve helped you along the way: our Faculty members, who, through their scholarly work and mentorship have nurtured your intellectual and personal development; our Staff members, whose care for your physical, mental, and spiritual wellbeing has been a constant presence, and to the many friends from the Swarthmore community and beyond, who have been there to comfort you, confide in you, and celebrate with you throughout your college years.

All played a pivotal role in your Swarthmore experience.  

Most importantly, let us say thank you to parents, family members, and caregivers who cheered your triumphs, who supported you through your setbacks, and who helped you learn from the problems you confronted.  Today they are filled with pride. Your graduation represents a moment of joy, accomplishment, and celebration for all of your loved ones. Members of the Class of 2021, please take a moment now to thank them for their love and support.

Each year at Commencement, we honor our retiring faculty and long-serving staff members. This year, we have an extraordinary number of colleagues who are leaving the College, and I ask our entire community to join in recognizing them, with profound acknowledgement of their many decades of service.

Faculty members retiring from the College include: Nathalie Anderson, Alexander Griswold Cummins Professor of English Literature; Joy Charlton, professor of sociology; Art McGarity, Henry C. and J. Archer Turner Professor of Engineering; Braulio Muñoz [brawl’-yo Moon’-yoze], Centennial Professor of Sociology; Marjorie Murphy, professor of history and James C. Hormel Professor in Social Justice; Carol Nackenoff, Richter Professor of Political Science; Micheline Rice-Maximin [Max’-im-in], associate professor of French; Allen Schnieder, Centennial Professor of Psychology; and Faruq Siddiqui, Isaiah M. Williamson Professor of Civil and Mechanical Engineering.

We recognize, as well, the following retiring staff members who have served the College for 24 years or longer: Daniel Blanton, Grounds; Barb Boswell, Dining Services; Marcia Brown, Provost’s Office; Wendy Chmielewski [shim-a-lev’-ski], Peace Collection; Cathy Cinquina [sin-kween’-a], Chemistry; Steve Donnelly, Facilities; Angie DiPaolo, Dining Services; Marian Fahy [fay-hee], Athletics; Sharon Green, Athletics; Delroy Griffiths, Environmental Services; Vivian Hart, Environmental Services; Michelle Hartel, Dining Services; Linda Hunt, Libraries; Ethel Kaminiski, Health Center; Steve Levin, Campus & Community Store; Alison Masterpasqua [master-pass’-kwa], Libraries; Patricia O’Donnell, Friends Historical Library; Cathy Pescatore, Provost’s Office; Sharon Pierce, Environmental Services; David Robinson, Post Office; John Schambers, Facilities; Ralph Thayer, Facilities; Kathryn Timmons, Psychology; Sandra Vermeychuk [ver-may’-chuk], Libraries; Martin Warner, Registrar; Diane Watson, Dean’s Office; and Barbara Weir, Libraries. Together, these 27 staff members represent more than 870 years of dedicated service to the community and the College.

Please join me in thanking these long-serving members of our community who, through their wisdom, service, and dedication, have played an important role in shaping Swarthmore's excellence and your experience here.

So. You’ve earned a degree from one of the most prestigious, and highly respected liberal arts colleges in the world. Given the public polling around higher education these days, there are certainly some who’ll question the value of your experience here. They might ask “what does a liberal arts education worth?” The answer, of course, is — “priceless.”  

  Now I admit — that comes from the daughter of educators.  Born and raised in Charleston, SC during the era of Jim Crow segregation, my parents attended racially segregated schools.  While the curriculum, facilities and resources in these schools lagged those of their white counterparts, my parents and their fellow students were taught by dedicated, often brilliant teachers who instilled in them and in generations of young black children and adolescents a love of learning and a confidence in their own talents.  

My parents both attended and graduated from HBCUs in South Carolina and then migrated to New York City where they married and raised their family.  My late father became a biology professor, and my mother was an elementary school teacher.  They were both voracious readers, and my father was a biologist with a deep faith in the scientific method and the value of scientific proof and evidence.  Given that background, it’s little wonder that they passed on to me and my siblings a belief in the emancipatory power of education.  It’s little wonder that I entered the world of higher education as a first-year college student and never left.

But Let’s think for a moment about where we’d be without the skills and abilities you’ve honed through your experience here. 

At this moment in history,  as we continue to face myriad interlocking crises -- a global pandemic, threats to our democratic institutions and ongoing scourge of racial, ethnic and xenophobic violence across the country and many parts of the globe. 

In the face of so much uncertainty, so much loss and despair, the power of the liberal arts gives me great hope for the future.  

I believe it is the values and principles I’ve described as hallmarks of the liberal arts — critical thinking, resilience, and adaptability — that will strengthen our shared future, just as they played a critical role in forging our democracy.

In 1817, the U.S. Congress commissioned artist John Trumbull to paint four scenes depicting events related to the American Revolution. The first painting he completed depicts the presentation of the Declaration of Independence to the Second Continental Congress at the Pennsylvania State House, now known as Independence Hall. Forty-two of the 56 signers are present, joined by five additional figures of the time. All the men appear impeccably dressed, poised, with little emotion. Confidence and consensus are in the air.

There is no hint of the fierce debate—the impassioned arguments; the sharp, sometimes caustic, exchanges—that once filled those chambers. 

Despite this image of civility, the formulation of our Declaration was marked by heated words over hardened positions. Our nation’s freedom may have been won in the crucible of war, but it was forged in the cauldron of our national discourse.

Of course, those with less representation in colonial society were having their own discussions, even though they were not present at the Continental Congress.

Not every woman was content with leaving the formation of the new nation up to men only. In the spring of 1776, Abigail Adams sent a note of warning to her husband, writing, “If particular care and attention is not paid to the ladies, we are determined to foment a rebellion, and will not hold ourselves bound by any laws in which we have no voice or representation.” 

Enslaved people debated the risks and rewards of aligning with one side or the other. Some used the spirit of revolution to appeal to the colonists for freedom. Enslaved poet Phillis Wheatley wrote, “In every human breast, God has implanted a principle, which we call Love of Freedom.”

Native people faced a similar dilemma. Should they join the fight? Would either side co-exist with them in peace? The Museum of the American Revolution in Philadelphia features a quotation  from Keller George, a modern-day member of the Wolf Clan of the Oneida Nation. It reads, “I often wish that I could look back through time and hear the words of my ancestors as they sat around the council fires deliberating on whether to join the colonists in battle. I wish I could listen to the wisdom of their arguments…”  

The ability of our citizenry to have a productive dialogue remains essential to our democracy. Through our discourse, we express our experiences, assert our opinions, and, ideally, chart a common path forward. And today the views of people of color, indigenous people, women, not heard in 1786 or 1787 are more fully part of the conversation.  Our capacity to work collaboratively—particularly our ability to wrestle together over difficult topics -- reflects the health of our society.  

The founders depicted in that painting by John Trumbull, and those early leaders who went on to draft the U.S. Constitution, established a historic, yet imperfect union. 

In the nearly two and a half centuries since those documents were signed, our society has slowly reshaped and refined that union through our national discourse. It remains imperfect, but vastly improved. At times, we have stumbled backward, but over the long course of history we have ultimately found a way to move forward.

Recently we have seen assaults on our democratic institutions, attacks often expressed as a defense of freedom and democracy.  But as many have observed, the freedom they seek to defend depends upon the disenfranchisement of those who were denied suffrage at the country’s founding.  True political freedom might be said to have come of age here only as recently as 1965 when the Voting Rights Act nominally guaranteed all American citizens, regardless of race, the right to vote.  And even then we continue to see all manner of attempts to disenfranchise Black, Brown, Native American, Asian American, urban, young, immigrant, and other voting constituencies.

The task then falls to our and future generations to remain engaged to protect and defend the freedom first heralded in 1776, enshrined in the constitution in 1787, further expanded after a civil war in 1865, threatened and contracted during the Jim Crow era, extended to women in 1920, and to black Americans in 1965.  The task to create a more perfect union is unending and requires eternal vigilance.  

 In January, I watched in awe as Amanda Gorman performed at the presidential inauguration, reading her poem, “The Hill We Climb:”

. . . we are far from polished

Far from pristine

But that doesn’t mean we are

Striving to form a union that is perfect

We are striving to forge a union with purpose

To compose a country committed to all cultures, colors, characters and Conditions of man

You are venturing into a world of extraordinary uncertainty, but also of great promise and infinite possibility. You are critical thinkers. You are resilient, You are adaptable. You are willing to engage with those who hold views and perspectives that are different from your own. You will leave here and solve the most persistent and complex challenges that face us and societies across the globe. You will leave here and form a union with purpose. And we will forever be proud to call you graduates of Swarthmore College.