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Marianne McKenna '72

Thank you all for giving me this honorary degree today. It is a delight to be with the class of 2023.

Let me begin with a confession. I did not attend my graduation ceremony in 1972, so this is my first Swarthmore commencement. 

Truth is, I was protesting instead of graduating. 

You might ask: what does a young woman from Montreal, relatively new to the ways of the United States, have to protest? What was so important that I, and many of my classmates, would not attend the wrap-up of four intense years at Swarthmore College? 

My years here, from 1968 to 1972, were filled with paradox, disruption, and enormous change — echoed on campuses across the globe. When I arrived, Swarthmore still had a dress code for Sharples Dining Hall, dorms were restricted by gender, and a restrained civility prevailed. Then almost overnight we were thrust into the Counterculture movement, and we protested everything: the Vietnam War and the draft, urban smog and acid rain, industrial contamination of waterways, women’s rights and civil rights, the war on drugs, and more. 

We lost a beloved president while students demonstrated outside his office for increased recruitment of Black students. Protesting students were shot at Kent State, and it was rumored, and true, that the FBI was monitoring professors on campus.  Our voices and our bodies became a fireworks display of protest for justice and peace. Swarthmore’s Quaker values – peaceful discourse, tolerance, and social responsibility — fueled our conviction. They became our special power and strength, and ultimately our legacy moving forward in our own lives. 

Swarthmore’s pastoral landscape served as the backdrop. It kept us grounded with its magnificent, treed amphitheater, bamboo forest, and, in the spring, the fields of daffodils and magnolia blossoms. The campus landscape was powerful itself — an ever-present reminder to continuously connect and draw strength from nature.

So, I skipped the ceremony and graduated from protest to purpose, taking my Swarthmore education and emerging values, and aligning them with my creative talents and my passion to be in the service of shaping a better world. I chose architecture as the vehicle to make change happen — literally from the ground up. To this day, Swarthmore values guide and gird me.

For the past 35 years, I have been a founding partner in a practice based in Toronto that is now 150 people, intergenerational, diverse, gender-balanced, and designing all types of buildings and environments where we live, work, play, and learn. 

Architecture is for people. We are collaborating to rethink institutions and how they build and benefit community. We are involved in addressing today’s challenges and designing solutions that catalyze positive change. We are shaping the future to be inclusive, accessible, and empowering, and to contribute to social and economic prosperity.

We work with academic institutions to create learning environments of the 21st century and have had the privilege to design schools that empower girls to be leaders.

We work with leading scientists and researchers to create environments that destigmatize mental health challenges.

We are working with forward-thinking clients on affordable residential projects to address the housing crisis in Canada.

We believe arts and culture are critical to building community and we work tirelessly to design buildings that are open and welcoming.

We are actively engaged in reducing the carbon footprint of buildings, and we are listening to and learning from Indigenous people, who are showing us how to look ahead seven generations and be good ancestors for people and the planet.

Architecture is a slow art. It has taken me 50 years to get here, and today has been a chance to look back and see where I came from.

To all of you graduating today — Congratulations!

You made it through the academic rigor of Swarthmore and endured a pandemic at the same time. You, too, have lived through a time of unprecedented change, where the world is not exactly as you left it when you first ambled up Parrish Walk. 

Know that your time here, the lessons learned, and the friendships you’ve made will ground you and guide you for your lifetime. Look for opportunities that attract your curiosity.  

My advice: listen first, ask questions, research, reflect, and collaborate. Some of your goals and dreams will be realized very quickly while others will take more time. Don’t compromise your vision — or your values.   

May your protest, whether internal or external, be your guide to finding purpose in your life. And always remember the power of your education and to let yourself feel the awe of being human at this time in our evolution. 

I encourage you to find your voice, find your own self-expression and self-actualization, and know that the world will benefit from it. 

May the force of a Swarthmore education be always with you!

Thank you.