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Convocation Speech - Dean for Student Life

September 5, 2013

Dean for Student Life Sarah Neill delivered the following address to undergraduate students during the Undergraduate Honors Convocation on Sept. 4.

Welcome to the New Year! Allow me to congratulate the dean’s list recipients and new members of the academy for your impressive achievement. I’d also like to welcome the proud parents and family members in the audience—your supporting role has been vital and this is just as much your honor as that of your student.

Convocation Day is a time of new beginnings, new faces, a time of opportunity, of possibility, of hope.

It is a celebration of this very special community and a place we call Simmons College. Today we recognize the academic achievements of our students and welcome our new community members, but we also celebrate our rich heritage and honor our history.

For those of us who have been here for a while, we come to count on this ritual—that brings us all together, that enables us to pause, take stock, reflect, and focus on the year ahead.

We have been celebrating convocation since our founding, beginning as a dedication to Simmons founder, John Simmons. Over the years, the ceremony has shifted its focus toward honoring academic achievement and remains to this day known as Honors Convocation. It is one of the largest gatherings of the Simmons community. With each passing year, we come together to mark our accomplishments. Our speakers have reflected the values and priorities of the time, evolving social norms and issues of the day, and some of the remarkable history of our institution of our city—and of our nation.

It is important to take stock in our Simmons history—both to understand our origins and the seeds that led to greater efforts and set in motion new pathways and significant growth at the College. So allow me to share a snapshot of some of this history with you (with a nod of thanks to our resident archivist, Jason Wood).

50 years ago it was 1963 (Historic March on Washington)

  • Simmons students began participating in the "Roxbury Tutorial Project," which provided underprivileged youth with tutors/mentors from local Boston colleges
  • They were also part of a significant boycott on Wonder Bread, prompted by the company's refusal to hire non-white workers
  • Simmons Journalism student Marcia Kauffman was the first student ever to be granted an interview with Former President Eisenhower
  • B.A. (then A.B.) degrees first offered at Simmons
  • First appearance of a literary magazine at Simmons, then called Pot Pouri
  • The "Bluettes," Simmons’s premier singing group, released a new record with backup from the Harvard Blue Tones
  • Smith Hall is opened for student residency
  • First celebration of Father-Daughter weekend at Simmons
  • A 2-minute leeway on curfew was instated for all Simmons students, could be used twice a semester on the week-ends
25 years ago it was 1988
  • GALA (Gay and Lesbian Awareness Committee) and SOAR (Society Organized Against Racism) both hold high-profile activism events on campus.
  • The Cold War prompts course offerings from the History department like "The Rise of Modern China", "The Cold World and the Arms Race", and "History of Soviet Russia."
  • Library facilities included a "Microcomputer Room" and a brand new laser printer and our Computer Science department offers courses on Analog Electronics, Advanced Programming in Pascal, and Computer Graphics
  • We celebrated the groundbreaking on the Holmes Sports Center.
  • The 80s aerobics craze hits Simmons, classes were offered on campus every day.
  • (Some things are better left in the past!)

This year’s orientation theme developed by our students is appropriately entitled “Branching Out,” a phrase that encourages us to stretch, embrace change, and maybe try doing things differently. Let’s pause for a moment and consider this. Branching out suggests you are coming from or leaving a home base or foundation, something that has roots, a history. Today, here together, we all have Simmons in common.

Branching out is inherently risky. We are most likely to take risks and stretch ourselves when we feel safe enough to do so. When we challenge ourselves we are often surprised by what we are capable of. So what are the conditions required to support taking these risks? And what are our individual roles in making this possible? I would like to suggest we all have a role in each other’s successes. When we collaborate, when we act inclusively, when we reach out across our differences and pull those on the margins in, we all succeed. We are better. When we mentor, when we question, when we step in, when we speak up, we make things possible for others. Our ability to stretch, grow (and yes, change) is supported through staying grounded and connected to each other. And this is when we are at our very best.

I would also argue that these are some of the essential ingredients in what some call “Simmons’s special sauce.”

Now, in keeping with tradition, I have the most enviable role of specifically addressing our students, who are at the center of everything we do.

To our new students, entering class of 2017 and our transfers and Dix Scholars, as evidenced by the wonderful rite of passage you just participated in—you are now officially part of this very special community. I hope that the past few days of orientation leading up to this day, however dizzying with all of the new faces, places, and activities, has offered opportunities for you to connect substantively with each other, and your more senior classmates, and cemented for you your choice in Simmons.

The years ahead will be full of challenge and opportunity. You have already pondered some big questions during your orientation – Who am I? What do I bring? Inherent in these questions is the value we place on exploring your identity and our firm belief that you do have something to contribute, in fact you must contribute.

You learned from, and were encouraged by, Rachel Simmons, to develop your inner resume. Get to know yourself—develop self -awareness, be authentic and assertive in the parts of your life that matter most to you. Because when you walk in your own truth you will always be in good company. Learn your truth. Listen to yourself and trust. If you actively engage in your educational experience, you will have the support you need here at Simmons. We look forward to supporting your growth and development and helping you to realize your promises.

And now for our seniors—the Class, our Class of 2014!!

Look at all of you! Doesn’t it seem like just yesterday you were starting out? Is that really you out there in your caps and gowns? Get out! I told you it would go quickly! How many days until graduation?

Let’s flash back to fall of 2010—your orientation theme was the ‘Spirit of Simmons’— and how fitting. Your presence has been enduring and, indeed, spirited.

Wide-eyed and youthful, you arrived on campus in various stages of anxiety, trepidation, and let’s face it, for some of you, full-on panic. You had so many questions then—will I make friends? Can I balance all of my responsibilities? What if I change my mind about my major? Is there any way I can avoid walking all the way down to the corner of Brookline Ave. to cross the street? Why are there wild turkeys on the quad? What’s with all these geese—wait –why are there now fake coyotes on the quad?

Many of you had to adjust to city life, with whizzing traffic, ambulances, and police sirens, a far cry from the crickets at home, but then at times, Simmons was our very own wildlife refuge! Now you know this city like the back of your hand and the T, although inadvisable, you can navigate with your eyes closed. Boston is your town.

In your short time here, you have seen our Fenway neighborhood come alive with major expansions of our hospitals, new housing developments, retail shops, restaurants, and a yogurt shop on every block. Berry Line, Very Berry, Berry, Berry Quite Contrary, the list goes on….

You've experienced the highs and low of our beloved Boston sports teams A Bruins Stanley Cup grab, Celtics in the playoffs. and déjà vu all over again with the Patriots in the Super Bowl...ouch, that one is gonna leave a mark!

We won't discuss a certain team down the street and that maybe it’s September....and maybe we are 5 ½ games up in the AL East. I'm not sayin'. I'm just sayin’.

2010 brought with it many seismic events in our world, a cataclysmic earthquake in Haiti, the beginning of European Austerity measures, WikiLeaks burst on to the scene, and of course, Lady Gaga.

Hurricanes, blizzards, flash floods, you’ve seen it all. Even a couple of minor earthquakes.

But perhaps most memorable was the shock and profound sadness of the marathon bombings last spring, and how in our utter bewilderment and grief, instinctively, our community came together in ways none of us could have ever imagined.

Once tentative and uncertain, your gate has transformed into a swagger of sorts. And you have a spring in your step.

You've become leaders of student orgs, and mentors to many, you've studied abroad, conducted research with faculty and played on some of the winningest athletic teams in our College's history. You've led programs like Strong Women Strong Girls and America Reads. You have participated in and taken on World Challenges—working together with your classmates to create solutions to some of the most significant societal challenges of our time. You have organized an annual student multicultural leadership conference. Thriving, striving, achieving, challenging. And yes, still asking questions.

You are an accomplished class. You are honors students and scholars. You are entrepreneurs, scientists, athletes, dancers, artists, peer health educators, and spoken word poets. As student leaders you have led the way jumping into and initiating dialogue on important issues on our campus, grappling with social responsibility and the perils of social media, taking on issues of relationship violence and sexual assault, educating yourselves and others on topics pertaining to gender identity and expression. Always striving to play your part to build an inclusive community as we usher in each incoming class of new students.

Amidst all of this—let’s face it—sometimes you’ve experienced disappointments, you have made mistakes, and you may have made some decisions you regret or missed opportunities, or something you said that you wish you could take back. The point is, you know this, you have learned from these experiences, and you still have time.

With your senior year ahead, you remain, by all accounts, the spirit of Simmons. So don’t let up, keep your foot on the gas pedal. Branch out, make new mistakes, take stock in your relationships, including your mentors, be good to each other, mend fences where they need mending, mentor your classmates, stretch, strive, and make it count. We are so proud of you.

In closing, as we all gather together today—I wonder what will they be saying about us, this community, 50 years from now in 2063? Perhaps they will poke fun at our clunky technology, find some of our ways antiquated, unenlightened, or even silly—but maybe they will see in us the seeds of what will be the next great movement in higher education. I say we give them something to talk about.

Take the time to engage, to invest in you, in those around you, and in Simmons. It’s never too late for you, for all of us, to branch out with the support of our connection and to make our college great.
Have a wonderful year!