The last time the Mills campus hosted a full, traditional Commencement, in 2019, it was pouring down rain. But this year, in resuming the annual rite of passage for the first time since the start of the pandemic, graduates of the Class of 2022 and their guests were greeted with a blindingly beautiful day.
Perhaps that was all the more fitting for the last class to graduate from Mills College as an independent standalone institution. Some attendees—including departing students—wore yellow in the forms of masks, berets, flowers, and more in protest, and a handful of alumnae in the group that processed in stood and turned their backs to administration officials as they delivered remarks. But the overall vibe at Commencement 2022 was one of unbridled joy, like so much biodegradable paper confetti fluttering through the air.
In addition to the undergraduate and graduate members of the Class of 2022, several recent graduates from 2020 and 2021 came back to Mills to walk in the ceremony after the pandemic shrunk their commencements into drive-by affairs. Joining them as well were 76 students who have nearly completed their coursework—24 undergrads and 52 graduate students—who will wrap up their Mills degrees in a condensed summer session, free of charge, before June 30.
The list of luminaries on hand was an impressive one: renowned author Jesmyn Ward delivered the Commencement address, and honorary degrees were awarded to Elizabeth J. Cabraser, P ’17, a civil litigator who has spearheaded some of the most well-known class action lawsuits in US history and worked tirelessly for advancing civil justice; Lynette Gibson McElhaney, the first Black woman to serve as president of the Oakland City Council and an advocate for ending gun violence; and Arabella Martinez, founder and first CEO of Oakland’s Unity Council and the force behind the Fruitvale Village project.
They, along with student speakers and President Elizabeth L. Hillman, delivered charges to this special cohort of graduates as they ventured out into the world beyond the Mills campus. Excerpts from some of those remarks follow:
◂Board of Trustees President Katie Sanborn ’83
“Graduates, you are the focus. Your achievements, your friendships, your family, your future. It’s been eight months since Convocation, when you sat in the sun with the hope of the year to come reflecting on your faces. And today, you look just as happy and expectant, if maybe a little tired around the edges for reaching the summit of this path. Now, a new path lies before you. The Mills motto extends well beyond today: You will continue to follow many paths together and separately as you forge your future. The trustees are proud of you for rising to challenges, for persevering, for seeing hope, for celebrating your accomplishments in your disciplines. You now become Mills alums, and I know I speak for other alums on the board that we look forward to sharing these experiences with you. Thank you, Class of 2022, for all you have given to each other and to Mills.”
Senior Student Speaker LJ Miranda ’22▸
“I didn’t come this far only to come this far. None of us did. All of us are going to leave here today and chase our own dreams and passions, and no matter the success rate, we will all leave some mark on the world, just like the 133 classes before us [did]. Mills is not dead. How could it be when there are 134 classes who have graduated and gone into the world, making their own changes and lives and carving a path that led to me standing here today? Mills did not come this far to only come this far. Regardless of how the merger changes the school, every student, every faculty member, every staff member, every alum [who] makes Mills what it is, is carrying a piece of that legacy with them.”
◂Honorary Degree Recipient Lynette Gibson McElhaney
“I’m speaking to a group of resilient people whose stories are different than mine, but many of you are kind of like [me]. We are surviving in COVID, we are grieving in COVID, we are grieving the loss of our beloved community and the things that are familiar. You all who are the last graduating class of Mills as we know it are celebrating with a tinge of grief. And so I just wanted to share with you all what I’ve been learning in this decade of leading while grieving: You’ll take your next step, and you will enjoy your next laugh, because you will be empowered by hope. There’s a word in this hope that makes it active and not passive. Saint Augustine said that hope has two beautiful daughters: one is anger, and the other is courage. Anger at the way things are, and the courage to make sure that they don’t continue as they are.”
Graduate Student Speaker Trinity Wilson, MBA/MA ’22▸
“There are some people here you will learn years later were in the same commencement ceremony with you. It’s understanding that no matter how isolating the pandemic was by isolating us into those little boxes, or how harsh the world was even before that, there have been so many people in the forefront and background creating an experience for us that will last a lifetime. […] So, after today, especially for my master’s students: put that MA, that MBA, that MPP, that MFA, that MM behind your name in your email signature, because I will. No one will be able to strip any of us of what we learned and who we truly are. History taught us that they may try, but they will fail against any one of those who know who they are and where they come from.”
◂Commencement Speaker Jesmyn Ward
“I know you are elated and afraid. I know you are happy and you are sad. I know some of you feel too much for your skin right now. I know some of you are measuring your dreams, calculating them unworthy. I know some of you are silencing your inner voices, packing your true desires away. I know some of you are already weathering hardship, are already unmoored by the sometimes merciless turning of the world. Be still. Listen to your voice, the one that speaks in your darkest nights, that sounds in your coolest mornings. Be very still. Know that your voice is your lantern. Know that your voice is your boat. Know that your voice is that which will bear you up on the sea of grief and loss and change, and that silencing your intuition, your voices, will not spare you the world.”
All photos by Steve Babuljak