Words by Allison Rost • Photos by Ruby Wallau
It goes without saying that the Class of 2023 has had one of the most singular experiences in the history of Mills. Four-year undergraduate students saw their studies interrupted in the second semester of their first year due to the pandemic, learned virtually for the bulk of the next two, and were upended again by the news that Mills would be transitioning to an Institute—and then merging with Northeastern University. The confusion of what came next brought out a level of resilience and tenacity in these students that befitted the activist history of Mills.
And at their joyous Commencement ceremony on April 30, the persistence of this graduating class was on full display with student speaker Edin Woldegebriel Haddis, who earned a degree in psychology. Her higher-ed journey started at a different four-year institution, which she left after taking two leaves of absences for mental-health challenges. But she was determined to “turn things around,” as she put it, and enrolled in City College of San Francisco. She aced all of her classes.
There, one of her English professors—Alisa Messer ’92—introduced her to Mills. “She told me about her experiences here [and] I became interested in attending the school,” Haddis said. “After more research, I knew Mills was the place for me.”
Haddis still faced challenges upon arriving at Mills—quarantine was coming to an end, and she was dealing with the anguish of war in her family’s home region of Tigray in Ethiopia. But she found her footing, becoming a resident assistant and joining the Black Student Collective, and she gave a special shout-out to Assistant Adjunct Professor of Psychology Erin Kinnally. “She made me feel safe and welcome,” Haddis said. “Her class helped me draw connections between the material and the things I was experiencing in real life. She heard me express my pain and gave me the outlet to do so even further.”
Her final charge to her fellow graduates was to use what they learned over the past few years—outside of the classroom just as much as inside—as fuel and motivation: “Don’t forget about these tumultuous times. Instead, use these experiences as tools in all your future endeavors. Draw on the roots you planted, the connections you made, and those who made you feel safe and welcome.”
Haddis was followed by this year’s Commencement speaker, Michèle Nichols Taylor ’88, who serves as the United States ambassador to the United Nations Human Rights Council. She first recalled sitting in the graduates’ seats, noting that her life had not at all turned out the way she thought it would at her Commencement. “There are no straight paths in life—they almost never exist,” she said.
Taylor hoped to be a Rhodes Scholar, but that didn’t happen. Her first attempt at a Ph.D. program in mathematics went sideways when she opted instead to stay in California with the man she eventually married. Her second attempt came up just short—she only needed to defend her dissertation—when she chose instead to focus on her two small children, a decision that drew criticism as anti-feminist. “Many decisions [I] made were formed by obligations to the outside world. It took a lot to give myself permission to take a big fork in my path,” she said. “I thought the whole point in creating opportunities for women and girls in all of our diversity was so we could make our own choices about what we want to do with our lives.”
Her experience with her own mother—a Holocaust survivor, same as her father and grandparents—played a big part in that decision, and it also informed the life’s work she eventually pursued. “I learned early what hate and prejudice can do,” she said, pointing not just to her family’s history but also to the assassination of Harvey Milk in 1978, which opened her eyes to the struggle for gay rights. Nearly 45 years and many campaigns later, Taylor came to the Human Rights Council in 2022 just as Russia invaded Ukraine and the body voted to eject the former from its ranks. She also spoke about the efforts she’s taken in her current role to recognize what’s happening to Uyghur Muslims in China, which has not found success thus far, but she will continue to push.
“Being too measured about doing the right things might mean you don’t do the right things,” she said, before concluding with quotes from Winnie the Pooh and Oscar Wilde.
In all, the ceremony saw the graduation of 152 scholars—88 undergraduates, five certificate earners, 57 master’s candidates, and two new doctorates in education. Even though they received diplomas emblazoned with the Northeastern seal and graduated in different school configurations than in the past, they enjoyed many typical Mills graduation traditions: confetti poppers, a mariachi band, the singing of “Fires of Wisdom,” and recognition of Bent Twigs.