President's Message

The 134th Mills College Commencement was a triumph for every one of our graduates—some 400, including not only the Class of 2022, but also those who earned degrees in 2020 and 2021, when we did not have in-person ceremonies because of COVID-19—and for the entire Mills College community. Our staff and faculty managed this event, which was the largest on-campus celebration in many years, with care and dignity, despite already being deluged with regular and transition-to-Northeastern work. 

We welcomed an exceptional Commencement speaker, Jesmyn Ward, who captured this poignant moment in Mills College’s history with perfect pitch. Ward is a first-generation college graduate who has achieved the greatest of heights and endured the most difficult of challenges. In 2017, she became the first woman and person of color to win the National Book Award for Fiction twice—joining the ranks of William Faulkner, Saul Bellow, John Cheever, Philip Roth, and John Updike. Her novels, primarily set on Mississippi’s Gulf Coast, are deeply informed by the trauma of Hurricane Katrina. Salvage the Bones, winner of the 2011 National Book Award, is a troubling and empowering tale of familial bonds set amid the chaos of the hurricane; Sing, Unburied, Sing won the 2017 National Book Award, and made clear that the shadows of slavery and Jim Crow remain with all of us. Her memoir, Men We Reaped, deals with the loss of five young men in her life—to drugs, accidents, suicide, and the bad luck that follows people who live in poverty—and was named one of the most outstanding memoirs published since 1969 by The New York Times. If you haven’t yet watched her speech on the commencement video, which is posted on the Mills College YouTube page, I urge you to listen for yourself. 

I closed out the ceremony with a charge to the Class of 2022 by asking Mills’ newest graduates to consider how faith might influence their lives. I reminded them that faith was essential to our founders, Cyrus and Susan Mills. Cyrus Mills graduated from Union Theological Seminary in New York City, and was committed to becoming a Christian missionary. After he married Susan, and after she fulfilled her teaching obligations, they voyaged to what we know today as Sri Lanka. 

The Millses kept their faith despite suffering hardships. Susan Mills was the fifth of eight children, and her mother died when Susan was but 11. Within six months of her arrival in Sri Lanka, she became seriously ill with amebic dysentery; Cyrus contracted the same disease, and their mission was cut short. Soon after, they were informed that the mission itself had been improper, a crushing blow to their sense of purpose. Cyrus soon resigned as a missionary, and Susan was despondent. She thought her weakness had undermined Cyrus’s success. 

As you know, that was not the last chapter in the story of Cyrus and Susan Mills. They traveled to Hawaii and then California, and they founded our beloved institution. But hardship did not leave the Millses. 

When Cyrus died in 1884, it was just before he and Susan could build a cottage for their old age on the knoll where Cyrus and Susan are now buried. Cyrus had suffered an injury that led to the amputation of his right arm, and it was still a half century before the use of antibiotics. 

As Susan Mills grieved the loss of her husband, she was handed the duties of “Lady Principal” during the brief and trying terms of two male presidents who succeeded Cyrus, only to be at last named president herself in 1890, a position she would hold until she retired in 1909. During her 19-year tenure, she took decisive steps to make Mills into what she called “a real college.” Clearly, she triumphed. 

Yet President Susan Mills took office with great doubts. She herself had chosen the third president of the college, and he had proved a disastrous appointment. She had misjudged the character and competence of a leader, and the College suffered as a result. President Mills learned hard lessons from that experience. But she did not lose faith in herself, nor in Mills College. 

I asked the Class of 2022, the last graduating class of the fiercely independent Mills College, to consider the relationship between faith and doubt that shaped Susan Mills’ orientation to the world, to consider if the opposite of faith might not be doubt, nor reason, but rather certainty. 

I noted that feeling uncertain can be a sign of learning something new, or forging ahead despite obstacles, as Susan Mills did. I suggested that accepting uncertainty was essential to growth and creativity. 

I also asked the Class of 2022 to consider using their acceptance of uncertainty, and faith in themselves, to help them keep listening, with openness and compassion, to people with whom they disagree, and to reimagine as possible tasks that seem impossible at the start. I hope that they, and everyone in the Mills College community, can hold fast to the faith that brought Mills to the precipice of another set of monumental, sustaining changes. It will help us, as the inscription on the Wetmore Gate admonishes, to “depart to use in life the joy and truths here found.”