Unforgettable

After Mills’ 134th Commencement, the Quarterly’s departing student assistant looks back on the momentous occasion.

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By Tri-an Cao ’21, MFA ’22

It’s embarrassing to admit, but I was almost late to my own graduation. After waking up early that Saturday morning, I thought I had enough time to get to Mills, except I didn’t anticipate how jampacked the streets around the College would be. Trailing behind an endless line of cars, I barely squeezed my own vehicle past the front gate, already sweating in my full regalia when I drove down gorgeous Richards Road. But even as a commuter student with all the knowledge I had of niche parking spaces on campus, I still couldn’t find a spot. It was as if everyone had come to bear witness.

As soon as I stepped out of my car, I rushed past the noisy crowd of spectators that had gathered around the front of Lisser Hall, and I felt myself drawn to another graduate who was also coming in—an MBA candidate with a Jewish affinity stole.

“Do you know where we’re supposed to line up?” she asked me as we walked side-by-side. I shrugged.

“Maybe? I can’t tell with all these people around,” I confessed. “I’m not used to Mills being this crowded.” My stomach was still in knots, but we shared a smile together.

After we managed to find where everyone else had lined up, that small interaction stuck with me for the next few hours, up until our grand entrance onto Holmgren Meadow. Though there was undoubtedly an undercurrent of bittersweet feelings, as the Class of 2022 walked together to the thunderous applause and cheers of family, friends, and people from near and far, the sheer joy and unity took my breath away. We did it.

That’s what I’ll miss the most about Mills—the camaraderie and moments of connection between us. We may have our own paths, but somehow they crossed here, at a small college tucked away in the heart of Oakland. Maybe you’ve met your lifetime friends and mentors at Mills. Maybe you haven’t kept in touch with your classmates at all. But it’s impossible to deny that Mills has shaped our lives, from moments spent learning in these classrooms, to walking on the scenic paths here. We wouldn’t be the people we are today without these memories.

I understand why a lot of people are cautious about the merger. I’ve seen anger and anxiety from my friends and colleagues who are afraid that Mills could change too much and be unrecognizable, or that there might not be a place for the current faculty and disciplines. To some, it even felt like the administration was out to get us. But like many others, I’m choosing to stay optimistic about the future—an attitude that many of the Commencement speakers shared as well.

“Mills is not dead,” said LJ Miranda ’22, our senior student speaker. “Regardless of how the merger changes the school, every student, every faculty member, every staff member, every alum is carrying a piece of that legacy with them.”

Mills isn’t Mills just because of the buildings or the departments, but because of the people. We’re a gathering of artists, writers, scholars, teachers, and leaders. Despite the changes to the curriculum and the introduction of undergraduate men, we’ll still be Mills. In fact, I’m glad the community is putting into action what we’ve learned here: asking questions, speaking up for ourselves, and supporting one another. Change is necessary to keep this institution running, but so too is continuing our legacy of solidarity and social justice, and remembering the efforts of those before us and those currently here.

One of the last speakers during Commencement struck a deep chord with me. Lynette Gibson McElhaney, a Black activist and former member of the Oakland City Council, received an honorary doctorate of humane letters along with us.

“You all who are the last graduating class of Mills as we know it are celebrating with a tinge of grief. But you’ll take your next step, and you’ll enjoy your next laugh, because you will be empowered by hope,” she said.

Mills may not look exactly the same from here on out, but we can make sure that future students can experience the same kinship and lessons that we learned when we were here at Mills. Five years ago, when I stepped onto campus for the first time, I was a complete stranger. Today, I’m proud to be a graduate of Mills College.