Sonya’s story: From working-class roots to Cambridge University

Graphic by Anjali Rao-Herel ’22

Graphic by Anjali Rao-Herel ’22

BY MADELINE FITZGERALD ’21

This is the first in a two-part series on Sonya Stephens, Mount Holyoke’s newly appointed 19th president.

Warm. Kind. Funny. Aloof. Deceptive. Racist. In her three-year tenure as acting president of Mount Holyoke, a myriad of descriptors have been thrown at Sonya Stephens. She is alternatively depicted as a kindhearted academic striving for diversity and a closed-off fundraiser known among students for her perceived insensitivity. The Board of Trustees appointed her to the presidency with “unanimous enthusiasm” but her inauguration was sparsely attended, with fewer than 50 students present.

The chatter of gossip accompanying any mention of Stephens seemed incongruous with the peaceful, ornate conference room where she met with a Mount Holyoke News correspondent on a rainy September afternoon. She was swathed in turquoise clothing, matching her signature glasses and contrasting with her fair skin and straw-colored hair. Stephens exudes a professorial energy that makes it seem as though she is meant to be in a college setting. She punctuates her sentences with the word “right” and uses emphatic hand gestures when speaking that make it easy to imagine what it would be like to sit in one of her classes. Nothing about her demeanor seemed out of place with the oriental carpets, hardwood floors and oversized portraits of past Mount Holyoke presidents. But Stephens will be the first to tell you that her journey from the United Kingdom to the gates of Mount Holyoke was far from conventional.

Stephens was born in London to a working-class family but she was raised in what she describes as “a big industrial town.” While there was “an unspoken expectation” that she would attend college, her parents had both left school at 16 to begin working. Later, her father returned to school to earn a bachelor’s degree, but her childhood was defined by her working-class heritage.

Her parents were the first in her family to have jobs that could be considered white-collar — her father joined the civil service and worked his way up the ranks, while her mother became a primary school teacher in later years. Previous generations toiled in factories, with one of her grandmothers running away from home to escape a life in the mills.

“I was not from a tradition of education,” Stephens said. “I was from a working-class background. My dad was told by his father that he would never own his own home,” she said. “The expectations of getting out your social circumstances were thought to be predetermined.” It was from these circumstances that a strong work ethic and the desire for independence became strongly rooted in Stephens’ character.

“I did a paper-round, I was probably 12 or 13. I rode probably five miles a day on a bike, morning and night. It was a big deal for me to be away from my family doing something that was self-determining,” she said.

As a little girl she had a set of children’s stories called Ladybird Books; the specific series she read was about great figures in history. Of the 31 people featured, only two were women. One was Queen Victoria, whose royal status was unattainably different from that of a granddaughter of mill workers. The other was Florence Nightingale. The combination of compassion and intellectualism displayed by Nightingale during the Crimean War inspired Stephens and motivated her for much of her childhood.

Raised during a turbulent time in British politics, Stephens grew accustomed to frequent miners’ strikes which led to power cuts. During these power outages, her family would spend the evenings inside their self-powering trailer. During the days, however, Stephens was an adventurous, sociable girl. Her parents would read, but her house was not full of books. Instead, Stephens said she “grew up hanging out in the streets.” Wherever she went, on vacation or at home, Stephens would make friends, but also cause trouble as a self-described class clown. “I was not a good student at school. I was a bad student. I was badly behaved,” she said.

As an adolescent, Stephens had two experiences which changed the course of her life. The first: her parents decided that they wanted to change careers and run a hotel together. This venture was unrealistic in her industrial hometown, where few tourists ventured. Her family moved when she was 15, which led to her changing schools and leaving her poor academic reputation behind. Right before she left, however, she had a second stroke of luck: a school exchange trip to France that would change her life forever.

“I fell in love with France and with French,” she said. “For me, this was my first real exposure to difference. You discover yourself through exposure to difference.” Sitting on the coach back from France, Stephens vowed that she would one day speak the language fluently.

Already three years behind on studying French, she borrowed the previous years’ textbooks from friends in an effort to catch up on her new-found passion. “All the music we would listen to in the parties in France — I would sit and try to work out the lyrics to the songs so that I could then work out the structures of the language,” she said.

She would turn the words over in her head, the music, the people and the sounds of France, over and over again. Stephens applied and was admitted to New Hall College, a women’s college that is part of the University of Cambridge. She was awarded a full grant to cover her school tuition and an additional maintenance grant to cover food and necessities that her parents could not otherwise afford.

In Stephens’ memory, the university took a chance on her — a bad student from a background dramatically different from that of the university that had educated so many great leaders, artists and scientists in human history. But her longtime mentor Rosemary Lloyd described an entirely different girl when giving remarks at Stephens’ inauguration.

Lloyd first met Stephens when interviewing the then 17-year-old for a spot at Cambridge. Stephens was intelligent and enthusiastic, with a keen sense of humor and a brilliant wit. Lloyd remembered thinking Stephens was “destined for graduate study.” For her part, Stephens was confident in one thing, “Having been given that opportunity, I was not going to waste it; I’d wasted every other opportunity. I didn’t feel as though I belonged [at Cambridge.]” she said. “I didn’t feel as though I’d succeed.”

According to Lloyd, Stephens’ nickname at Cambridge was “Sonar” because she knew all the gossip and rumors about her classmates. She was always playing pranks on students and faculty. Stephens recounted having mugs and coffee so her classmates could always visit. “I was the person whose room people hung out in; I was the sociable one! I was not in for a lot of parties, I liked the kind of searching conversations you have in college,” she said.

It was during these years at a school not dissimilar from Mount Holyoke that Stephens found her place. Many of her memories could be interchangeable with those of a Mount Holyoke student.

She stayed up all night writing essays and reading books; she felt as though she had to work twice as hard to catch up with everyone else. But she loved the relationships she had with the faculty and her peers in the setting of a small women’s college. She appreciated the ways in which students could develop socially and intellectually to be who they truly are away from typical social norms. And she sees that same environment at Mount Holyoke. “I would’ve loved to go to Mount Holyoke,” she said. “When I came through the gates I had that feeling of coming home and I didn’t realize that was a cliche.”

Part Two of this series, which covers Sonya Stephens’ rise through academia and the controversies of her presidency, will be in the next edition of the Mount Holyoke News on Oct. 18.

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