Sonya Stephens inaugurated as College’s 19th president

 Photo by Izzy Burgess ’19   Sonya Stephens speaks at the inauguration ceremony, which took place on Sept. 29 in Kendall’s Field House.

Photo by Izzy Burgess ’19

Sonya Stephens speaks at the inauguration ceremony, which took place on Sept. 29 in Kendall’s Field House.

BY EMMA RUBIN ’20

“It’s a tradition,” said Momo Jin ’19. “I mean, this only has happened 19 times in the history of Mount Holyoke.”

On Saturday, Sept. 29, Sonya Stephens was officially inaugurated as the 19th President of Mount Holyoke College.

Jin was one of many in the audience on the day of inauguration, including alumnae, leaders in higher education, faculty, staff, students and the friends and family of Stephens.

The huge curtains and projections of the Mount Holyoke logo, seal and clock tower transformed the stage in Kendall’s Field House into a seemingly elegant space, even with the exercise equipment hovering above in the balcony and the lines on the floor marking tennis courts.

The Five College West African Music Ensemble accompanied the processional of academics, Sonya Stephens following at the end in her custom Mount Holyoke blue gown.

John T. Grayson, Professor Emeritus of Religion, provided the invocation to commence the event. “May the sacred known to us by many names grace this occasion with his ever-present spirit,” he said.

Barbara Baumann ’77, Chair of the Board of Trustees, then officially welcomed everyone to the inauguration. She reflected on the traditions and history of Mount Holyoke while also looking towards the future. “This inauguration asks us to look forward with excited anticipation to the next chapter of this college’s life,” she said.

Rosemary Lloyd, Rudy Professor Emerita of French at Indiana University and an early academic advisor of Stephens, provided remarks. She has known Stephens for 37 years, and joked that Stephens was once very different from the “presidential dignity she exudes now.” Lloyd recalled anecdotes of the times she shared with Stephens at Cambridge University. “In those days I should point out she was known as Sonar because of her ability to pick up rumors and gossip even before it had started,” she said as the crowd laughed.

Lloyd also spoke of Stephens’ interest in discussing unfinished works of art, literature, architecture and more. “She... has so much to give us and tell us that is unfinishable,” she said.

Bingyao Liu ’19 performed two songs on the yangquin, a traditional Chinese instrument which produced soft acoustic sounds before the next set of speakers began.

President of Amherst College Biddy Martin began the greetings on behalf of the Five College Consortium. As President Martin applauded Stephens for equity and inclusion efforts and her humanist scholarship, she also celebrated her more personal qualities. “I love her spirit, I love her big laugh, I love her glasses and I love the prospect of having Sonya Stephens as a colleague,” she said.

Paula Johnson, President of Wellesley College, spoke on behalf of the Seven Sisters. In her speech, she recognized that Mount Holyoke was a direct inspiration for Wellesley’s own founding. “From the start you inspired us, by your example, and you continue to today,” she said.

“Mount Holyoke was and continues to be both a beacon and a touchstone,” she continued, referencing a quote from one of Wellesley’s founders, Henry Durant. “There cannot be too many Mount Holyokes.”

Dame Carol Black, principal of Newham College — one of two women’s colleges in Cambridge University — said, “Here I believe you have a bit of what Cambridge produces.”

The president of the Alumnae Association, Maria Z. Mossaides ’73, said to Stephens, “We look forward to your leadership that will ensure that, in the words of the alma mater, Mount Holyoke forever shall be.”

Adelita Simon ’19, president of the Student Government Association, spoke on behalf of the student body. She reflected on three core identities that she has learned about Stephens and helped her connect with her as a person rather than just an administrator. Stephens was a first-generation college student, is a mother to a son who attends college and was born and raised in England but is now a U.S. citizen. “I challenge you to continue to share your story to students,” Simon said.

Simon also touched on Stephens’ various diversity and inclusion efforts including the BOOM Conference of Spring 2017 and encouraged Stephens to continue this momentum. “I’ve come to love Mount Holyoke for what it is, for what it was and for what I hope it to become,” she said.

Cynthia Legare ’82 continued the greetings, speaking on behalf of the staff. She said that she has a long connection to Mount Holyoke, not only as an alumna, but also through a long line of family members who have worked at the College, including a great grandparent who worked on the staff of Mary Woolley. “The leader of a community sets the tone,” she said, adding that President Stephens has set a tone of “inclusion, innovation and curiosity” for Mount Holyoke.

Professor Amy Martin spoke on behalf of the faculty. “How do we welcome someone who is already such a welcome member of our community?” But she later elaborated, “Welcoming is about fellow feeling and common purpose.”

Baumann then returned with three symbols of the presidency to commence the inauguration proceedings: an original key to Mount Holyoke Female Seminary which had been salvaged from a fire in 1896, Mount Holyoke’s charter, which was approved by the Massachusetts legislature on Feb. 11, 1836, and an official Mount Holyoke seal imprinted on a bronze medallion.

Baumann spoke of the symbolism of each item and handed them to Stephens. Baumann then officially granted her “all of the rights and responsibilities of the presidency of Mount Holyoke College.” The audience applauded in a standing ovation.

“There are many here who have brought me to this moment and place both figuratively and literally,” Stephens said following the ceremony. In her speech, she cited writers like Ta-Nehisi Coates, as well as alumnae and previous faculty, including Ellen Grasso ’40 and Shirley Chisholm.

Stephens laid out her initiatives as the College’s new president, including centering “inclusivity in the fullest way,” and suggesting a new lecture series dealing with anti-racism, anti-discrimination and equity. Stephens also expressed a hope of creating more opportunities for team-taught courses to encourage collaboration among departments. She emphasized pushing towards more sustainable initiatives and environmental education.

Chris Benfey, Professor of English at Mount Holyoke, ended the ceremony by reciting three brief poems by Emily Dickinson, who attended Mount Holyoke from 1847 to 1848. The Glee Club then led the audience in the alma mater before the Five College West African Music Ensemble provided lively beats as those in academic regalia proceeded, following the newly inaugurated President Stephens.

The official ceremony was one of the many events happening throughout the inaugural weekend. As golf carts zoomed around campus and a massive white tent towered over Skinner Green, Mount Holyoke hosted various events, celebrations and a community picnic.

“I love seeing [the alumnae] in their little scarves. It makes it feel like a bigger community,” said Annie Schenck ’19. “I feel like we have a very small, close-knit community as a student body, but things like this, you see, it extends beyond the gates.”

Panels and celebratory dinners greeted guests while students attended a superhero movie double feature at Gettell Amphitheater and a silent discoteque, featuring headphones instead of music out loud, on Pageant Green.

While Schenck admitted that she does not think she has the right credentials to judge Stephens as a potential president, she said that she attended one of the listening sessions with then-Acting President Stephens. The listening session had been limited to five students and each had brought specific notes addressing issues.

“You really get to talk one-on-one with her and one-on-one with other students,” Schenck said, adding that hearing her plans at the listening session was wonderful.

Jin also expressed hope for the future of the college under Stephens, adding, “I think we’re definitely demanding more transparency in the administration and we’re hoping that […] we can be more active and involved in all the things that are happening on campus.”

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