Dolores Huerta selected as commencement speaker

Photo courtesy of Flickr   Dolores Huerta, activist and labor leader, will speak at Mount Holyoke’s Commencement this May.

Photo courtesy of Flickr

Dolores Huerta, activist and labor leader, will speak at Mount Holyoke’s Commencement this May.


Dolores Huerta — a civil rights activist, feminist and labor leader — was announced as the commencement speaker for Mount Holyoke’s 180th Commencement Ceremony this week. Joan Biren ’66 and journalist Kathryn Finney will receive honorary degrees.

“I don’t think we could have a better candidate,” Lenore Reilly, the senior advisor to the president of the College, said. “Dolores has been an incredible champion, beacon and luminary in civil rights.”

Huerta co-founded the National Farm Workers Association and established the Dolores Huerta Foundation. She has led effective consumer boycotts, supported voter registration, lobbied for legislation to improve conditions for Latinx individuals, farm workers, women and children and organized civil disobedience events to draw attention to unfair practices that disadvantage these groups. In 2012, Huerta was awarded with the Presidential Medal of Freedom by President Obama — the highest civilian award in the United States. Among many other awards, Huerta also received the Eleanor Roosevelt Human Rights Award from President Clinton in 1998.

Biren is known for her excellent artistic achievement and political activism. Finney is a tech entrepreneur named by Inc. Magazine as one of the most influential women in tech.

“We wouldn’t settle for speakers who weren’t incredibly accomplished and whose message we didn’t think would profoundly influence the graduates,” Reilly said.

Susan Martin, the special assistant in the president’s office, nodded in agreement. “I’m always amazed by the impressiveness of their work and what they’ve accomplished. They [the speakers] are always a humble and modest bunch.”

Each honorary degree recipient must exhibit three criteria — specific to Mount Holyoke guidelines — to speak at commencement. First, the life and work of the candidate should be recognized in the appropriate field or community as of genuine excellence, distinction and achievement. Second, the recipient should serve as a model for the graduating class and an inspiration to the College community as a whole. Last, the candidate should be characterized by integrity and by commitment to the humanitarian values at the core of Mount Holyoke’s education mission.

“Because we have such a clear set of criteria, we haven’t ever had a commencement speaker who wasn’t really stellar in their field,” said Reilly.

The Honorary Degree Committee tends to stick with three speakers due to the number of graduates. Huerta, Biren and Finney will each receive a Doctor of Humane Letters. Reilly said that this isn’t easily given away, because the award certifies that person by deeming them as the “very best of what we value at this institution.”

As graduation festivities unfold, the selection process for finding speakers begins for the next year. Martin said they have to start a year in advance.

Right after commencement, a message goes out to faculty and the trustees asking them to nominate people for an honorary degree and to consider whether some of the nominations would make good speakers. The request also goes out to class officers. The senior class submitted its nominations by Aug. 15, 2016.

Juliet Martone ’17, president of the 2017 class board, and Azulina Green ’17, vice president of the 2017 class board, served as the student representatives for the Commencement Committee. Their role was to acquire nominations from their class for speakers who they thought would “resonate with the community and inspire the seniors as we move into the global community,” explained Martone. Seniors filled out polls and submitted nomination suggestions.

On Sept. 13, 2016 the Commencement Committee met with representatives from the Advancement Office, Confer- ence Committee, faculty from each divi- sion, administration, board of trustees, students and also a phoned-in spokes- woman from the Alumnae Association.

This representative group of the entire MHC community convened to decide on a potential list of who they would ask to speak for the 2017 Commencement. At this meeting, Martone and Green advocated for the potential speakers suggested by the senior class and wrote biographies for each of them.

In addition to choosing candidates, the Commencement Committee must also consider spreading the speakers across the academic fields. The Committee is sworn to secrecy and all deliberation regarding nominations is confidential. Once the lineup is complete, the selection is announced first to the senior class. Then, the Office of Communications and Marketing shares the news with the rest of campus.

After the meeting, the President’s Office reaches out to potential speakers, which, according to Reilly, “takes a while, because it’s a stop-and-go kind of process.”

Reilly enjoys talking to the speakers during the vetting process and making their arrangements for the ceremony.

“You make connections for a lifetime,” Reilly said.

Reilly started working for Mount Holyoke in 2003, but the College’s commencement history dates back to the first speaker, Joe Hawes, in 1838.

Since 1838, a wide variety of speakers have continued to offer uplifting stories, wisdom and advice for the future as diplomas are given to graduating classes in their black caps and gowns. Until the early 1900s, there weren’t any female speakers at the College’s commencement ceremonies. By the mid-1950s, more and more female speakers were represented. Some of the most notable speakers include: William Howard Taft in 1921, Maya Angelou in 1987, Madeleine Albright in 1997 and Judy Blume in 2003.

Mount Holyoke has had a diverse selection of commencement speakers throughout the years, including doctors, the founder of the Posse Foundation, an advisor to the Ford Foundation’s President, Iranian writers, philosophers, the former female President of Ireland, the CEO and Co-Founder of Tech For All, a legal affairs correspondent for NPR, American writers, Canadian politicians, a Jordanian Queen, playwrights, screenwriters, a former vice president of Bryn Mawr College. Other speakers included journalists, Pulitzer-Prize winning opinion columnists for the New York Times, the first African American female president of Spelman College, peace activists, women's suffrage supporters, state representatives, the 27th President of the United States, the first woman to become the United States Secretary of State and many more.

"Years ago I was responsible for arranging a princess from Saudi Arabia," Reilly added with a grin.

Although Dolores Huerta isn't a princess, Juliet Martone couldn't say enoughabout how much she thinks this year's speaker will resonate with the MHC community. 

"I think Dolores [is] incredibly timely, and will resonate with what's going on in our politically charged climate right now and the uncertainty of times to come,"said Martone. "I think she's a staple of integrity and hard work and the pillars of what our students value. I think most of all she'll be very inspirational for us to keep going forward and advocating for ourselves and our community."

Martone has looked forward to the traditions of the Mount Holyoke graduation since her first year on the class board. She explains that traditions like canoe sing and final M&C's"are the things that make people excited and reminds us why we chose this school."

Taking part in the graduation activities, in its many stages, makes it easier for Martone to face her nostalgia about graduating and makes commencement less overwhelming. 

"We are entering the process of planning all of these events. It'll be a jam packed week of one tradition after another that I don't think any student would want to miss. It's a culminating week for seniors to enjoy some final memorable moments together before we," she said as she fanned her face as she smiled,"before we walk the stage."