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As she searched for “soaring rhetoric” to share with the 421 members of the Class of 2023 at their graduation, Sally Susman ’84, executive vice president and chief corporate affairs officer at Pfizer, Inc., instead found “a heap of problems, from climate chaos to global unrest to racial and financial inequity” to the lasting effects of a once-in-a-century pandemic.
“We must use all the tools in our toolbox—and some we didn’t even know we had—to break through the noise and clutter to create long-lasting, positive change,” she told the graduates at Connecticut College’s 105th Commencement on Sunday, May 21.
“Together, we must build a better world.”
Susman, the author of Breaking Through: Communicating to Open Minds, Move Hearts, and Change the World, advised the graduates to have the courage for candor, perfect their pitch (“the tenor, word choice and attitude that we bring to every human encounter”), delight with humor, seek harmony, reflect on their choices and honor the lessons learned along the way.
“Connecticut College’s mission is to educate students to put the liberal arts into action as citizens in a global society. I can think of nothing the world needs more,” she said. “Indeed, society needs your help.”
Prior to the keynote address and in honor of her commitment to excellence and innovation in communications and public health advocacy, Susman was awarded an honorary doctor of humane letters honoris causa by Board of Trustee Chair Debo Adegbile ’91, who also gave opening remarks.
The graduates were also addressed by senior speaker Mehin Suleiman ’23, a biochemistry, cellular and molecular biology and Hispanic studies double major and scholar in the Toor Cummings Center for International Studies and the Liberal Arts from McLean, Virginia.
“As we gather here to celebrate our graduation, I am reminded of the powerful force that has brought us all together today: love,” said Suleiman, whose “Black Women Writers” course at Conn introduced them to author and feminist bell hooks and changed their perspective on love.
“This is what hooks taught me: As human beings, we are driven by an inherent desire to unravel the complexity of love. We yearn to comprehend what it truly means to love and be loved, and how we can cultivate love in our own lives. We recognize love’s significance, yet we are constantly confronted by its failures: in our politics, our religious institutions, and even in our personal relationships,” Suleiman said. Yet “it is our instinct toward love that propels us forward, for we hope that, ultimately, love always wins.”
Suleiman concluded, “In a moment as beautiful and memorable as this one, when we are surrounded by those closest to us, I want to remind you that love is not just a personal virtue, but a powerful force for change.”
During the ceremony, the Oakes and Louise Ames Prize for most outstanding honors thesis was awarded to Matthew Hiroshi Yamamoto ’23, a botany major and music minor from San Francisco, California. Yamamoto’s thesis, “Comparing Long-term Patterns of Spread of Native and Invasive Plants in a Successional Forest” used advanced statistical analysis to directly compare patterns of native and invasive plant spread in a developing forest over 70 years and draw important conclusions about invasive plant ecology.
The College awarded the Anna Lord Strauss Medal for outstanding public or community service, including service to the College, to Crystal Hernandez ’23, a sociology; gender, sexuality and intersectionality studies; and Hispanic studies triple major from Houston, Texas. A consummate leader, scholar and changemaker, Hernandez has an extensive history of volunteer and advocacy work addressing issues ranging from women’s equity and empowerment to immigration reform at the campus, local and national levels.
At the conclusion of the ceremony, William Ferguson ’23 and Sophie Hage ’23 sang the “Alma Mater,” with musical accompaniment by the New London Big Band.
Commencement events began earlier in the weekend with the induction of 43 graduating seniors into Phi Beta Kappa, the national academic honor society; a multifaith Baccalaureate service; certificate ceremonies for senior scholars in the College’s centers for interdisciplinary scholarship; a Unity House Stoling Ceremony; and special gatherings for student-athletes, international graduates and Posse scholars.
Now graduates, members of the Class of 2023 are headed around the world to pursue a range of opportunities. One received a Watson Fellowship to travel to Spain, Morocco, Germany, Turkey and Australia to explore the role of language as a form of self-empowerment and cultural pride for refugees building a home in a new country. Three graduates received Fulbright Fellowships to conduct research or teach English in North Macedonia, the Czech Republic and the United Kingdom. Members of the class have been accepted to graduates programs at Harvard, Yale, Oxford, Columbia, Dartmouth, Boston College, Fordham, Temple, Emory, the University of Edinburgh and the University of Connecticut. Others have accepted positions at companies and organizations including Microsoft, Disney, Bank of America, the Marine Biological Laboratory, Legal Aid Chicago, the U.S. House of Representatives and the National Institutes of Health.