Emma Willard School honored academic excellence and exemplary citizenship in the Class of 2021, as well as extraordinary faculty service at Honors Convocation on Friday, April 23. Head of School Jenny Rao opened saying, “We are proud of our honorees, and so aware that their successes tell the larger story of a strong, vibrant, and supportive student body and educational community.”
Ivyann S. ’23 provided a musical interlude, Winter Wind Étude (Op. 25, No. 11) by Frédéric Chopin, as a prelude to the convocation address delivered by Joshunda Sanders ’96.
Leading In The After Times
by Joshunda Sanders ’96
Good morning and congratulations on your distinction.
I wish I could be there with you in a socially distanced manner, mostly out of selfish nostalgia for the dusty smell of Kellas, the spring light falling all around us while some of us smirk to ourselves at singing our alma mater off key.
When I think of my time at Emma, I most remember the smell of the grass and the trees in springtime, the way the light fell on the gargoyles, the dusty scent of the stacks in the library.
I also had a habit some of my classmates wrinkled their noses at—eating slices of cinnamon raisin bread with butter and cheese in those lovely dining rooms.
But the first time I felt real pride in myself and my accomplishments as a young woman was being honored at Honors Convocation, so it is truly an honor and feels like coming full circle to have the privilege of speaking to you all these years later (almost 25 years) about that journey.
What I most want to say to you is that what you have done and are being honored for is, in an ordinary time, still quite extraordinary.
But to have achieved what you have and distinguished yourself in this way as we have all navigated as best we could the collective grief and shock of a historic pandemic is astounding.
It means that you have managed to continue to achieve with excellence with even greater distractions and distress than any who came before you. That is a significant feat.
What I most wish for you in the wake of this feat, and your accomplishments and achievements, is to really spend some time (during this ceremony, over the next six months, whenever you get to it, really) appreciating yourself and being proud of yourself. Women are often penalized for being openly, unapologetically proud of ourselves. But we deserve that, and much more.
I don’t really operate in the realm of regret, but if I did, one real regret that I have is that I did not really learn to celebrate myself in a real way until I was much older.
I came to Emma as a sophomore in 1994; a scholarship student, funded by A Better Chance, raised by a single mother with mental illnesses from the Bronx. And when I arrived, it felt like I was on another planet, beautiful and nurturing as it turned out to be. It was the first time I would have three meals a day on a regular basis; where I fell asleep to the sounds of crickets and birds (or somebody blasting Phish) instead of sirens and loud music.
As far as I was concerned, I did not belong at Emma. Not at first.
But I also didn’t belong back home anymore, not once I had met my Emma sisters, and been taught by the likes of the teachers I had like Kathleen McNamara and Trudy Hamner or Jack Betterly, may he rest in peace. These were my bright lights, my champions. They told me, explicitly and through their assignments, that the strength of my mind and my devotion to writing would be the hallmarks of my success if I remained committed. Their help, the help of so many others, the guidance, the encouragement, the support—all of that, plus a lot of luck and opportunity and very hard work helped me climb the mountain of my dreams.
But I came from nothing. I am not a legacy girl. There was no wealth for me to inherit. I am the first in my family to have graduated from a four-year college—Vassar, where so many Emma women have attended—and because I learned to lead and shine regardless of whether I really, truly believed in myself or not when I was at Emma, I went to Vassar and kicked some serious butt, too.
That’s where I continued to volunteer as I had with Planned Parenthood as an escort when I was at Emma; at Vassar, I volunteered with the Green Haven Prison Pre-Release program. And I began writing about that experience for the school paper, which would lead to a decade-long career in newspapers and magazine writing. That led to books, teaching and speaking.
It will lead to much more. But all of that began and emerged, really, from a decision that I made about what I would do with the extraordinary trauma and grief that shaped my early life. Would I let it determine my fate, or would I be the one to determine it?
You know the answer to that because I’m speaking to you today. You have made a similar choice. It’s one of the other things we have in common.
Like all Emma Graduates, what that means is that you are the leader of your life, and a great one at that. It makes you absolutely poised to lead in the After Times. To imagine what others may deem impossible because you have already fashioned excellence despite personal moments of despair and fatigue.
I salute you. I admire you. I am so very, very proud of you. Congratulations on your achievement. I can’t wait to see what you do next.
Following the address, Esther Dettmar, PhD, chair-elect of the Emma Willard chapter of the Cum Laude Society, introduced the Cum Laude honor, given on the basis of impressive, consistent, and diverse achievements. Ms. Rao read citations for this year’s Cum Laude candidates: Caroline A., Oluchi A., Amy C., Lucy C., Amanda L., Magdalena M., Irene N., Rachel S., Juliette S., Carol W., and Coco W.
Dean of Students and Wellbeing Shelley Maher then introduced the E.W. Award, given to a small number of seniors who are nominated by teaching faculty, resident faculty, administration and the senior class. This award recognizes and commends the exemplary citizenship of the following students, whose citations were read by Ms. Rao: Caroline A., Oluchi A., Eleanor A., Nseya H., Annabelle M., Magdalena M., Emma R., Sarah S., Grace W., and Natasha W.
Ms. Maher continued by making a special presentation to Athletics Director Liz Parry. In recognition of her 37 years of service to Emma Willard School, the lower athletic field will be named in her honor.
Ms. Rao continued by introducing our most prestigious faculty award, the Madelyn Levitt and Linda Glazer Toohey Award for Faculty Excellence. "While our faculty have many assigned roles, their informal roles as mentors and advocates are equally important," Ms. Rao explained. Assistant Head of School Meredith Legg, PhD then read this year's citation, which honored Mathematics Instructor Alexandra Schmidt.
In closing, a slide show of student honorees was played during the Alma Mater.