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The 207th Commencement of Emma Willard School

By Melissia Mason
In all ways, the 2020-21 school year was one of challenges and victories. The Class of 2021 rose to those challenges, and enthusiastically celebrated each victory. The 207th Commencement exercises presented an opportunity to finally bring together the Emma Willard School community—students, families, and faculty—to joyfully celebrate the Class of 2021 at the completion of their high school journey.

Head of School Jenny Rao spoke to the class about their remarkable years at Emma, as she also marked the completion of her “senior year” as the school’s leader. Recalling a moment when she gathered with the Class of 2021 during their first year on Mount Ida, she shared, “On that day I asked you to imagine the class you wanted to be and the impact you wanted to have on one another and this community. You have fully realized and even exceeded those aspirations. You have been not only a hard-working and dedicated class, but also a class that is kind to one another—a class that encourages everyone and admires when a classmate is authentically herself and tries something new, something difficult, something that is just outside her reach. You have cheered and encouraged your classmates along, and you’ve been a guiding light and partner to me along the way.”

To mark the milestone, Dawn Riley—world-renowned sailor, speaker, author, commentator, consultant, coach, and mentor—was invited to give the Commencement address to the Class of 2021. As CEO and captain of America True, Dawn was (and remains) the youngest person and only female ever to lead an America’s Cup Challenge. She went on to be the first American, man or woman, to sail in four America’s Cups and two Round the World races. Dawn is a leader for whom the words "look within, see beyond" describe not only her success but her entire life's journey.

Reflecting on the goals she set for herself upon graduating from high school, Dawn shared that her dreams of being an advertising executive in New York City never came to fruition. Instead, she began a career as a professional sailor and raced around the world twice by the time she was 30. “Some of you might know exactly where you want to go,” Dawn said. “Others have a more free-flowing idea.” In sailing, Dawn explained, you have to sail at angles rather than in a straight line to reach your destination. “Try something new, take a step sideways, open your mind, take a risk,” Dawn advises. “Live and sail in the knowledge that life is a learning game—it is a game of making decisions and taking risks. As long as you are moving in the general direction of the mark, you are on course.” Dawn encouraged the graduates to take time to enjoy their journey and move forward with confidence, wishing them godspeed on their journeys.

Following Dawn’s powerful message, Board of Trustees Chair Lisa LeFort ’72 presented the Jameson Adkins Baxter Award to Ami Melville. This honor is given annually to the senior class member who has shown the most growth during her years at Emma Willard and who embodies integrity, discipline, and commitment to education. President of the Alumnae Association Council (AAC) Valerie Gonyea ’82 then presented the Clementine Miller Tangeman Award to Oluchi Amadife. This award is presented annually by the AAC to a senior who best exemplifies a spirit of enthusiasm, dedication, and creativity. (Read more about the award recipients.)

This year’s senior address was delivered by Anna Diefendorf, a Georgia native who has lived  around the world in Bangkok, Kuala Lumpur, and Saudi Arabia before coming to Emma Willard School as a ninth grader. These global experiences shaped her, encouraging her to adopt and nurture an attitude of openness toward others. In introducing Anna, Ms. Rao remarked, “Given her great strength of character, true leadership, and genuine enthusiasm for learning and life, it is no surprise that the Class of 2021 has selected you to address them at this seminal moment in their lives.”

Anna began her address with a land acknowledgement, noting that Mount Ida is situated upon the ancestral and unceded land of the Mohican people. Reflecting on the struggles of the past year, Anna found hope in choosing joy. “Choosing joy isn’t blind optimism,” Anna noted. “It isn’t twisting moments of sadness or pain into a more palatable, happier memory. Choosing joy is the act of taking the good times and the bad times and finding the joy in-between. The COVID-19 pandemic has shown me that even in our times of greatest hopelessness, there is a shared universal joy and hope for the future.” Anna shared moments of finding joy, even as she witnessed how Hurricane Sally ravaged her temporary (due to COVID) home on the Gulf Coast. “I found joy in the way people were kind to one another, and helped each other out,” Anna recalls, “because in spite of all of our differences, joy will keep us alive. There is no force more powerful than being radically joyful in the celebration of life.” Anna went on to note that she has never seen more joy in one place than here at Emma. “To the class of 2021,” Anna said, “you have taught me what it means to be joyous in the face of adversity.” Anna closed with a reading of the poem The Orange by Wendy Cope.

Following the Commencement addresses, Ms. Rao presented each graduate, sharing heartfelt words about each student in turn. As in-person graduates crossed the stage, they received their diplomas from Assistant Head of School Meredith Legg, PhD, and in some cases an alumna family member. The 12 remote students who joined live from around the world were given their diplomas by family members watching alongside them.

After the conferring of diplomas, the Class of 2021 joined the audience in singing the alma mater, the first time that the class has been together to sing it in-person since March of 2020. Dr. Legg shared a parting word of farewell to the graduates as they turned the page on their time at Emma Willard. “Ahead of you are moments of generosity and joy, and moments of deep and profound challenge,” she said, encouraging the new alumnae to draw on their time at Emma Willard “the strength, perseverance, friendship, and revelry” to carry them forward throughout their lives.

We rejoice with the Class of 2021 on their great accomplishments, their steadfastness, their joyful spirits, and their commitment to serve and shape their worlds.


To see photos from Commencement, visit our SmugMug album.
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    • The Class of 2021, led onto inner campus by Mace Bearer and Class of 2022 President Rowan L.

    • (L-R) Valerie Gonyea ’82, Lisa LeFort ’72, and Commencement Speaker Dawn Riley

    • The Clementine Miller Tangeman Award for 2021 goes to Oluchi Amadife

    • The Jameson Adkins Baxter Award for 2021 goes to Ami Melville

    • Anna Diefendorf addresses her classmates

    • Both in-person and remote students (on-screen) had their moment of recognition

    • The Class of 2021 stands to sing the alma mater

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