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The 208th Commencement of Emma Willard School

By Melissia Mason
The 208th Commencement exercises were filled with joyful moments after four years of tumultuous changes, both globally and in our individual lives. The Emma Willard School community—students, families, faculty, staff, and alumnae—came together to celebrate the Class of 2022 at the completion of their high school journey.
Head of School Jenny Rao began the ceremony by commending the senior class for being faithful stewards of Emma Willard School’s traditions. “You are the only class in our community right now that knows Emma Willard prior to the pandemic,” she began. “You know the Emma Willard experience rich in traditions and close connections, before distancing and masks required us to alter our practices and our ability to be with one another. From the moment you took on the mantle of leadership this year, you took it upon yourselves to be the guardians and role models of our special community.”

Joining Ms. Rao on the platform were Chair of the Board of Trustees Lisa Allen LeFort ’72, former Chair of the Board of Trustees Susie Hunter ’68, President of the Alumnae Association Council Valerie Gonyea ’82, esteemed guest speaker and author Mónica Guzmán, and Assistant Head of School Dr. Meredith Legg.

The platform party gathered in Lyon-Remington just prior to the ceremony. Left to Right: former Chair of the Board of Trustees Susie Hunter ’68, President of the Alumnae Association Council Valerie Gonyea ’82, Chair of the Board of Trustees Lisa Allen LeFort ’72, Head of School Jenny Rao, guest speaker Mónica Guzmán, Assistant Head of School Dr. Meredith Legg.

Recalling the bold and courageous Emma Hart Willard, whose ideas formed the foundation of the Emma Willard School we now cherish, Ms. Rao recognized that same pioneering spirit in the Class of 2022. Addressing this extraordinary class, she remarked, “Seniors, you have accomplished a tremendous amount while at Emma. Together, you have been change makers and community builders. Together, you have provided support and inspiration to all of us. Class of 2022, individually you are strong; together you are unstoppable!”

Mónica Guzmán—bridge builder, journalist, entrepreneur, and author of I Never Thought Of It That Way: How To Have Fearlessly Curious Conversations in Dangerously Divided Times—was welcomed to the podium as our special guest speaker for the unstoppable Class of 2022. With an enthusiastic greeting to the graduates, Ms. Guzmán invited the audience to imagine themselves at a series of tables. 

The first table—a round table in Kellas Dining Hall—was one where we gather together in close conversation. “Conversation is so much more than a chat,” she offered. “It is the glue that holds us, each of you, and your whole world together… it’s a never-ending opportunity.” She challenged the group to take that opportunity for conversation every chance they get. “Have more adventurous conversations than you know what to do with,” she encouraged, “because they—more than books and news and travel—will bring you the world.”

Recalling her childhood experiences of watching the adults in her family take part in sobremesa—conversation “over the table” that follows a meal—Ms. Guzmán described how these moments could be filled with both joy and discomfort. “I remember feeling the heat of the conversation rise and noticing that it wasn’t burning us, but fueling us,” she recalled of one night of extended discussion with her friends. Ms. Guzmán explained that what matters most in the sobremesa is not the weaving together of thoughts, but the weaving together of people. “Rich, unpredictable conversations like these happen so often around tables, around meals,” she said. “The food nourishes our bodies and the connections nourish our souls.”

In a time where connections between people seem frayed and fractured, Ms. Guzmán observed that people are losing connections, curiosity, and even hope. Across these divides, people have become distrustful and hostile, judging each other more while engaging with each other less. “Throughout your lives, you will group easily and beautifully with people who agree with you,” she explains with a warning. “But people who share your instincts will also share your blindspots. That’s why, to be useful and alive, your perspectives must be in some conversation with different perspectives. If you want moments of clarity in all this confusion you will have to give yourself that friction. To ‘rub and polish your brains against those of others,’ to borrow some lovely phrasing from French philosopher Michel de Montaigne. Otherwise, you get stuck in your assumptions, those false certainties that guide and plague you.”

Ms. Guzmán closed her thoughts with this hope for the graduates: “Today you take off into the deep rich mysteries of your own lives. You’ll say goodbye to each other, to those round dining hall tables that nourished you body and soul, and move toward so many new and different friends and rivals, tables and truths. When the world tempts you to make speeches, I hope that first, you’ll have lots of conversations. That you turn up the heat. And that they fuel something wonderful we never saw coming.”

Following Ms. Guzmán’s powerful message, Board of Trustees Chair Lisa LeFort ’72 presented the Jameson Adkins Baxter Award to Charlotte Hobbs. 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 Taylor Stein. 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 here.)

This year’s senior address was delivered by Sanari Ismail, whose acute awareness of needs all around us and deep investment in social justice has drawn the Emma community into opportunities to make a difference for the better. Ari began her talk acknowledging the history of Emma Willard School, from its beginnings as a place where many women would receive deep and meaningful education for the first time, through the time of suffrage, and up until today. “We have come very far, and there is always room for improvement,” Ari shared, “but as a school, we have evolved into the fostering, aware, adaptable environment that I consider a second home.”

In a nod to the white attire graduates wear for Commencement, Ari described the fabric of this senior class: “We have worked tirelessly on the school’s gender inclusive language and policies, advocated for mental health awareness, and introduced the idea of peer counseling. We have worked to make our school more sustainable, written plays and novels that tackled issues teens face, and reinvented a blatantly culturally appropriative character in Revels. We have illuminated racial injustices in school-wide assemblies, tutored refugee children, radicalized queerness, and dared to be our authentic selves. We have fought and supported, laughed and cried, created and destroyed, succumbed and overcome, mourned and celebrated, fallen and gotten up, learned and taught. We have lived. We’ve taken the white we are adorned with today and made it a symbol of our open-mindedness, our quiet strength, our hope, our goodness. We have reclaimed this simple color as a canvas of our diversity and originality.” In her remaining remarks, Ari described the brushstrokes of legacy that the Class of 2022 leaves behind on their canvas.

Following the Commencement addresses, Ms. Rao presented each graduate, sharing heartfelt words about each student in turn. Graduates received their diplomas from Assistant Head of School Meredith Legg, PhD, and in some cases an alumna or faculty family member. 

After the conferring of diplomas, the Class of 2022 joined the audience in singing the alma mater. Dr. Legg shared parting words to the graduates in the form of two quotes: First, the words of the great philosopher, Winnie-the-Pooh, as written by A.A. Milne, “How lucky I am to have something that makes saying goodbye so hard.” And second, in the words of Rumi, the 13th century Persian poet, “Goodbyes are only for those who love with their eyes. Because for those who love with heart and soul there is no such thing as separation.”

We rejoice with the Class of 2022 on their great accomplishments, their unstoppable spirits, and their commitment to serve and shape their worlds. We look forward to enjoying sobremesa with you all again soon!

To view the event in its entirety, visit to access our live feed archive. View more photos on SmugMug (NOTE: professional photography will be added to the album at a later date).
    • Class of 2022 Officers lead the processional, behind mace bearer Meli N. '23

    • Charlotte Hobbs received the Jameson Adkins Baxter Award

    • Taylor Stein was awarded the Clementine Miller Tangeman Award

    • Following the ceremony, the class processed around senior triangle

    • Faculty were the first to greet the new alumnae, led by Wearer of the Red Hat Liz Parry (the longest-tenured faculty member)

    • Families gathered for long-awaited photo opportunities following the ceremony

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Honoring its founder’s vision, Emma Willard School proudly fosters in each young woman a love of learning, the habits of an intellectual life, and the character, moral strength, and qualities of leadership to serve and shape her world.
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