Marking many firsts: Commencement 2024

Mount Holyoke’s one hundred and eighty-seventh Commencement was marked by many firsts — the first held on Pageant Green, the first Commencement with President Danielle R. Holley and, for many undergraduates, their first in-person graduation.

On May 19, 2024, Ƶapp celebrated its one hundred and eighty-seventh Commencement, hailing milestone achievements for 407 undergraduates, 34 graduate students and three international certificate recipients. The ceremony marked a waypoint for students: the end of their Mount Holyoke journeys and the beginning of their next chapters.

It was also an event marked by many firsts — the first graduation held on Pageant Green, the first Mount Holyoke Commencement with President Danielle R. Holley and, for many undergraduates, their first in-person graduation, as many of the students finished high school during the COVID-19 pandemic.


Before graduates marked the end of their time at Mount Holyoke, there was fun to be had. The days preceding Commencement were bursting with tradition, and one of the largest — and loudest — was the Laurel Parade. This year’s parade, held on Saturday, May 18, welcomed the class of 2024 into the ranks of alums and honored alums returning to campus for their reunions.

Wearing white and bedecked with scarves and, in some cases, hip wraps in their class colors, alums held up signs touting their classes’ quirkiest milestones. “Swinging into our 70s, we’ve still got the moves!” read one sign from the class of 1974. Signs from the class of 1999 proclaimed, “We can’t remember what we ate for lunch yesterday!” and “We were the first class to have email access in our rooms!” Not to be outdone, the class of 2022’s sign declared, “Mead Hall was struck by lightning just before senior year!”

Ethel Ackley ’49 was amazed that Commencement would be held on Pageant Green. “That was a nice little hill we used to ski down, roll down and sled,” she said. “Lower Lake was a little lake in the woods.”

She added, “I would love to come back [as a student] now if I didn’t have to take exams and write papers.”

Prologue to the event

The Commencement ceremony was held on the following day. Families filed onto Pageant Green, calculating which seats would be best to cheer on their graduates. Harold Washington, father of Helen Washington ’24, from Towson, Maryland, was in awe of his student’s journey.

“I’m excited,” he said. “Watching the evolution of her becoming a young adult — it’s a beautiful experience.”

At the same time, faculty were donning regalia in the Marion Craig Potter ’49 Atrium of Kendade Hall.

“I have two students in particular that I’ve mentored and have worked closely with that will be graduating today,” said Assistant Professor of Sociology Ayca Zayim. “I’m very proud of them, frankly, and I think they will do great things!”

Marsha K. Allen FP’10, assistant professor of Earth science, had some final advice for the class of 2024.

“Make a plan and pursue the goal that you have,” she said. “And even if you fail at it, try again, and make a new plan.”

Students gathered and made last-minute adjustments to their caps and gowns in the Art Building.

Ashley Marte ’24 from New York City had strong feelings as she prepared for the event.

“I’m excited — I’m pretty emotional,” she said, noting that when she graduated high school, she didn’t have an in-person ceremony. “It’s nice to get the real thing. I’m so proud of where I am now and the person that I’ve become over the last four years here.”

Pomp and circumstance

Speakers addressed the class of 2024, sharing words of wisdom, inspiration and advice for the future.

Karena Strella ’90, the outgoing chair of the Board of Trustees, was blunt with the graduates. “We need you,” she said. “The world needs people who don’t believe in the binary — everything is a spectrum, everything is nuanced. In that nuance is the beauty and the path forward.”

“A reminds us ‘You don’t make progress by standing on the sidelines … You make progress by implementing ideas.’”

President Holley was next at the podium. She started by thanking Strella for her service as the board chair as well as thanking incoming chair Sally Durdan ’81.

“Commencements are joyous occasions with a tinge of bittersweet,” she said. “Today is no different — it is the graduation many of you and your families have been waiting eight years for.”

“Mount Holyoke and the world have gone through some tumultuous times over the past four years. We have weathered a global pandemic. We have seen landmark Supreme Court rulings that have rolled back reproductive and racial justice advances. We continue to navigate a heated geopolitical atmosphere,” she continued. “And on campus, we have literally been struck by lightning! And of course, we’ve experienced a number of leadership transitions, including three presidents in your four years.”

Holley encouraged the class to stay connected with each other, College staff and faculty and the Mount Holyoke community.

“Passion. Compassion. Bold curiosity. Gratitude. Keep these in your hearts and as a guide as you move forward,” she said. “Remember that your liberal arts education has equipped you with the ability to recognize complexity, develop nuanced views and work with others to solve problems. It’s a skill set our world sorely needs, and I urge you to keep your skills sharp.”

The student speaker was Mackenzie (Mack) Windus ’24. She reminded the audience about the growth that comes from simple moments and the importance of living in the moment.

“Together, we can hold onto the memories, and they will hold onto us, no matter where we find ourselves after today,” she said. “I can’t help but smile when I think about how far each and every one of you will go from here. As we step into the next chapter of our lives, let’s treat each moment as the gift it is, live it to the fullest and collect raw moments to build lasting memories.”

Fighting disease with artificial intelligence

The guest speaker and honorary degree recipient was Suchi Saria ’04. Saria is a widely recognized academic scholar and scientist whose research originated the development of breakthrough next-generation medical tools that use artificial intelligence to dramatically improve the ability to detect diseases earlier and make treatment delivery more precise. The algorithms she created are used today in hospitals to predict which patients are at high risk for sepsis with startling accuracy.

She began her journey into using artificial intelligence to create proactive care in 2008 when she was at Stanford University. She saw new ways to use the data hospitals collected on babies to forecast which infants might be at risk of complications. Physicians, hospital leaders and medical researchers dismissed her idea.

Saria persevered, saying, “Every time someone said ‘no,’ I tried to understand the ‘why.’”

By 2015, Saria was at Johns Hopkins University. Her lab published multiple papers on how this method could work in various disease areas, such as Parkinson’s and sepsis. Then, tragedy struck.

In a voice thick with emotion, she told the graduating class, “I lost my nephew to sepsis.” The most effective treatment for sepsis is early detection — “An hour can mean the difference between life and death,” she said.

In response, she stopped writing papers, hired a team and worked for more than a year building a system that the entire hospital could use. Only two doctors used it after it launched.

“I was shattered,” she told the audience.

“Accept the fact that there will be totally unanticipated problems that you will have no skills for, no intuition for, and you’ll have to figure it out,” Saria said. “This is how all hard things get done. If you embrace the unexpected, you will get there.”

Today, the system is being used by thousands of doctors nationwide. “But we’re only at the beginning. We celebrate every life saved,” she said.

“Mount Holyoke gave me the space to think, many non-judgemental sounding boards and my very own cheering squad,” she concluded.

After these wise words from peers and honorands, the class of 2024 listened to the choir sing the , crossed the stage to receive their degrees and moved the tassels on their mortarboards from one side to the other — ready to turn the page and begin their next chapter, secure in the knowledge that Mount Holyoke forever shall be.


Emily Thurlow and Joshua Powers contributed to this story.


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