Lesley’s graduating class of 446 seniors heard inspiring messages from National Teacher of the Year Sydney Chaffee and Artists for Humanity founder Susan Rodgerson.
Lesley Trustees Chair Deborah Schwartz Raizes (Class of ’69) gave a brief welcome address, followed by remarks from President Jeff A. Weiss, presiding over his first Lesley University commencement.
“Congratulations to each of you,” said President Weiss. “You should be proud of yourselves and you should be proud of each other, as we are certainly proud of you.”
Weiss also gave a special shout-out to one graduating senior who couldn’t attend the ceremony — Mike Slaby, a slugging member of the baseball team, who was competing in the NCAA Division III Mid-Atlantic Tournament.
Honorary degree recipient Susan Rodgerson: A wonderful life
Susan Rodgerson, whose Boston-based nonprofit youth development organization Artists for Humanity offers young people transformative opportunities through paid work in art and design, earned a fine art diploma in 1979 from Lesley’s College of Art and Design (then the Art Institute of Boston), whose graduates she addressed. She was introduced by Associate Dean of Academic Affairs Kristina Lamour Sansone, an associate professor of design.
“Under your leadership, these youths complete nearly 800 custom design projects annually, engaging them in all aspects of the art world with small and large business clients,” said Sansone. “Your vision continues to inspire developing and professional artists to realize a much more expansive set of possibilities for themselves and for some of the most vulnerable youth in our communities.”
Rodgerson showed a video created by her organization on the Blue Hills Bank Pavilion jumbo screens. The short video included interviews with young people who gained confidence through their art, were able to sell their work (which was eye-opening for them) and advance their education and careers in other ways.
“An artist’s life is a wonderful life,” Rodgerson said, adding that her art career was informed by “a passion for people, a passion for making things out of nothing.”
In the video, many of the subjects talked about the “empowerment” art can bring, a theme repeated throughout, including by one young man who was the first in his family to attend college.
“People can think they’re powerless to change the world,” added another young man in the video, “but as an artist, you feel empowered.”
“Young people hungry for the opportunity to have a voice,” Rodgerson said in the video.
Sydney Chaffee ’07: ‘You have what it takes to create the world that you want’
Though she has achieved the remarkable distinction of 2017 National Teacher of the Year, even Sydney Chaffee has moments when self-doubt creeps in. As she returned to her alma mater to address the Class of 2017, her message to today’s graduates was to vanquish their insecurities and to step out of their comfort zones. She was introduced by Professor Marjorie Wechsler.
“The only way you can lose is if you surrender to the voices that tell you you’re not good enough,” said Chaffee, who earned her M.Ed. in 2007, and addressed graduates from the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences.
Chaffee, a ninth-grade teacher who is chair of the humanities department at Codman Academy Charter Public School in Boston, recalled a trip she took to Utah in 2010 during which she and other educators were doing a cliff-jump team building activity along the Colorado River.
“The guide said to me, ‘Step off the cliff,’” she recalled. “A crunchy, bearded man – who liked to wake up early and do yoga in the wilderness – said to me, ‘Trust the ropes.’”
Then, her foot slipped, and she plummeted, shrieking and anticipating her demise. Even though she was secured by a harness and ropes, this activity was out of her comfort zone.
“Things in my danger zone are in other people’s comfort zones,” she said. Whereas Chaffee’s growth zone is addressing thousands of graduates and their families, she noted, “which would send other people screaming.” “Our zones are completely subjective. And they change all the time.”
Similarly, her school in Boston takes their students on an annual wilderness retreat in New Hampshire, where the starry sky and forest noises during a night hike are initially frightening.
“They hang on to each other and hiss, ‘It’s too quiet,’” said Chaffee. “The next year, they look forward to it. Their comfort zones expand.”
Push through these moments of discomfort, she urged, and embrace vulnerability in the service of learning something new.
“In my life, I found myself at the edge of cliffs like that one again and again, trying to decide if I would be able to face down my fears and grow,” said Chaffee, “whether it was starting a new job, moving to a new city, accepting the honor of Teacher of the Year – those were all cliffs.”
Chaffee encouraged graduates to battle “the anxiety that eats at you when you achieve great things and whispers at you, ‘Everyone you know is smarter than you.’
“You are not an impostor. You are you. You are amazing,” she said, “and you have what it takes to create the world you want.”
Lesley graduates will face challenges as they venture out to become teachers, counselors, artists, scientists and entrepreneurs, she said.
“As you do this good work in the world you will find yourselves at edges of cliffs,” said Chaffee. “If we are to unlock greatness, we have to get comfortable being uncomfortable. We don’t learn or grown if we hang out in our comfort zones for the rest of our lives.”
Student speaker Rosie Collier: Embrace failure and view it as an opportunity to learn
Rosie Collier, who is British but was raised in Hong Kong, talked about how daunting it was adjusting to attending school in a new country, and addressing the graduating class.
“This is almost as terrifying as my first day at Lesley when I transferred here three years ago,” said Collier, who earned a bachelor of fine arts in illustration. “Coming to America to study has been one of the biggest challenges I have ever faced.”
But she found her way, gained confidence in her abilities and faces her future with optimism. She credited her support system at the university.
“One of the great things about Lesley is that the students genuinely support and encourage one another,” she said. “It has been an absolute pleasure to be part of this family.
“It is equally important to acknowledge the exceptional faculty that has guided and inspired us. They have taught us to not set boundaries for ourselves, and to not fear failure, but rather to embrace failure and view it as an opportunity to learn.”
Dean Richard Zauft, in his remarks, spoke about the role of the artist.
“In this quest for what is truly important, the responsibility of the artist is not to answer questions, but to ask them in a way that others may see answers,” Zauft said. “And, it is the responsivity of the designer to communicate ideas elegantly in ways that enhance our understanding of the world.”
Student speaker Yoo-Ra Herlihy: Class of 2017 is driven by passion and ideas
As he introduced student speaker Yoo-Ra Herlihy, College of Liberal Arts and Sciences Dean Steven Shapiro congratulated students on their hard work, internships, community service, and contributions to the Lesley community, all of which they accomplished while balancing other demands and challenges in life. He noted the Class of 2017’s passion and dedication to making the world a better place, and encouraged graduates to set forth with confidence.
“Though it can be scary to think about the future and its unknowns, please remember to think that, just a short time ago, you made another significant life transition – coming to Lesley – and you succeeded,” Shapiro reflected. “Perhaps it was not easy at first, but you figured it out. And you will continue to figure things out.”
Herlihy reflected on the different routes her peers traversed to their college education, and honored her classmates as a group of leaders as she shared recollections and encouragement – and a few Star Wars references.
Herlihy said the Class of 2017 has been driven by passion and ideas, including their artistic, athletic and academic pursuits, as well as their commitment to social justice.
“When we are eager about something we love, we let it be known,” said Herlihy, who earned a bachelor of science in expressive arts therapy and counseling. “Another important fact about these students you see before you? They speak their minds when they see problems in our world.”
Herlihy, president of the Campus Activities Board, noted the mentor and peer support at Lesley, and described her classmates as “an entire class of leaders,” whom she encouraged not to fear the world beyond Lesley.
“Lesley is an inclusive community where even a quirky nerd like me can feel at home,” she said. “I know entering the real world is a scary idea. … Even if you are afraid, know you are already doing exactly what you should be. You are exactly who you are supposed to be, and you matter to this world.”
She concluded, “Thank you, Class of 2017. I wish you the best on your next adventures, and may the force be with you.”