Keynote speaker Johnnetta Betsch Cole

As the 391 graduating seniors prepared to go out into the world during 179th Wheaton College’s Commencement ceremony on Saturday, May 17, keynote speaker Johnnetta Cole offered them valuable advice about living abundantly.

“Some of you will leave Wheaton and go to various post-baccalaureate institutions. Some of you have already secured a place in the workforce. And yes, because of the state of the economy in our country, some of you are still perhaps looking for a job,” said Cole, director of the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of African Art in Washington, D.C.

“Whatever is your situation, let it be your goal to not only make a good living, but to live a good life.”

Drawing inspiration from the words of world leaders, educators, social activists and others, including Martin Luther King and Helen Keller, she laid out the foundation of what it takes to make a good life.

A respect for diversity and a high regard for others are both essential, she told the Class of 2014 during the ceremony, which was held in Haas Athletic Center.

Most important, it is vital that the arts be a part of everyone’s life, regardless of their major or career path, said Cole, pointing to President Ronald A. Crutcher as a model example of someone who not only has made the arts—along with leadership—a central part of his life but also has shared his talent with others.

“There is joy and power, instruction and inspiration in being involved on some level and in some way with music, dance, theater, literature, and the visual arts,” said Cole.

The scholar, author and activist for social and economic justice, knows this from personal experience. She grew up in Jacksonville, Fla., during legalized segregation when African Americans were not welcome into the galleries or museums in her hometown.

Fortunately, her mother, a trained musician, loved the visual arts and instilled that love in her daughter by filling every room of their homes with art.

Today Cole, as director of the National Museum of African Art since 2009, oversees a collection of more than 10,000 objects of various media and art forms representing nearly every area of the African continent. She also serves on the scholarly advisory board for the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture, the construction of which will be completed on the National Mall by 2015.

Prior to her current position, Cole was president of Bennett College and Spelman College, making history in 1987 as the first African American woman to lead Spelman. She also was the first African American to serve as chair of the board of United Way of America, from 2004 to 2006, and the first woman to serve on the board of Coca-Cola Enterprises.

As president at Spelman and Bennett College her proudest moments on each campus included the opening of fine arts galleries, she noted.

“No matter where my life’s journey has taken me, or in what direction I have chosen to move, I will always make a conscientious decision that art must remain and be nurtured as a constant in my life.

“The arts are not a frill. The arts are a response to our individuality and our nature. The arts help to shape our identity,” said Cole, quoting the words of Former Texas Congresswoman Barbara Jordan. “Art has the potential to unify. It can speak in many languages without a translator. The arts do not discriminate. The arts can fill us up.”

During Commencement Cole received an honorary degree, as did President Ronald A. Crutcher and four of Wheaton’s distinguished alumnae/i: Karen Strauss Cook (posthumously), Class of 1974; Jonathan Crane, Class of 1995; Mary Anne Marsh, Class of 1979; and Anne-Imelda Radice, Class of 1969.

Located in Norton, Mass., Wheaton is a selective college of the liberal arts and sciences with a student body of 1,600. Since 2000, more than 161 Wheaton students have won prestigious international scholarships, such as the Rhodes, Marshall and Fulbright awards. Wheaton continues to rank among the top 10 liberal arts colleges in the nation, when it comes to preparing students to win Fulbright Scholarships for advanced study and work abroad.

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