Question convention

May 21, 2016


NPP_6960Good morning. This is about you. President Hanno, members of the Board of Trustees, distinguished faculty and staff, my fellow honorees, the Wheaton alums who are here today—especially my class, the Class of 1991—the proud families of the graduates and, of course, the graduates themselves: Congratulations!

You made it. You are here. And you’re done. And we’re all here today to celebrate your milestone achievement. And amongst us today are your biggest champions: your parents and your family members. Let’s give them—look at their proud faces. Look at those proud faces. Yes, there is some relief, too, for some of them—but let’s give your parents a big round of applause.

I am honored by the invitation to speak here today and to receive this honorary degree. I’m thrilled to be back here with my family and my friends and to be addressing this year’s graduating class. We are here to celebrate you and your accomplishments. I join you in this celebration as one of you. I sat where you sit today. No, literally, 25 years ago I sat right over there where you’re sitting. Wheaton has been your home for the past four years, and for me, being back at Wheaton after all these years feels like coming home. You will always feel that connection, that loyalty and that sense of pride.

Wheaton gave me a first-class education as well as personal and academic experiences that helped shape who I am today. During my time at Wheaton, my intellectual curiosity was sparked, and my appreciation for diversity deepened. In fact, my time at Wheaton laid the foundation and set me forth on a terrific journey that led to my becoming a commissioner for the Massachusetts Commission Against Discrimination, the state’s chief anti-discrimination enforcement agency, where I champion the everyday causes of civil rights in Massachusetts.

Now granted, it was 25 years ago, but I still remember my Commencement speaker:

Massachusetts Governor William Weld. Yes. I had the governor and, well, you have me. Apart from the nostalgic feeling of the day, I don’t recall much of what the governor said, but I know you will remember every word I say today. OK. Maybe not. But if you remember only one thing from today’s Commencement address, remember this: Never stop questioning conventional wisdom.

I’m not sure if this was part of Wheaton’s philosophy back in 1987, when I was an entering freshman, but it is part of Wheaton’s philosophy now. And when I look back at the lessons I learned during my time here, the ability to question conventional wisdom is among the most important.

So in preparing for today’s remarks, I took a trip down memory lane. After all, I had to think about the Wheaton College that I applied to and attended back in 1987, when it was still an all-women’s college.

I have many fond memories of living in Meadows East, West and North; frequenting the bookstore; sitting by Peacock Pond; laying out in the Dimple. I remember at that time the newly built Balfour-Hood Center, the Filene Center and Wallace Library, where I spent many nights cramming for exams—I mean, where I spent every night studying. (Did I mention my mom is also in the audience?)

But I also remember the activism on campus. I remember the anti-Apartheid protests in the Dimple. I have pictures of me and my friends voting in our first presidential election, holding up signs—”Dukakis for President.” (Yeah, he didn’t win.)

I studied alongside confident, independent-minded women, and throughout our freshman year together we learned, we had fun, and we made memories. Then we heard the news. Wheaton was going co-ed. Wow! In the following year, Wheaton would start admitting men after 154 years. We, the Class of 1991, would be the very last all admitted, all-women class. What would happen to Wheaton’s longstanding traditions? What would happen to the rituals that made Wheaton, well, Wheaton?

Would Wheaton freshmen still be assigned a secret sophomore sister? Would Wheaton still host the White Glove Brunch during Senior Week, where seniors, dolled up in our floral outfits and white gloves, would enjoy a good game of 19th century hoop rolling? What about our covert way of announcing over the dorm loudspeaker that a male visitor had arrived? And the student manning the desk would announce, ‘Sunila Thomas, you have a caller in the parlor.’ Yes, a caller in the parlor. I know. When I describe some of these traditions, it sounds like I went to Wheaton in 1887, not 1987.

Coeducation started and what a beautiful thing it turned out to be. In fact, at that time, Wheaton, as an institution, may have been questioning its own conventional wisdom—questioning whether its students should be exposed to a learning environment that looked more like the outside world, a setting that included men.

Wheaton, long known for its diversity among its students and its progressive thinking, was opening the door to a conversation that included both men and women students, and was changing its long-held point of view on women’s colleges. Having men on campus beginning our sophomore year gave us a very different perspective, and we embraced it.

But as we know, it’s not always easy to question conventional wisdom. Many of our opinions are formed when we are young and have not had the benefit of worldly experiences, and many times the biases we have are unconscious.

Some of you may have had the opportunity to hear Dr. Larycia Hawkins speak here on campus just a few weeks ago, telling her story about wearing hijab and the fury and hateful rhetoric it caused. In her case, there were many people who supported what she did, and just as many who probably didn’t understand it. In any event, I believe it would have been a great opportunity for her students to have a thoughtful discussion, which would have ultimately better prepared them for the world outside. The act of wearing hijab could have served as an opportunity to teach students about tolerance and the importance of listening to different points of view. It could have provided a safe environment where students could have discussed religion or questioned their own beliefs and challenged their own conventional wisdom.

In Massachusetts, we have a long history of questioning conventional wisdom and exercising tolerance. From the time the abolition movement thrived here, to being the first state to give equal protection under the law with marriage equality, Massachusetts boasts some of the country’s most progressive anti-discrimination laws, which provide protection for all people who reside in, who work in and who visit Massachusetts. Massachusetts is known as a pioneer of civil rights laws, paving the way for the federal civil rights laws.

However, here in Massachusetts, discrimination still exists. Women still receive unequal pay. Families with children are denied housing. People are sexually harassed, and women get fired for being pregnant. People are sometimes shunned at work because of their faith. Disabled people are denied accommodations. People are discriminated against due to their sexual orientation. And soldiers, who come home after fighting for their country, are denied jobs.

These are just a few of the cases we see every day at the MCAD. As I mentioned earlier, here in Massachusetts, citizens, workers and visitors are all protected. But these protections were not always in place. During the past 70 years, the Massachusetts legislature broadened the MCAD’s jurisdiction to create protection for more than 20 protected categories.

For example, two weeks ago the Massachusetts legislature passed a bill providing protection in employment for our veterans. And last week the legislature was debating whether Massachusetts should extend protection to transgendered individuals in places of public accommodation. Well, as we know, that debate still goes on.

What is important, however, is that the people of the Commonwealth are having the conversation. They have opened up the doors to a dialogue involving different viewpoints from people who do not think like them, who do not act like them or look like them. They, too, are questioning conventional wisdom. And in doing so, the people of Massachusetts are afforded more protection than any other state or commonwealth in this country.

So, graduates, no matter where you go from here, you will be faced with differing viewpoints. And Wheaton College, our Wheaton College, has prepared you for the world out there, where you will live alongside people who have backgrounds and beliefs different from your own, and where you will be confronted with opinions with which you disagree. In fact, over time you will probably come to challenge your own long-held beliefs, and that will be a good thing. Because questioning conventional wisdom also means challenging yourself, asking if your own opinions stand up over time, and deciding if they make sense in the context of an ever-changing world.

While you may have started questioning conventional wisdom here at Wheaton, you will hopefully continue to do so for the rest of your lives. I hope that 25 years from now, one of you will be up here commemorating your 25th reunion and addressing Wheaton’s graduating class, telling them how you have changed over the years and explaining how Wheaton gave you the ability and the courage to do so.

Congratulations, Class of 2016. Best of luck!

Read Sunila’s honorary degree citation

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