Voices of Simmons

President Wooten's Convocation Address: A Purposeful Life

At Convocation, President Lynn Perry Wooten welcomed first-year students and addressed the Simmons community. Read her full speech below.


My warmest welcome to everyone joining us today, and a special welcome to our new first-year students who are now part of the Simmons family. The class of 2024 is a very special incoming class in many ways, as you and your families had to navigate the college selection process in such challenging times while staying focused on your long-term goals. I am delighted to announce that our first-year students also make history as the most diverse incoming class in the last four decades.

I want to offer my congratulations to all the students inducted into the Academy today, and to Sarah Hackey for receiving the Alumnae Award for Academic Achievement. Your dedication to academic excellence makes us proud. Thank you, Lynne, for your presentation and for your warm welcome. I have been overwhelmed with the outpouring of support I have received from our alums and I greatly appreciate it. I want to offer special congratulations to Professors Sohrabji, Grossman, Putney, Cohn and Febles, for fulfilling Simmons’ mission of teaching, scholarship and service at the highest levels.

Convocation is a special time in the annual rhythm of a university, when we come together as an academic community — a community of learners and teachers and scholars and colleagues — to mark the start of the new academic year.

And this is a year that has much to teach us.

I want to begin with a symbol, and a story.

Maybe you have heard of a symbol from Ghana called “Sankofa.” The translation of the word is “go back and get it,” and the symbol is often associated with the proverb that says “it is not wrong to go back and fetch what is at risk of being left behind.”

Sankofa is symbolized by a bird pointed forward while turning its head back.

The concept of Sankofa is a powerful one. The West Africans teach us that it is important to reach back and bring what we have learned from our history into the present, so we can use that knowledge to make positive progress toward our future.

So let’s start in our past. Recently Simmons’ archivist Jason Wood was reading first-hand accounts of Simmons nursing students here in the Boston area during the 1918 influenza pandemic. These brave women were on the front lines, fighting an invisible killer.

President Lynn Perry Wooten speaking during the 2020 virtual convocation ceremony

Jason shared the words of a Simmons nursing student known to us only as “Miss Franklin,” who described nursing in an epidemic like meeting an enemy who was “allied with ignorance, poverty, superstition, and hopeless fear.” Miss Franklin reflected that to oppose such a powerful force, nurses must marshal their tools and skills including medical knowledge, preventive science, sympathy, and what she called “intelligent social cooperation."

Miss Franklin’s insight is just as relevant now as we battle yet another invisible killer — COVID-19.

Today I want to explore what it means to experience dark times, and yet, grow in ways that enable us to live more purposeful and more meaningful lives. And through that journey, we can find leadership qualities within us that inspire hope, change and forward momentum.

Fast forward to this year.

Simmons senior Annie Harriman '21 was grateful that she and her mom could take classes and work from home when the pandemic hit, especially when so many front-line health care workers and first responders were risking their lives every day to take care of the sick.

So, using the skills and education she has gained as a student in the School of Business, Annie took action. She partnered with a local bank to start a non-profit with a win-win mission: Feed exhausted local healthcare workers and support restaurants hard hit because of the state’s stay-at-home orders. Annie’s efforts raised almost $11,000 in April and May, and purchased 571 meals. This was food that nourished both body and soul.

In this year of pandemic and with the losses caused by coronavirus, we have all been broken down to some degree. With anxiety. With uncertainty. In some cases, with deep and serious loss. But even as we move through the pain, I have seen so many examples of how we are lifting up ourselves and others toward a greater good.

I love what Annie said when she was asked about her project. She said that “leadership comes in many forms, but being able to help someone and bring a community together in an uncertain time is a very powerful, and gratifying, way to lead.”

I have been thinking about the women’s-centered leadership that this University fosters every day, and that John Simmons visualized when he founded the University. I am inspired by the passion for leadership that we all have in common. In so many ways it is what binds us together as a community.

And I do not mean only the grand, public leadership of political office or those charismatic, larger-than-life individuals who come around just once in a lifetime. Instead, I mean the everyday leadership qualities we all have inside us.

That’s what John Simmons saw. Educate women, he knew, and you give each person agency.

You support their independence. You help them develop their voice.

This is education that fosters leadership and positively impacts our communities and our world.

Simmons’ historic strengths, and its commitment to leadership and social justice, have never been more important.

This summer, our first-year students explored a powerful example of leadership voice when they read What the Eyes Don’t See by Dr. Mona Hanna-Attisha in their First-Year Read. Dr. Mona, as she is known in her community, is a pediatrician in Flint, Michigan, who produced evidence of children’s dangerous exposure to lead in their drinking water — evidence the government tried to hide.

The story began when Dr. Mona learned that the city’s pipes did not have something called “corrosion control,” and as a result lead was leeching into the water supply. Children were sick, many times in ways we could not see – hence the title of the book.

Yet even though the state tried to discredit her, she relied on the courage of her convictions to expose the inequality and the environmental injustice rampant in her community. She manifested a purpose greater than oneself. And, ultimately, she affected enormous change with her leadership and her activism.

Congressman John Lewis might have said that Dr. Mona caused “good trouble.” And society is the better for it.

I was struck by the term “corrosion control.” Without it, poison leaks into our environments. It can take the form of social injustice, of inequitable treatment, of systemic racism. As we have seen with the global pandemic, COVID-19 is killing people of color at twice the rate of white people. We are witnesses to relentless violence against Black people… a man’s life snuffed out in 8 minutes and 46 seconds of video, and just a few days ago another shot 7 times in the back.

We are, all of us, at a pivotal moment. It is a moment to strive toward greater social justice. To use our voice to demand change. Here at Simmons, we will continue our important work to foster racial and social equity: in our teaching and learning, in our scholarship, and in our hiring and recruitment processes. Our world needs the kind of inclusive and purposeful leadership that has defined the Simmons experience since its founding.

In Michelle Obama’s memoir called Becoming, she asks a powerful question: “Do we settle for the world as it is, or do we work for the world as it should be?”

As we begin this year like no other, I think every day about Simmons as it should be — and the world as it should be.

Simmons’ historic strengths, and its commitment to leadership and social justice, have never been more important. How will we live, learn and lead in the year ahead? To our first-year students, our returning students, my faculty and staff colleagues, our alumni – what can we do this year, individually and collectively, to bring our best selves to the challenges ahead? What can we do – each of us and all of us together - to make a positive difference because of our teaching, our learning, our scholarship, and our service?

We have the ability to move from a place of darkness into one of light. Let us make the most of this historic time, to learn from those who came before us, to awaken the leadership qualities within us, and to live a more purposeful life.

Thank you.

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