Commencement Address

Sunday, May 21, 2023
by Dr. Margaret Hamburg

President Bradley, Members of the Board, esteemed faculty, alumni, parents, friends, and above all—the graduates of the Vassar College Class of 2023. It’s a pleasure to gather on this beautiful campus and celebrate a very special time for all who will receive diplomas and for all who have given love, inspiration, education, and support to these graduates. I am humbled and honored to stand here with you today as commencement speaker.

While not a Vassar graduate myself, my journey to this stage is deeply intertwined with the history of the College. More than six decades ago, here at Vassar, a group of seniors gathered to receive their diplomas as you do today. Seated among the class of 1944 was my mother, Beatrix McCleary. What made her different from her classmates is that she was the first openly acknowledged Black student to attend Vassar and graduate.

My mother would have been so proud and excited to be here today. I was thinking of her as I prepared this address—how her life experiences taught me about so many things: the power of perseverance; the surprising gifts that can be hidden in unexpected and unsettling events; the importance of building communities like those that you have found here at Vassar; and the need to give back and to work for things that are bigger than yourself.

I like to think that the path she opened more than half a century ago blazed a trail for others to follow—including the diverse and talented group I see before me today. So, I want to share her story with you because I hope her experience, and the way it influenced me, will also feel relevant for you.

My mother was born in Florida where her father was a Black surgeon. He died when she was just a few years old. Due to the Jim Crow laws in place at the time, my grandmother was unable to inherit her deceased husband’s property. Eventually she had to send my mother and my mother’s brother to live with their grandfather in New York. A few years later, her brother—the only real friend my mother was permitted to have—died of appendicitis.

Her grandfather was an extremely stern minister. He did not believe much in women’s education, but my mother had an insatiable curiosity—and she was a remarkable student. She was recruited to Vassar, as a Black student, in the hopes of beginning the process of integration.

But she also came here for the same things that drew all of you: an opportunity to be surrounded by interesting, smart people and immerse herself in a stimulating and demanding educational environment. And perhaps like many of you, she felt a little anxious when she arrived at Vassar—actually, “scared to death” was how she described it.

She was unsure if she would be accepted by other students, and whether Vassar—the last of the Seven Sisters colleges to admit Black women—could address integration successfully. But she thrived here—making friends, enjoying picnics and concerts, picking apples…and yes, going to classes and studying hard.

Following graduation, with the help of a fellowship from Vassar, she went on to be the first Black woman to attend Yale Medical School. But while there, an unexpected barrier emerged, one that had nothing to do with her race. After taking care of patients with tuberculosis, my mother had a routine chest x-ray, which indicated that she too had the disease.

This was before drug treatment was routinely available, so she was committed to a TB sanatorium and told she could not expect to resume her medical career. Yet she would not accept defeat. She asked fellow students to sneak her readings and assignments. The story goes that she even arranged to take her medical boards from inside the sanatorium. Eventually she obtained a set of old x-rays that showed that the presumed tuberculosis lesion was in fact an atypical blood vessel lying over a rib.

After being discharged, she went on to a successful career as a child psychiatrist, professor, and philanthropist…breaking new ground professionally as a pioneer in the field of adolescent psychiatry.

My mother had a striking spirit of perseverance…and just plain grit. She had always dreamed of being a doctor and would let no obstacle stand in her way.

That brings me to my first message of today—to embrace the fact that life may be hard…sometimes unfair, and full of unexpected, perhaps unwelcome challenges, but you can find ways to pursue your goals and to make a difference, big and small.

Now, I could say that to any graduating class. But I know this class has been tested in ways few others have. Each of you has been shaped by the experience of navigating college in the midst of the biggest global pandemic in more than a century. In all your anxious thoughts about what could happen at college, I assume that the emergence of an infectious disease threat that would kill millions and basically shut down the planet was not on your list.

But during Freshman year the COVID pandemic abruptly sent you home and into a strange world of virtual classes. The next few years brought a return to campus—but not a return to normalcy. Many restrictions and changes altered life on campus, yet you powered through. You found purpose in adversity. You discovered your own resilience. And perhaps it made you think in new, important ways about community and connectedness.

But COVID was not the only seismic impact in the world around you. This class also has borne witness to a series of tragedies that have put a harsh, but much needed spotlight on the persistent inequities and racism in our society. You have seen a brutal war unfold. You’ve lived through a surge in gun violence in our schools and communities. You have seen vivid examples of the growing impacts of climate change–and felt the shock waves of economic instability. You have encountered the destructive power of political divisiveness and blind adherence to ideology. I think we have all struggled to adjust to a new and very uncomfortable feeling of vulnerability.

These have not been easy times. But you will leave this campus now taking with you powerful lessons—many not learned in the classroom. And likely, those experiences have revealed new opportunities to use your talents—and your education—to confront the many complex issues of our times.

I say this as someone whose career path was deeply influenced by a different pandemic. When I went to medical school, I assumed I would be an academic physician like my mother. As a first-year medical student I was taught that, with the advent of antibiotics and vaccines, medicine was on its way to conquering infectious disease. Then HIV/AIDS emerged. No one knew what it was, what to call it, and certainly not how to treat it. By the time I was a medical intern in New York City at the height of the AIDS crisis, I was taking care of many patients with this then always fatal disease. AIDS also carried with it a stigma that generated tremendous uncertainty, fear and tension across society.

It was devastating and profoundly humbling. But it opened my eyes to the fact that some of the greatest challenges in medicine exist at the interface of a broader set of social, ethical, political, and legal concerns.

And so the AIDS crisis propelled me into public health. In my wildest dreams in college or med school, I never imagined the career path I have taken. When I was asked to be New York City’s Health Commissioner, my reaction—after pure panic—was: “This is crazy! I’m not qualified.” My great Aunt Winnie was distressed for other reasons. She couldn’t believe that I was “throwing away a chance to be a real doctor.” My father tried to persuade her that I would still be a “real doctor”, but now would have over 7 million NYC residents as patients. She wasn’t convinced, but I made that pivot to the very rewarding world of public health and have never looked back.

And I was able to do so because I was, in fact, prepared—I was armed with academic and professional training, and I had “learned how to learn,” just like you have from your hard work here at Vassar. But just as importantly, I was open to seizing unexpected opportunities, tackling new challenges, and trying my best to address the unmet needs I could see before me.

But even as I encourage you to go out in the world and address big, systemic problems, I also advise you to do so with a focus on building community, continually investing in the relationships that will sustain you over the course of your life and career. You already have built many of these relationships during these past four years—and you have no doubt learned from the early days of COVID about the essential value of human connection.

My mother arrived at Vassar prepared to spend all of her time alone. Unlike other students, she had no freshman roommate as school officials were unsure how people would feel about living with “a negro”. She brought a radio to keep her company, but on her first night here it blew out when she tried to plug it in. This sent students along the whole corridor running to her room—and then they kept coming back, night after night, for many conversations. My mother maintained lifelong relationships with her college friends. I remember watching her sit hand-in-hand with one of them during her last visit to Vassar for the 2015 triennial meeting of the African-American Alumni Association. She was almost 92 years old. It was, sadly, her last trip ever…

And this is my first time back on campus since that visit. So now, on this glorious Vassar day, looking out at all of you, thinking of the many ways this college became a part of my mother’s life—and by extension, mine—I want to mention something I recently learned about that exists just a few miles from here…something called the “Salt Line.”

At first, I thought it was just a strange name for a Vassar podcast, but it turns out that the podcast name comes from a remarkable ecological phenomenon…a place near Poughkeepsie where the fresh waters coming from the Adirondack Mountains merge with briny waters from New York Harbor to create a literal Salt Line in the Hudson River…And in those nutrient-rich waters, young fish are nurtured into adult fish. Somehow this seems an apt metaphor for what happens on the Vassar campus…and how to think about some of what the years to come may hold.

A college can and should be a place where students are nurtured in an environment that encourages diverse thought, lively discussion, and the coming together of different perspectives in constructive ways. There can be tension and turmoil in this process. The waters can get murky for sure…but it is through these coming togethers—where edges meet—that transformation can occur.

As individuals and as a society, we must learn to work across real and artificial boundaries—across sectors, backgrounds, politics, ideologies, geographies, and traditions. And as we do so we can’t shy away from difficult truths. It’s the only way we will find effective, sustainable solutions to the biggest problems in the world today.

And as I come to a close of my remarks, indulge me in one last thought about my mother and reckoning with difficult truths. Some of you may have wondered why earlier I said that my mother was the first “openly-acknowledged” Black graduate. That is because there was a woman, Anita Hemmings, who graduated from Vassar before my mother. She attended in the 1890s, passing as white. When it was revealed that she had bi-racial parents—after much deliberation—Vassar decided not to strip her of her degree.

I think we can all applaud that decision, but the unfortunate truth is that the school would never have admitted her if her race had been known. I mention this now as Vassar embarks on its Inclusive History Initiative, a commitment to examining Vassar’s experience with diversity, equity, and inclusion. This is an important effort but it also embodies an even more vital message. It takes courage to engage in an honest reckoning with the past…and with who we are.

That’s true for all of us in our personal and professional lives as well. We cannot be afraid to admit mistakes; to face up to failures…and to learn from them. As the great Maya Angelou once said, “Do the best you can until you know better…and when you know better, do better.”

You are living in demanding times that call on you to constantly assess how you can do better—by directing your energies and talents to doing good, not just doing well; to combine the knowledge and skills you’ve gained here at Vassar with the courage of your convictions…to constantly strive to be a force for positive change in your community, your country, and the world.

And as you do so, I encourage you to always find ways—no matter how daunting things may sometimes seem—to keep a firm grasp on hope. Hope is not an abstract concept; Hope is not blind optimism. In the words of my former boss, Barack Obama: “Hope is the thing inside us that awaits us if we have the courage to work for it, and to fight for it…Hope is the belief that destiny will not be written for us, but by us, by all those men and women who are not content to settle for the world as it is, who have the courage to remake the world as it should be.”

Never lose sight of the fact that you have already—in just two decades—been tested with once-in-a-generation challenges and emerged the stronger for them. You are ready!

But all of that is about tomorrow. Today is about you—your joy, your pride, your achievements, and your well-deserved celebration. I offer you all my best wishes for your success and happiness.

Thank you.