On June 1, a light rain held off just long enough for Concord Academy 96th Commencement exercises on the Elizabeth B. Hall Chapel lawn. On this occasion marking a new beginning, the class of 2018 and their families had much to celebrate, and much to be inspired by.
In her final year as president of the Board of Trustees, Kim Williams P’08, ’14 opened the ceremony by addressing the graduating seniors as “a community of individuals,” in all the contradictions that implies — strong willed, sharing a purpose, newly confident in their unique voices. She welcomed them into a network of accomplished alumnae/i and acknowledged a special place for them within it.
“You are members of a generation that is exerting moral leadership and participating in civic engagement through activism,” she said, “while others seem to have abdicated their responsibility. As a class, you have established your credentials to participate fully in this movement.”
Head of School Rick Hardy thanked Williams for her five years presiding over a period of remarkable progress at CA. “It has been Kim’s insistence on staying true to CA’s mission — love of learning for its own sake; a commitment to diversity and inclusion; and the abiding principle of common trust — that has distinguished her leadership,” he said.
Hardy too celebrated the members of the class of 2018 for their commitment to social justice. “We are so privileged to be here, in this safe place on this lovely June day,” he said. “These seniors have reminded us that this privilege carries with it great responsibility – to think deeply, to feel empathically, and to act responsibly. Activism has been at the core of this class’s experience and its legacy, whether it was in their willingness to confront racism, to assert women’s rights and voices, or to improve the environment in which we live.” He advised them to “try always to put people before politics, compassion before judgment.”
The ceremony unfolded in CA’s distinctive fashion, with seniors singing a class song and, as Hardy said, “no mention of awards, prizes, or diplomas with distinction,” because of this community’s conviction that “all students, not just a select few, deserve recognition.” Shared instead were selections from seniors’ chapel talks — a mosaic of individual voices that brought humor and wisdom from many perspectives.
Student Head of School Kaity Goodwin ’18 recognized departing members of the faculty and those who had reached the milestones of 20 years at CA, John Drew, George Larivee, and John McGarry; 30 years, Nancy Howard; and 35 years, Howie Bloom; as well as the retirement of piano teacher Lodowick Crofoot, after 50 years of service to the school.
Senior Class President Jordan Hurley ’18 introduced Commencement speaker Dame Vivian Hunt, DBE, ’85, who has dedicated 24 years of her career to the global management consulting firm McKinsey & Company, where she is Senior Partner and Managing Partner for the firm’s United Kingdom and Ireland offices, and an expert on performance improvement, leadership, and diversity. She lauded Hunt for her “desire to quantify the value of diversity” and promote it “as more than a social good.” As Hurley said, “Part of what makes her such an inspiration is the way she advocates for change from within a company that has its own imperfections.”
When she took the podium, Hunt brought warmth, energy, and candor to a remarkable speech that united her family’s personal journey with CA’s history as a school. She looked ahead to a “double centennial” — CA’s milestone anniversary in 2022 will coincide with the hundredth birthday of her grandmother, who “grew up in the same era as this great school, out of the same atmosphere of renewal and uncertainty,” and “who reinforced the very same lessons about adaptability and empathy that I learned here,” she said.
“I still marvel that only four mothers separate me from my slave ancestors,” Hunt said. Born to sharecroppers, “my grandmother couldn’t have been more removed from the privileged existence that Concord’s founders were creating for their daughters. And yet, somehow, the two moved in tandem, developing the same strengths and values.”
Hunt considered the chameleon, the Concord Academy mascot since its earliest days as a girls’ school, as an emblem of adaptability while remaining true to an essential self. “Those first classes chose it carefully to shape one of our most defining values,” she said. Likewise, Hunt’s grandmother is “small and unassuming” yet “tough and flexible” and focused on the long run “that she always believes will be positive and good,” she said. “She can see it that way because she trusts her experience, judgment, and ability to survive.”
“I can either make a point, or I can be generous. I can be kind. Honestly, I’m happiest when I can do both, but if I can’t, I choose to be kind.”A natural maturation of adaptability, according to Hunt, is empathy. “Resilient people learn to look out for others,” she said. She recognized a similar evolution at Concord and praised the school’s decision, in the 1940s, to abolish graduation prizes and rankings in favor of teaching students to “derive fulfillment from scholarship, mentorship, and academic performance.”
–Dame Vivian Hunt, DBE, ’85
Just as the paths for women in the world were changing, her grandmother was completing her own education as she worked as a maid. Hunt’s grandfather, after great toil and saving, had built a house for his family with his own hands. Hunt told of the time her grandmother’s employer insisted on driving her home in a snowstorm. When she saw how nice her cleaning woman’s house was, she fired Hunt’s grandmother on the spot.
Her grandmother nevertheless kept and treasured the handbags that this and other employers had given her as gifts — as does Hunt, to whom she passed them on at her college graduation. “That woman’s name stitched inside my Nana’s purse was a symbol of all the decades of transformation that exist between us,” Hunt said. “It reminds me that the horizon is far, but also quite close — it’s vital to keep pace.” Hunt carried the same clutch at her investiture as Dame Commander of the British Empire, and she brought it to CA that day.
Despite the advances our society has made, Hunt has her own stories to share — of being the only office manager regularly mistaken for the caterer or cleaner at McKinsey functions. “I know that this flaw in people’s vision will pass in the long run, but in the meantime, I try to approach it as my grandmother would: She wouldn’t be insulted. She would roll with it.”
“It’s a delicate thing to express benign intent, whilst also making people aware of their unfair gaze,” Hunt said. “At such times, I remind myself that I can either make a point, or I can be generous. I can be kind. Honestly, I’m happiest when I can do both, but if I can’t, I choose to be kind.”
Hunt had both advice and challenge for the class of 2018. “Wherever you go from here, you will face uncertainty,” she said. “You will grow resilient just by continuing to live your life and to work in a changing world. This will happen to you, even if you aren’t bold. Boldness is a conscious choice and takes extra work.”
“Similarly, if you let it,” she said, “a lifetime of adapting can give you empathy — the power to imagine yourself into another person’s life, the ability to walk in their shoes. It can lead you to treat them the way you want to be treated. It can lead you to use what you learn in the world to do some good.”
Hunt encouraged the graduates to be ambitious. “Empathy allows you to think big and to scale really good ideas outward to many thousands of people,” she said. “Empathy means aiming for something bigger than a single good outcome. Only then can you create change instead of just adapting to it.”