Michigan Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson speaks from behind podium at Wellesley College commencement
Image credit: Ping Ji

Michigan Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson Addresses Wellesley College Graduates

Stacey Schmeidel
May 20, 2023

Wellesley, Mass. – In a commencement address at Wellesley College today, Michigan’s secretary of state, Jocelyn Benson, urged graduates to shape the future with “courage, truth, discomfort, grace, and grit.”

This year’s graduates are entering into “a world full of uncertainty,” Benson said. “There are ongoing public health crises, there’s climate change, there are fears over gun violence, economic stratification…. And yet, despite all this uncertainty, you have the power to determine the future not just of your life but of our democracy, our country, and our world.”

A 1999 Wellesley alum who became a national spokesperson for fair and accessible voting in the tumult surrounding the 2020 presidential election, Benson said she was forever shaped by her first job, with the Southern Poverty Law Center in Alabama. “It was there I saw first-hand the multi-generational impact of slavery, inequality, and structural racism,” she said. “And it was there where I was instilled with a deep sense of responsibility and inspiration to continue the work of those foot soldiers who worked and marched and bled in Selma and elsewhere to ensure that the one-person, one-vote promise in our Constitution is a reality for everyone.” 

She urged Wellesley grads to face uncertainty with courage. “You all can stand, undeterred, at the foot of the metaphorical Edmund Pettus Bridge, today and every day,” Benson said. “You can all choose to find the courage to keep going in service to who we are and the world you seek to inhabit.” (Benson's full speech is available online.)

Benson addressed Wellesley’s class of 2023 and their friends, families, and supporters under a tent on the college’s Severance Green. The college awarded degrees to 572 students.

Wellesley College President Paula A. Johnson echoed Benson’s call to action in her remarks. “We need the kind of participation that reveals and builds common ground,” Johnson said, “the kind of civic engagement that, in a polarized world, embraces the gray spaces and knits together communities.”

Democracy is a muscle, Johnson said, adding, “Graduates, you are well prepared to exercise that muscle, and you can exercise it in whatever life and career you choose—because everything you do to expand equality and improve lives strengthens our democracy and our world.”

Action in the face of uncertainty was also the theme of remarks from student speaker Charlize Chen. A political science major from New Jersey, Chen challenged her classmates to their experiences to make a positive difference in the world. “The Covid-19 epidemic upended our lives in ways we never could have imagined,” Chen said. “It forced us to confront our vulnerabilities, our inequalities, and our interdependencies. But it also showed us the power of resilience and compassion and innovation….If this experience taught us anything, it was to take the time to listen to others’s perspectives, to put ourselves in others’ shoes, and to seek common ground.”

The Pinanski prizes, honoring excellence in teaching, were presented to Ama Baafra Abeberese ’04, associate professor of economics; Adam Matthews, senior lecturer in biological sciences; and Daniel Zitnick, lecturer in Arabic language.

Video of Wellesley’s commencement ceremony will be posted soon online.