Commencement Address

Jocelyn Benson at the podium

Jocelyn Benson ’99 delivered Wellesley’s 2023 commencement address

It is an incredible honor to be here with all of you today, celebrating with your friends, families, loved ones all that you’ve achieved at Wellesley.  

I remember so vividly what it was like to be sitting where you are today, looking out on Lake Waban, thinking about all the knowns and the unknowns on the path ahead.

I remember sharing this day with my parents and my dear Wellesley classmate Andrea Kovach ’99—who is here today with her daughter Maren. I still remember the words and advice of my commencement speaker, Lynn Sherr ’63, who told us a lot of things, including never to use exclamation marks in our emails. Because she said as women we wouldn’t be taken seriously if we used exclamation marks. I mean, she told us other things too, but for some reason that is the part I remember. And to this day I do not use exclamation marks in my emails. Sometimes during my texts or tweets—but really, I think long and hard about throwing one in before using an exclamation mark in any of my correspondence. Thank you, Lynn Sherr, for that advice! 

Now, when I sat where you are today, what I also remember is that I had some clarity of what the future held. I knew I was going to go to law school. I knew I was going to Oxford. I knew I believed in the power of our voice and our vote, and in political leadership as a path to seeking a more just and equal America.

But I didn’t really know what my future held. 

Some of you may have great clarity about what your next steps entail. 

Many of you may not. 

Some of you may feel you know exactly what the future has in store for you.  

And many of you may not. 

But here’s the truth: You don’t know what is going to happen next. Life is defined by uncertainty and unpredictability. 

You cannot predict the challenges, the great achievements or the terrible tragedies, the wins or losses life is going to throw your way any more than any of you could have predicted the way in which a global pandemic would have upended your education and lives for much of these last four years. 

Life is going to undeniably continue to throw you curveballs. And here’s the other truth: You will always have the power to choose how you respond. 

Despite all that you cannot control, you all have the power to choose how you respond to life’s uncertainties, with actions and choices that reflect who you are, who you want to be, and that can ensure collectively we emerge stronger—as individuals, as a community, and as a country—on the other side of the uncertainty.

You can choose, always, to respond to uncertainties with courage instead of fear. With integrity instead of succumbing to the convenience of the moment. With truth over lies. With discomfort over ease. Perseverance over retreat. Resilience over surrender.

When I sat where you are now, 24 years ago in June of 1999, I was headed to Montgomery, Alabama, where I would begin my career investigating hate groups and hate crimes with the Southern Poverty Law Center. This was an unconventional choice, opting to leave behind the comfort and security of New England and to live instead in an unfamiliar place, where I would be doing new and uncertain work researching violent neo-Nazi and white supremacist organizations throughout the country.  

I distinctly remember calling my parents from my room in Tower Court and bracing for their inevitable shock and confusion as I told them I was leaving all I knew to live in a place where I knew nothing and no one. But it was one of the most defining choices of my life. 

It was living in Alabama where I became acutely aware of the risks borne by those who throughout history worked to expand and protect our democracy. It was there I saw firsthand the multigenerational impact of slavery, inequality, and structural racism. It was there I spent time with people who rose up in the 1950s and ’60s to seek a more just and equal world, and where I heard their stories and their sacrifices, of people who were beaten and murdered for participating in a march for voting rights in Selma, Alabama. And it was there in Alabama 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 everywhere else to ensure that the one person, one vote promise in our Constitution is a reality for everyone.  

Those pivotal experiences formed the foundation of my career, my professional life—as an educator, as an advocate, as an attorney, and now as Michigan’s secretary of state—defending democracy and seeking a world where the promises of our United States Constitution are a reality for every United States citizen.

But my path has been far from a straight line. I’ve missed opportunities. I’ve lost elections. I’ve suffered through toxic work environments and navigated unexpected career shifts and job offers. Yet through choices large and small—responding to twists and turns I never could have predicted—I’ve tried to chart a path and build a career defined by principles I’m proud of: service, courage, honesty, and strength.

I came to Wellesley as the daughter of two special education teachers who taught me at a young age that everyone must have a seat at the table and equal access to opportunity in our country if our educational system and our economy are going to function and flourish. 

And I came to believe here at Wellesley that our best chance for equity, for everyone having equal access to education and opportunity in our country, begins and ends with access to the vote.

So fast forward 20 years. In 2020, secretaries of state were thrust into the spotlight as we worked to protect the will of the people against an unprecedented effort to undo the results of an accurate presidential election. 

As Michigan’s secretary of state, I spent the year leading up to that election adjusting and adapting to a host of unexpected challenges—from a global pandemic, to lies about our elections, to the intentional efforts to confuse and obfuscate the voting process from many people in power, including a then-sitting president. 

Yet when the polls closed on election night in November 2020, I was proud. We had administered a smooth, seamless, secure election, in which more Michigan citizens voted—on both sides of the aisle—than ever before. 

And by the way, as you might have heard, Michigan also had the highest youth turnout in the nation. Something I’m also proud of. 

But in the days and weeks that followed that November 2020 election, we didn’t have time to celebrate. In fact, we weren’t able to celebrate at all. Because while we wanted to rest on our laurels—just as many of you today are going to celebrate and rest on your laurels—we had no idea what we were going to face next.
We had run a smooth, strong election in the midst of a pandemic. We thought we had overcome it all. Nope. We hadn’t. Because instead we found ourselves, nearly the minute those final votes were tallied, battling a fierce, nationally coordinated effort to interfere with the certification of our election results and an attempt to submit a false, alternate slate of electors to Congress. And we saw all of this escalate into the tragedy at our U.S. Capitol on January 6.

Through all of this, and particularly on January 6, it became abundantly clear that we were up against not just an effort to overturn the results of a legitimate presidential election. 

We were in a battle over the future of democracy itself.

This was a battle that came to my own front doorstep. Some of you may know about an incident that happened outside my home shortly after the 2020 election. It was close to 9 o’clock on a Saturday night in December, and I was with my family putting the finishing touches on our Christmas tree; How the Grinch Stole Christmas was playing in the background.  

Suddenly the spirit of the evening broke as dozens of armed individuals descended upon our home.

They grew in numbers over the course of an hour, standing there waking our neighbors, shouting obscenities and graphic threats into bullhorns in the dark of night.  

In a scene that would repeat in much greater magnitude and escalate toward violent ends a month later at our United States Capitol, these men and women demanded I “come outside” and “show myself” so that they could confront me about the results of the election, results that the votes—and the will of the people—had made abundantly clear.

As things unfolded, I carried my then-4-year-old son upstairs, running bath water loudly to drown out the noise and the shouts of anger outside our home. I tried to focus on staying calm for a good 40 minutes, knowing that it was only one unarmed security guard on our front porch that stood between us and the growing crowd. Would things escalate? Would they attempt to enter my home? Would a stray bullet enter or ricochet into our bedroom? Was law enforcement going to arrive any time soon? What would happen when they did? 

A lot of uncertainties gripped me in that moment. But then I thought: Was this what it meant to serve on the front lines defending democracy? Protecting myself and my family against threats of violence at our doorstep while trying to simultaneously protect the accurate results of a presidential election?

In that moment, surrounded by these questions, fears, and uncertainties, I found power. Power to choose how I was going to respond. 

As those gathered outside my home—threatening us, seeking to instill fear, intimidation, and distress—were trying to stop me from doing my job, I knew that my job remained to defend and protect every voice and every vote in our state. 

And so I chose in that moment to make sure that those voices trying to block others’ voices would not succeed.

I chose to find strength in the truth: Our election was secure, accessible, and the results were accurate. 

I chose to be confident in my responsibility and my duty under the law to the people of Michigan to ensure that every single vote was counted and every voice was heard. 

And as I heard the threats and hateful words shouted outside my home and echoing throughout our house, I also chose to see that those threats were aimed not at me, but at something bigger: our democracy. 

They were threatening Michigan citizens who voted in record numbers in the midst of a pandemic. They were threatening every person throughout history who stood on the front lines to defend the promise of one person, one vote.

I chose to think of those who stood at the foot of the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama, marching forward in the face of clear threats of violence to guarantee a voting rights act could be enacted for all. 

I couldn’t control the fact that dozens of angry, armed individuals showed up outside my home that night, threatening us. But I could control my response, which was to not allow fear or threats to deter me from protecting our elections and defending every vote.  

And so that’s the truth I share with you today: You can all stand, undeterred, at the foot of the metaphorical Edmund Pettus Bridge, today and every day. You can all choose to find courage to keep going in service of who we are and the world you seek to inhabit, no matter what life throws your way. 

You will not be able to control or predict the challenges that you will encounter on the path ahead. But you will always retain your power to choose how you respond. 

And in that response, you will define your strength and yourselves. 

So how does this look in practice? How do you respond to life’s uncertainties with strength and choices that collectively compound to help you build a life of meaning, purpose, courage, and strength no matter what life throws your way? 

I am going to give you five ways to help you respond to life’s unpredictability and uncertainties with clarity and confidence.

First, choose always to respond from a place of courage. Conquer hidden demons, overcome anxieties, reject responses that are rooted in fear. Embrace the doubts, along with any risks or potential for failure, instead of being fearful of it. Find opportunity in those doubts. Find strength in those doubts.

There are many times in my life where I’ve felt completely alone. The path ahead looked foggy. But I still made a conscious choice in that moment to go forward anyway. 

It all began with a choice to act from a place of courage and to not allow the fear of the unknown, of failure, of loneliness to hold me back from a purposeful path that I felt called to follow.

Second, in an age where information and misinformation flow interchangeably, choose to ground your response and your work in truth, data, and facts. Be honest and upfront with yourself about your work, your path, and your compassion toward others and your contribution to the world. That in turn can fuel your ability to be honest with others, enabling you to serve as a trustworthy voice in others’ lives—as a parent, friend, co-worker, or leader—and will propel you to act consistently from a place of integrity.

Third, while the “path of least resistance” is also enticing, it is exceedingly narrow. Don’t shy away from the response that may take you down the harder, less comfortable path. Choose to be uncomfortable. That choice of discomfort, where you set aside pride and ego, even the need for others’ approval and acceptance, is a key component to navigating through times of uncertainty and change. I’m sure many of you have found this already throughout your college experience: If you are willing to be uncomfortable, and even to make others uncomfortable, that opens you up to make smart and informed decisions without having to worry how they will be perceived or “look” to others. And that frees you to make the choice that is best for you, and who you seek to be in life.  

Fourth: When the choices or actions of others seem confusing or wrong, choose to respond with empathy and grace. Because everyone you meet is fighting a great battle that you know nothing about. Seek to understand, empathize, and possibly even share the feelings of another person that you might not understand to find clarity for your own decision or response in that moment. Choosing to respond with grace and empathy also means getting out of our comfort zones and truly seeing others—to see the suffering or joy on their face, and to allow them to see yours. Many aspects of our uncertain and challenging times—a global pandemic, divisive political discourse, modern technology—make feeling empathy and grace toward others harder than ever. We are isolated from each other, meeting virtually, communicating in online spaces that foster outrage and enable mistreatment or disrespect. But you can choose in this moment to buck that trend, and to instead fight that impulsive response and commit to thinking about the people behind the screen, behind the veil, learning their motivations and struggles, and finding our common humanity and shared connectivity even in times of discord.

And finally, respond to life’s uncertainties with perseverance. Choose always to persevere. Because you will encounter failure in your life. And you need to choose to persevere anyway. Because as you fail, make mistakes, fall short of your goals more often than you achieve them, you embrace those obstacles as a necessary part of your journey, welcoming what they teach you, and enabling you to keep walking on your path with persistence, grit, and perseverance. Because that’s who we are as Wellesley graduates: We’re folks that speak the truth, and we’re folks that don’t give up. In doing so, if you choose to persevere, you strike a fatal blow to allow the fear and anxiety that could hold you back from a life of great meaning and purpose and instead enable that perseverance to propel you forward toward sustained success.

Applying all these principles knowing that courage, truth, discomfort, grace, and grit is also what the world needs from all of you.

Because as you graduate today you’re not just entering a life, but a world that is full of uncertainty. There are ongoing public health crises, there’s climate change, fears over gun violence, economic stratification, the rise of artificial intelligence, and the loss of civility in our public discourse. There is a lot going on. It is easy to allow fear, uncertainty, and doubt to grip you in moments like this, as you struggle to cope, adapt, and adjust to what in many ways continues to be a wholesale disruption in our lives and in the world.

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. And that is your charge.

So I encourage you to respond to this moment with courage, truth; allow that discomfort in; find grace and empathy to all you encounter; and choose to persevere and keep going in service of who you are, the rights you stand for, the freedoms you fight for, and the democracy you will seek to protect. A democracy where every vote counts and where every voice is heard. Where equality thrives and justice prevails. 

That’s the world that Wellesley trains us to fight for. 

That’s the world I am fighting for. 

That’s the world we will all fight for together.

And it all begins with your next step.

Thank you.