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Mills marks the start of 2019-2020 academic year with Convocation

On Sept. 20, Mills College held its annual Convocation ceremony at Littlefield Concert Hall. Members of the Mills community, including alumni, gathered to mark the start of the 2019-2020 academic school year, commemorate the 2020 graduating class, and recognize academic achievements among students and faculty.


Esteemed scholar and author Dr. Crystal J. Lucky joined the celebration as convocation speaker. She is the associate dean of baccalaureate studies for the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences and associate professor of English at Villanova University.

“Dear community, a convocation is a calling. So today, let’s call into our sense of purpose, recalling the highest aspirations of our hearts and minds,” Dara Olandt, chaplain and director of spiritual and religious life, said. “Let’s rejoice in a bright year for possibilities unfolding for the gift of education and for the vital work of this college. May joy, may dedication and shared purpose illumine our path ahead.”

Succeeding Olandt’s invocation, President Elizabeth Hillman delivered a welcome speech that called attention to mindfulness of the land’s Ohlone presence and climate change as a barrier to equity. In unison to her comments, thousands of students across the globe skipped classes to call for immediate action on climate change from world leaders. 

For more information on the Global Climate Strike, read “Thousands of students strike to demand climate action from global leaders.”

“We’re working to use our programs and our campus … to make inclusive excellence and global and applied learning accessible to those who are ready and willing to learn new knowledge and overcome historic barriers to achievement and opportunity,” Hillman added. “Gender and racial justice are core values at the heart of Mills’ mission.”

Then Katie Sanborn, alum and chair of the Mills College board of trustees, came to the center podium and welcomed the classes, rousing each one to take a turn shouting. For the occasion, each class wore an assigned color, part of a campus tradition, to display their class spirit.

In addition, President of the Associated Students of Mills College (ASMC) Breanna Gingras and Graduate Student Speaker Jahslyn Whitelocke-Chensee recounted their time at Mills and offered guidance. Viji Nakka-Cammauf, president of the alumnae association of Mills College, also addressed the attendees and shared her lessons on human compassion and unity.

“When we can rise above our own means, provinces, prejudices, and care for someone else, even those who may not get along … then you’re able to bring about change for the better,” Nakka-Cammauf said. “I believe that your time at Mills, the classroom with friends, workplaces all prepared you to the point of getting to the point of learning to give sacrificially and care deeply so that you can truly bring about change wherever you go.”

For the convocation address, Lucky rose to the podium and shared that unexpected encounters and opportunities can bring fresh meaning if someone is open to it. To illustrate this point, she narrated the chance to meet just paroled Michael Africa Sr. and Debbie Africa on the Villanova University campus through another professor in 2018. Their son, Michael Africa Jr., was present as well.

“I didn’t know what to expect during our meeting with the Africa family, but I knew I wanted to be there,” Lucky said. “I wanted to be in their presence. I wanted to hear their story.”

Michael Africa Sr. and his wife, Debbie, belonged to the Philadelphia-founded Black liberation group Move 9. During a 1978 police raid on their group home, officer James Ramp was shot and died. Though only one member fired the fatal bullet, nine people from the group, including Michael Sr. and Debbie, were all sentenced to prison for up to 100 years.

Born in 1964, Lucky remembers the shootout occurred seven days after her fourteenth birthday, a mere mile and a half from her childhood church.

Before being paroled, Michael Sr. obtained his undergraduate degree from the Villanova Undergraduate Degree Program at SCI Graterford, connecting him to the university and setting him and his family on the path to meet Lucky.

During their initial meeting, Lucky found she and the Africa family had a lot of people and places in common. Though not her self-proclaimed expertise, she ended up inquiring if anyone had approached them about writing a book. The Africa family had been asked about such a project.  However, in that meeting, they decided that Lucky would work on their book; she would help them tell their story.

“The opportunities … will always come, but they often come disguised as unscheduled meetings, unlikely friendships, a new way of thinking,” Lucky said. “I want to encourage you, embrace the chances as they come to you.  They absolutely will help define who you will become.”

Succeeding the convocation address, Hillman presented the student honors and then the faculty honors. In closing, she iterated the importance of fighting climate change.  Olandt made a final blessing and the Mills College choir sang “Fires of Wisdom.”

“[Convocation is important] for inspiration! More broadly: Building and sustaining a creative, inclusive community requires conscious action. Convocation invites everyone, no matter what their course of study or class year, to celebrate our shared commitment to pursuing knowledge, truth, and beauty,” Hillman said in an e-mail. “Students are at the center of Mills’ mission, and their presence at Convocation reminds everyone of why we’re here.”

Hillman explained that convocation has been a part of the Mills’ academic calendar since the College began granting baccalaureate degrees, sharing in this tradition with other colleges and universities.

The convocation ceremony was part of a weekend of activities, such as a community lunch, a Mills Performing Arts Open House and a Darius Milhaud concert.

Since 1996, Lucky has taught nineteenth and twentieth century African American literature, such as the narratives of fugitive slaves and the works of the Harlem Renaissance, Toni Morrison and August Wilson.  In addition to her positions at the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences and Villanova University, she is a pastor, alongside her husband, Timmy, at Sword of the Spirit Church in Lansdown, Pennsylvania.

She earned a PhD in English from the University of Pennsylvania (1999), a MA in African American studies from Yale University (1989), and a BA in English and communications from the University of Pennsylvania (1985).

Lucky’s current work-in-progress, about the Africa family, including Michael Jr., is titled “Relentless Hearts: A Journey of Time, Love and Perseverance.”

“I just want us to take a moment.  Just pause for a moment and think, really think about the impact this campus has had on you. And what about the impact that you have made here,” Gingras said. “So, whatever this year holds for you … Welcome to the 2019-2020 academic year.