A Message to the Class of 2018 Graduates: 'The World Needs You'

43 members of the Class of 2018 received their diplomas in the School's Quad during a sunny, festive, but hot graduation morning on Saturday, June 2.

A Message to the Class of 2018 Graduates: 'The World Needs You'

The Class of 2018 celebrates after receiving their diplomas at the June 2 graduation.

Dr. Dena Simmons '01 was the Commencement Speaker at the 2018 Graduation.

Jiberly Sandoval '18 was the Class Speaker at the 2018 Graduation.

Westover celebrated its 109th Commencement with 43 members of the Class of 2018 receiving their diplomas in the School's historic Quad during a sunny, festive, but hot graduation morning on Saturday, June 2.

In her Commencement Address, Dr. Dena Simmons '01, Assistant Director of the Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence, spoke about both the blessings and the challenges that her years at Westover offered her.

"As a black girl who grew up in an economically deprived inner city," Dena said, "Westover was not a given; it was a gift. Not everyone has the privilege to receive an education like the one you receive at Westover and I am forever grateful for the education I received here, the friends I've made, the access to superb learning resources, and the pedigree that opened doors for me."

In sharing her story, Dena also spoke about the challenges that faced her mother, Jackie Simmons in building a life for herself and her three daughters. Dena noted that Jackie, who is retiring as Westover's long-time Transportation Coordinator this month, had come to the United States alone from Antigua as a young black immigrant to earn a living caring for children on Long Island. It was there that she first learned about the opportunities that boarding schools could offer children and, Dena said, "she told herself if she had children they would go to boarding schools." Dena recalled growing up with her mother and two sisters in a dangerous section of the Bronx where, she said, she often went to sleep to the sound of gunshots.

"Do not underestimate the power of a mother determined to keep her children safe," Dena said. "When my twin sister Dana, who is also a graduate of Westover, and I arrived here, we carried with us not only our dreams but also the dreams of our mother who wanted nothing more than for her children to have a better life than she did.

"Westover was a place where our dreams could live and thrive," Dena said. "At Westover, for the first time, I was able to sleep without worry. I could walk barefoot in the grass, look up to see a night sky full of stars, and I could leave my dorm room unlocked.

"These were happy novelties for me," Dena recalled, "but there were other novelties as well. I learned that I did not speak the right way, dress the right way, or act the right way. I was either too much or too little. My time here was not perfect." She spoke about interactions with some members of the community that were painful. "Each micro-aggression, each lowered expectation, each condescending remark, motivates me to do the work I do for educational equity, for schools to guarantee the safety for young people to learn in the comfort of their own skin."

Addressing the graduating seniors, Dena told them, "My journey to where I am was not easy and, Class of 2018, yours will not be either. If you are from a marginalized background it will be even more difficult, just as it was for me. I am not saying this to discourage you. Rather, I want you to be prepared for the world as it is – imperfect and, at the same time, full of opportunity. I challenge you to have high expectations for yourselves even when no one else believes in you.

"So," Dena told the graduates, "demand what you deserve, despite society and all of its flaws. Be unapologetically you, and the people around you will have no choice but to love you and, if they don't ... well, that's their loss. Instead of letting difficult moments bring you down, use them as tremendous learning opportunities. Motivate yourself by these moments. You will be surprised by how much fight you have in you."

Dena added, "And those of you who have access to opportunities, to privilege, to better, and to more, I call on you to consider what you are willing to give up so that someone else can have an easier journey. If you remember one thing today, remember this question: What are you willing to give up for greater equity?"

Noting that she and her mother could draw on the support of mentors, educators, friends, and family in their efforts, Dena told the graduates, "None of us get to where we are going alone. So, focus your energy on people who uplift you, who stand by you when you are at your worst, and who are honest with you even when the truth is difficult to swallow. We need people like this in our lives to push us to be better. Build your tribe. Make time for them and make sure to take time to thank them today."

As they set out to pursue their dreams, Dena urged the Class of 2018 to follow her mother's example "do so with tenacity, with determination, and belief in something better out there." Dena shared her favorite quotation with them: "And then the day came when the risk to remain tight in a bud was more painful than the risk it took to blossom."

Dena told the graduates that "the world needs you. We need your genius, your generosity, and your empathy. We need your creativity, your honest passion, and your courageous authenticity. There is so much work to do. And if I had to leave that work in anyone's hands, it is in the hands of a Westover student. May you strive, may you flourish, and may you blossom."

Recalling her own arrival at Westover as a freshman, Senior Class Speaker Jiberly Sandoval admitted that "I seriously underestimated how terrible I was at new beginnings."

"As we carried box after box into my new room," Jiberly recalled, "I kept looking over at my mother. And every time I looked at her, she was crying. Hot and angry tears, just pouring down her face. She cried in the cramped car ride here, she cried as soon as we got into the building, and she cried when she had to say goodbye." However, Jiberly added, her mother was not alone, "because I was a hot blubbering mess. Actually, my entire family was a hot blubbering mess. We cried, and cried, and cried, until all the families had left Red Hall and we were just there in a circle making a puddle with our tears. I remember [classmate] Leah Proctor's dad saying, "She's not going to war! She'll be okay!"

Jiberly soon realized that "most of these girls were probably feeling the same way, and so I then just made some friends."

Looking forward to college, Jiberly told her classmates, "We are embarking on a new, four-year adventure. College is no joke, ladies. We have to take this time to better ourselves, love ourselves, and make our mark. Starting over in a new place is scary. We've got to find new friends, get comfortable around new faculty in new classes, and possibly be even farther from our families. But," she added, "we will be here for each other every step of the way. So be prepared to lean on each other through the next set of hard times that may fall on us. Because sisters were made to be here through it all ... [and] try not to forget all that we've experienced here."

Jiberly also had advice for younger students. "You have to put yourself out there. You have to take charge and you have to make this place yours. when I started school here, I preferred to lay low and watch others use their voice to take them where they wanted to be. Never in a million years did I think I would be giving a talk like this to so many people. But I pushed myself out of my comfort zone. I read my poems out loud, gave a few Chapel talks, and immersed myself in this community. Now, you don't have to do all of that to make your presence known, but use this time to figure out what sets you apart from the rest and let that propel you for the time you have left here."

The members of the Class of 2018 come from eight states (Connecticut, New Jersey, Massachusetts, New York, Rhode Island, New Hampshire, Maine, Texas), the District of Columbia, and four countries (China, Japan, South Korea, and Rwanda).

To view a recording of the 2018 Graduation, go to: