There was a packed auditorium of proud, cheering relatives and friends for the 95 smiling, eager graduates at the Western University of Veterinarian Medicine. There was a video of the school’s history, speeches by the president and dean, and the ever-familiar refrain of Pomp and Circumstance, a familiar ritual played out at thousands of graduation ceremonies across the U.S. each spring. However, this day held special meaning for me. Three particular aspects of the day stood out, all connected to women, leadership, and the power of women inspiring and supporting other women.
First was my own pride in sharing the moment as my daughter-in-law received her own Doctorate, the first woman in our family to do so. She has worked hard, made many sacrifices, and embraced the opportunities offered her, staunchly supported and encouraged by my son. Two generations ago the pronouns in those sentences would have been reversed. It was a wonderful experience for both sides of our family.
Second was the composition of the class: 77% of the graduates were women! After frequently disappointing statistics about our professional progress as women, this was refreshing news. In addition, as I examined the graduating class, I saw a beautiful diversity. These were women of all ages, in different stages of their personal lives, and from numerous cultural and ethnic backgrounds. They shared one common purpose: to use their gifts to serve the gentle creatures with which we share this planet. They cheered for each other. It was inspiring.
Third was Temple Grandin who was granted an honorary doctorate and gave the graduation address. What a perfect choice for this day! Many of you know the 2010 movie, Temple Grandin, winner of 9 Emmy awards including Claire Danes who played the title role. When Grandin took the stage, however, we all knew she was not about the recognition; she was about the importance of her work. Grandin is, perhaps, one of the best examples of a woman who took what others might see as a “problem” and turned it into an opportunity for service and leadership. Grandin is now a philosophical leader of both the animal welfare and autism advocacy movements
Grandin is an extraordinary woman, a role model, who overcame the stigma of autism at a time when we knew so little about the disorder. In school, she was teased and lived on the social edges for many years, living with an anxiety of feeling threatened by everything in her surroundings, of being dismissed and even feared. Her fears now motivate her pioneering work in humane livestock handling processes to improvement of standards in slaughter plants and livestock farms.
In addition, a few years ago, she received an unexpected invitation to speak about her autism disorder; she courageously but reluctantly accepted. Grandin now speaks before thousands of diverse audiences with the kind of assurance that can only come from deep self-awareness and sense of purpose.
This was an unusually good day. I felt some satisfaction in knowing that as women we do have influence, we can make our mark on the world. I also know that it didn’t just happen. As women, we must remember all the small, courageous steps made by our predecessors over many decades and thank them. I do. I also challenge these emerging leaders to keep the momentum going.