Historic Mills College in Oakland holds final graduation before merger

On a sun-kissed Saturday morning on the meadow of Mills College, the Class of 2022 and decades of alumni reflected on the school’s last year as an independent, private women’s liberal arts college just weeks before the Oakland institution is set to be taken over by Boston’s Northeastern University.

“It is all so bittersweet to be the last. We are the last to graduate from Mills as we currently know it,” economics graduate LJ Miranda told the gathering. “But Mills is not dead. Mills might not be the same, but the spirit is still with this. Mills gave a lot of us the first safe space to be who we are.”

The feelings of accomplishment gleamed through shining smiles, words of wisdom shared throughout the ceremony and music from a mariachi band that closed out the day. But they were shaded with mourning and reflection as the campuses’ legacy comes to a turn, 170 years after the school got its start as the Young Ladies’ Seminary in Benicia and became the first women’s college west of the Rocky Mountains.

“You all are celebrating with a tinge of grief,” former Oakland City Councilmember Lynette Gibson Elhaney, awarded with an honorary doctorate of humane letters, said in a speech on Saturday.

Novelist Jesmyn Ward shared encouraging words for next steps for the graduates: “Don’t kill your heart. Embrace your intuition.”

The 134th ceremony was also the first commencement in-person since the pandemic upended the community and moved classes to distance learning. For many graduates, it was their first time on campus.

“It’s definitely been a weird ride. We’ve done all of our schooling online. We had a two-year program and it was all virtual,” said Stephanie Cannistra, who earned a master’s degree in early childhood education. “It’s a little wild,” she said. “It’s been a short ride, but it’s been a good one.”

But she said she loved attending an all-women’s school “in a time where these is so little community for us.”

Julie Keiffer-Lewis, who is the department chair of the African American Studies Department at De Anza College and graduated Saturday with her doctorate in educational leadership at Mills, said there were so many mixed emotions in seeing the end of her college. “‘Mills has just been a vibrant part of the Oakland community, of education here in the Bay Area.”

“It’s been a long journey. I’m really taking it in. I’m honored to be part of the last group at Mills to go in and just excited and blessed for the opportunity,” Keiffer-Lewis. “And it’s sad to see it change. But change happens, and if it can stay alive in some capacity, then that’s wonderful.”

Graduates celebrated the day wearing black gowns, mask coverings and stoles. But nearly a dozen alumni made their presence known in the first row, wearing yellow berets and masks with the words “Save Mills.” The group said they’re angry about the road Mills College President Elizabeth Hillman took the college down, and plan to continue their effort to save MIlls.

Northeastern is expected to assume all of Mills’ financial assets, liabilities, and contractual obligations following what Hillman called a “dire” financial situation at the college.

In the last year, the administration has announced a slew of major courses and study programs that will be cut in the upcoming year as it anticipates a looming closure. And it’s facing a lawsuit from students who said they didn’t do enough to effectively communicate about the closures and will need to relocate colleges in order to continue their major programs because of the college’s leadership.

Hillman recalled the history of the campus and the Mills legacy in her speech to the graduates at the end of the ceremony.

“I ask you, the Class of 2022, the last class to finish here as graduates of the fiercely independent Mills College, to consider the relationship between faith and doubt that shaped Susan Mills’ orientation of the world. I ask you to consider if the opposite of faith might not be doubt, nor reason, but rather certainty,” Hillman said. She did not address the lawsuits, or complaints from students or alum who want to save the campus in her speech.

In an interview with this news organization before the ceremony, she said “there’s always some loss” at commencement when students graduate and “step away from a community that has supported them and been a part of.

“And there’s a more dramatic version of that this year for sure,” she said. Hillman said she hopes to continue to lead the college in its merger with Northeastern.

“It’s a wide range of emotions to be honest,” she said. There is “excitement about new opportunities, relief about being able to continue as an educational institution and being able to bring more resources to the city of Oakland and to the Bay Area right alongside that sense of loss from the changes that won’t enable Mills to do everything the same way it has done in the past.”

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