Commencement celebration in Oakland. Ambassador to UN praises the power of ‘lived experiences’

The first class of graduates from Mills College at Northeastern in Oakland celebrate during 2023 commencement. Photo by Ruby Wallau for Northeastern University

OAKLAND, Calif.––Cheers erupted on Holmgren Meadow on Sunday, as about 120 newly minted graduates of Mills College at Northeastern celebrated the end of their academic journeys and the beginning of their next adventure.

For the undergraduate, graduate and doctoral students who received their degrees, that journey has been full of twists and turns, including a global pandemic and merger. As the graduates walked on stage to become the first students to receive their degrees from Mills College at Northeastern, everyone in attendance agreed that every step of that journey was an experience worth having.

No one understands that lesson more than Michèle Taylor. A 1988 Mills graduate and this year’s commencement speaker, Taylor now serves as the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations Human Rights Council.

But an ambassadorship wasn’t always in the cards for Taylor. Her path to success has been far from a straight line––and she urged the graduates to embrace that as they embark on their next steps.

Michèle Taylor, Mills ’88 and the U.S. ambassador to the U.N. Council on Human Rights, delivered the commencement address to the Mills College at Northeastern 2023 class. Photo by Ruby Wallau for Northeastern University

“I won’t pretend to have the secrets to success, but what I can tell you is that the lived experiences that we have are far more important than what goes into that experiences section of a resumé,” Taylor told the crowd of graduates, parents, faculty and staff.

Although Taylor, a daughter and granddaughter of Holocaust survivors, came to Mills with a fierce passion for standing up against injustice, she graduated with a degree in math and psychology and set off to get a Ph.D. in chaos theory. She made the difficult decision to quit her Ph.D. program just shy of getting her doctorate, instead opting to be fully present for her children in a way her own mother was never able to because of her experience in the Holocaust. 

She managed her daughter’s career as an internationally competitive skier. She became a rock climbing guide and wilderness expedition leader. She became deeply involved in social justice efforts. And all of that was before she met then-Vice President Joe Biden in 2014 through her political engagement and was asked to work on the 20th anniversary of the Violence Against Women Act.

In 2014, the same year she joined the Anti-Defamation League’s southeast regional board, President Barack Obama appointed her to the United States Holocaust Memorial Council. In that role, she addressed issues such as antisemitism, Holocaust denial and global genocide prevention. She has also had several leadership roles on the National Center for Civil and Human Rights’ board. Biden ultimately nominated her for the role of U.S. ambassador to the United Nations Human Rights Council in 2021.

“Experiences are almost never wasted, and what you learn from them is what you are about to build a life on,” Taylor said.

Every step along her winding path hasn’t been easy, Taylor admitted. She failed, stumbled and faltered along the way, but those experiences ended up being just as valuable as her successes. Throughout her commencement address, Taylor encouraged the recent graduates “to try really, really hard not to be dumb” but “forgive yourself when you are and apologize when necessary.”

“If you aren’t taking risks, you can’t make those all-important mistakes,” Taylor said. “Bravery is not about not being scared; it’s about finding out you can do far more than you thought possible and learning that you can come back from some tough blows because we all have them. That is the only way to learn and grow and develop grit. Grit is something you will need a whole lot of out there. Trust me on that one.”

Edin Haddis, who graduated on Sunday with a bachelor’s degree in psychology, similarly encouraged her fellow graduates to embrace both the high points of their college career as well as the “all-nighters, times you felt alone, the frustrations and challenges.”

“These experiences are your reminder that it takes sacrifice, grit and strength to accomplish your goals, qualities that all the graduates here today have,” Haddis said during her commencement speech. “These qualities are what ensured you made it through.”

Without grit, Taylor would never have been able to help the U.N. respond to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, a crucial moment in modern geopolitics. She would have never been able to fight to have the U.N. address the “dire human rights violations” of Uyghur Muslims in the Xinjiang region of China. Taylor was unable to succeed with the latter, but, ever-skilled in the art of persuasion, she never stopped trying.

“While we must be cautious not to exhaust our resources, especially on actions that may backfire, being too measured about doing the hard things might sometimes mean we might risk not doing the right things,” Taylor said.

This year’s commencement ceremony brought together traditions from Mills College and Northeastern University for the first Mills College at Northeastern commencement. The Oakland college’s traditional eucalyptus leaf was ever-present throughout the ceremony, and Pitch Please!, a Northeastern acapella group, sang the Mills alma mater song, “Fires of Wisdom.”

Before graduates were led out of the meadow to the lively sound of Mariachi San Francisco, Beth Kochley, interim dean of Mills College at Northeastern, provided her charge to the Class of 2023, tipping her cap to the past and nodding ahead to the future.

“This is an emergence; there are many paths before you,” Kochley said. “You get to choose which one you will follow. … The wonder, the joy, is that there isn’t just one right answer.”

“Some of you have been the first in your families to go to college,” Kochley added. “Some of you have come from families of academics, and some of you found your way here through twists and turns in your own journey. No matter how you ended up here, it is your journey, one that you held fast to and called your own. One destination, many paths.”

Cody Mello-Klein is a Northeastern Global News reporter. Email him at Follow him on Twitter @Proelectioneer.