After Anita Hill took the stage at Lesley University’s commencement Saturday afternoon, when the applause quieted and the crowd settled down to hear her speech, one student’s voice rang out.
“Thank you, Anita!” the student shouted, stretching the last syllable of her name.
Hill, 62, who in 1991 testified before the US Senate Judiciary Committee that then-US Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas sexually harassed her, paused to listen to the crowd applaud again.
“Wow, thank you,” she said.
University officials awarded 540 bachelor’s degrees and 41 master’s degrees to graduates Saturday afternoon at the Rockland Trust Bank Pavilion in Boston’s Seaport District.
A professor of social policy, law, and women’s, gender, and sexuality studies at Brandeis University, Hill received an honorary doctorate Saturday from Lesley.
Hill then spoke about her own college graduation from Oklahoma State University in 1977, when she wondered what her future held.
“When I was where you are today, I knew the world was not perfect, but I believed we were on the verge of monumental change,” Hill said. “I thought that through the movements of the ’60s and ’70s we would sprint toward equality for all, that we could end racism, sexism, poverty, and all of their violent expressions. Yes, I was idealistic. But I had seen the world come so far from my parents’ own lived experiences of having grown up in segregation.”
Hill told graduates that “a better world is possible,” but they have to work for it.
“Whatever you do, you will be a citizen of this society. And as such, we have a stake in improving the lives of those around you,” Hill said.
Lesley associate professor of psychology Diana Direiter, who presented Hill with the honorary doctorate, said her “influence on every woman’s experience every day in every workplace cannot be overstated.”
“By bravely and selflessly sacrificing your privacy and personal life to state, unambiguously, that you had been sexually harassed at work, you created a space for a generation of women to say, ‘Me, too,’ ” Direiter said.
Sara Sada of Medford, who graduated with a bachelor’s of science in early childhood education, said she was touched by Hill’s speech.
“It was really moving,” she said. “I’ve never met her before.”
Sada, 27, said she was grateful for the people in her life who helped her earn her degree.
“My family and friends have really supported me on this adventure,” Sada said. “I wouldn’t be here if it wasn’t for them.”
Carlos J. Gonzalez and Sonia N. Cruz of Lowell came to see their daughter, Emily N. Gonzalez, graduate with a bachelor of fine arts in illustration.
“I got tears in my chair over there; it’s so exciting,” Carlos J. Gonzalez said.
He said his daughter is considering a career in education, following her father, grandfather, and aunt into teaching. She was raised in Lowell after her parents came to Massachusetts from Puerto Rico.
“In this country, everybody has the opportunity to be whatever they want to be,” Carlos J. Gonzalez said. “No one is holding you back.”