On the evening of Oct. 13, members of the Wellesley College community gathered in Alumnae Hall to attend the annual Wellesley College Alumnae Achievement Awards ceremony. The recipients of this year’s awards were Elyse Cherry ’75, Kwan Kew Lai ’74 and Lorraine O’Grady ’55. The Alumnae Achievement Awards are the highest honor presented to alumnae of the college.
When she opened the ceremony, President Paula Johnson commented on the diverse range of occupational fields that alumnae of the College thrive in.
“Over the years, recipients have been drawn from the fields of business, education, medicine, the arts, science, social activism, law, international affairs, journalism, public policy and community service —proving that a Wellesley woman’s place in the world is wherever she chooses it to be. The only ‘typical’ path for a Wellesley alumna is the one that she forges with the courage and passion of her own convictions,” said Johnson.
The first recipient of the award, Elyse Cherry ’75, is the chief executive officer of Boston Community Capital (BCC), a nonprofit organization that seeks to build and sustain healthy communities within low-income populations.
Cherry elaborated on the main objectives of the non-profit organization.
“We set out to solve a problem—to break down the social and economic barriers that isolate low-income communities and to use capital market tools and techniques to make our communities stronger and healthier,” she said.
When she first arrived at Wellesley College, Cherry did not know what career path she wanted to pursue. She eventually majored in Political Science and hoped to pursue a career in law. After graduating from Wellesley, she worked as an AmeriCorps VISTA volunteer in Tennessee and from there, became interested in labor and labor history.
Cherry received a J.D. from Northeastern University and worked in various other fields, including insurance and real estate finance and development, before becoming the CEO of Boston Community Capital in 1997.
Under Cherry’s leadership, the organization has spearheaded a number of initiatives that enhance the quality of life of underserved populations. A few of these projects include lending money for affordable housing, developing childcare facilities and increasing job opportunities for low-income families.
In addition to the milestones she has achieved through Boston Community Capital, Cherry has also been involved in promoting LGBTQ equality in the workplace. She served as board chair and director for MassEquality during Massachusetts’ fight for same-sex marriage.
Cherry drew on her own experiences as a lesbian when discussing what inspired her to champion LGBTQ equality in the workplace.
“When I came out a couple of years after I graduated from Wellesley, being a lesbian could get you fired or even jailed. Plus, having to live in secrecy made it impossible to bring one’s full self to the table. So, we started to build on the work of the liberation movements that came before us. We figured out how to persuade the courts to strike down unjust laws, to persuade our legislative bodies to pass laws that promoted equality and to change public opinion,” she said.
Cherry elaborated on how her experiences at Wellesley helped her achieve what she has accomplished in her career today, both within the workplace and through the work of her organizations.
“A Wellesley education, I suspect in any major, is a wonderful platform from which to launch a life that can have meaning. What we learn here—not just the content but the dedication to academic honesty and to rigor—together with the idea that we will be lifelong learners is very powerful. Plus, the college’s commitment to educating women who will make a difference in the world, that we matter, is a great confidence builder,” she said.
The second recipient of the Alumnae Achievement Award, Kwan Kew Lai ’74, has devoted herself to the field of medicine. She is an infectious disease physician as well as a disaster relief volunteer.
Lai has volunteered in many different countries, including India, Nepal, Vietnam, Greece and various countries in Africa. In 2014, she traveled to Liberia to provide aid during the Ebola outbreak. She also served as a mentor to health workers addressing the HIV/AIDS epidemic in many developing countries.
During the ceremony, Lai shared her inspiration for becoming a doctor. She remembers getting sick as a child and being very aware that the doctor treating her was female. Lai grew up in Penang, an island in Malaysia, and said that at the time, it was uncommon for women to pursue occupations such as medicine or engineering.
Towards the end high school, Lai was accepted to Wellesley with a full scholarship. She felt grateful for the opportunity to go to college and enter the United States for the first time.
“With my college acceptance and full scholarship, Wellesley College gave me a gift and an opportunity to immerse [myself] in this excellent liberal arts education for women,” said Lai.
After her junior year, Lai left Wellesley to attend the Harvard School of Dental Medicine. Her advisers had warned her that the competition to get into medical school was fierce, yet she still felt drawn to the idea of becoming a doctor following her completion of dental school. After considering the possibility of becoming an oral surgeon, she decided to apply to medical schools and graduated from Chicago Medical School. She then became a professor at the University of Massachusetts Medical School in Worcester.
With time, Lai became more interested in humanitarian work and volunteering, particularly after seeing the impacts of the Indian Ocean tsunami in 2004. She was deeply affected by the human suffering that resulted from this natural disaster.
“We live in paradise in comparison to many. It is heartbreaking to see so many people born into abject poverty live on this earth without much comfort or hope,” said Lai.
At the end of her speech, Lai related her experiences at Wellesley to the selfless medical services that she offers around the world.
“Many years ago, Wellesley College extended a helping hand to a young girl on an island. That sed ministrare act triggered the Wellesley Effect that causes ripples and changes in someone’s life—mine and many others here, and in some remote [corners] of the world. These ripples of change may result in many more acts of sed ministrare,” she said. “My voluntary contribution may be a drop in the vast ocean of need, but while it has taught me that I cannot change the world altogether, to the people in need, I may be their world. And I can surely change the circumstances for a few of them.”
The third recipient of this year’s Alumnae Achievement Award was Lorraine O’Grady ’55, who has pursued a number of different occupations, including serving as a government analyst, translator, writer, teacher and rock critic. She is currently a conceptual artist.
O’Grady’s parents originally immigrated from Jamaica and arrived in the United States during World War I. She feels that her identity as the daughter of West Indian immigrants has had a profound impact on her work as an artist and a writer. A dedicated student with many talents, O’Grady attended Girls’ Latin School and later arrived at Wellesley College to pursue her undergraduate degree.
While at Wellesley, O’Grady was deeply aware of her love for Spanish poetry and literature, and she declared her major in Spanish Literature.
During her sophomore year, O’Grady left Wellesley because she got married and had a baby. When she came back, she continued her academics and changed her major to economics.
A year later, she was accepted by Harvard Summer School with a scholarship, where she took a course with Sylvia Plath. Through this experience, O’Grady realized that people could go off track in their lives but that it was entirely possible to continue onwards again. O’Grady eventually graduated from Wellesley one year after the peers in her original class.
After graduation, O’Grady began to notice how frequently she was defined by her race and the color of her skin.
“Life for me involved inordinate amounts of translation. I was always the only black person in the room I think, and I had to translate everything about myself in order to be understood at the most minimal level,” she said.
Over the next years, O’Grady worked in a variety of fields including translating and serving as a rock critic. She explained that she did not find her passion and interest in conceptual art until a bit later in her life.
“I did not find out who I was until I was in my late 30s, when I got a job as an adjunct instructor in English at the New York School of Visual Arts,” O’Grady explained. “I found myself in an environment that felt electric, but I did not understand why.”
That changed one day when she stumbled upon a book titled “Six Years: The Dematerialization of the Art Object from 1966 to 1972,” by Lucy Lippard. “[The book] was all about conceptual art and performance art. And all of the art wasn’t about objects, it was about ideas,” she said. O’Grady was fascinated by the book and read it cover-to-cover.
Following the discovery of her new passion, O’Grady attended various performances and exhibitions that spoke to her new interest in conceptual art. She volunteered at Just Above Midtown (JAM), a gallery space dedicated to black artists. In 1980, she gave a landmark performance that was given the title of “Mlle Bourgeoise Noire of 1955” (Miss Black Middle Class).
O’Grady also performed in other group shows, some of which included the Whitney Biennial, “Radical Presence: Black Performance in Contemporary Art,” “We Wanted a Revolution: Black Radical Women, 1965-85” and more recently, “Soul of a Nation: Art in the Age of Black Power, 1963-1983.”
O’Grady’s performances and works speak to a variety of issues that relate to her racial background including diaspora, hybridity and black female subjectivity, and she has received a number of awards and honors for her work.
The alumnae reflected upon the challenges they had faced throughout their careers, and they offered advice to current Wellesley students.
Cherry encouraged students to search for organizations they are passionate about and have a positive impact on surrounding communities.
“Find an organization that has some scale, that has a mission that resonates with your passion and that is efficient and effective in its work with the communities it serves,” she said.
Lai emphasized a commitment to help those in need.
“Caring for the sick is a humbling task, but it is also immensely satisfying and impactful work. If we happen to be elevated from being underprivileged to privileged, we should do our utmost to share our wealth and resources and use kindness and compassion in our actions,” advised Lai.
O’Grady offered advice to students who were in conflict with their parents over their major. O’Grady explained that she was once in this situation herself.
“Families who are new to America, or even just new to the middle class, are understandably insecure. They want the best and safest lives for their children. And so they tend to prefer that their kids enter the more traditional careers, such as law and medicine. A major like Art, which they may see as leading only to the unpredictable outcome of becoming a fine artist, frightens them.”
O’Grady continued on to explain that in actuality, those pursuing art—like many other liberal arts disciplines—have many different career options.
“Someone with an art major can teach art in high school, get a job in advertising, design printed fabrics, become a graphic artist for a print or internet magazine,” said O’Grady. “Today’s students are luckier than my generation was. They have the internet to help them learn and evaluate the wide range of possible careers that employ their majors. And they, in turn, can help their parents understand.”
In closing the ceremony, President Johnson stated, “Every year we marvel at the talent, drive and dedication of the Achievement Award recipients. What they have gone on to accomplish in their post-Wellesley lives is truly amazing. They are extraordinarily gifted, sharing the determination of all of our graduates to make a difference in the world.”