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'Celebrating With a Tinge of Grief'

Mills College's Last Class Graduates Before Merger

David Marks, Annelise Finney

KQED, Published May 15, 2022

Members of the class of 2022 gather for the final commencement ceremony of Mills College in Oakland on May 14, 2022. The 170-year-old independent women's college will merge with Northeastern University this summer and become a coed school. (Annelise Finney/KQED)

The final class to graduate from Mills College in Oakland walked across the stage on Saturday, at the last undergraduate commencement before the 170-year-old independent women's college merges with Boston’s Northeastern University this summer.

Students who haven't yet graduated are deciding whether or not to stay at the school, which will become Mills College at Northeastern University in July and open its campus to students of all genders for the first time.

This week, some of those current students who haven't graduated yet filed a class-action lawsuit, alleging the school misled them about which programs would be available in the coming years, costing them thousands of dollars and delaying their progress toward degrees.

"Lawsuits are a part of higher education, and we will reckon with this and support our community as best we can," Mills College President Elizabeth Hillman told KQED on Saturday when asked about the lawsuit. "We strongly believe that we’ll be able to serve the most students in the best possible way through the merger with Northeastern University."

The administration says the merger, which was approved by the Mills Board of Trustees last September after a months-long court battle with the alumnae association, is necessary to resolve budget shortfalls caused by declining enrollment.

Sisters Vivian Guerrero (left) and Maureen Guerrero Nanstad (right) graduated from Mills College in Oakland on Saturday with degrees in computer science (bachelor's, Vivian) and public policy (master's, Maureen). (Annelise Finney/KQED)

Kieran Turan, vice president of the Save Mills College Coalition, championed the college's uniqueness and decried the merger in comments to KQED on Saturday.

"This college is so necessary for the future as it is," Turan said, noting the school's diverse student body and status as having been the first women's college to accept trans students.

"I want to see Mills preserved ... We have an incredible liberal arts program. All those programs will be canceled under Northeastern. This is unacceptable. This is a historic legacy and precious institution for Oakland and the Bay Area and it needs to remain independent."

Cynthia Mahood Levin, president of the Save Mills College Coalition (second from right) and Kieran Turan, vice president (far right), attend the final commencement ceremony of Mills College along with other Mills alumnae and coalition members on May 14, 2022. (Annelise Finney/KQED)

Abi Amit, who graduated Saturday with a degree in art and technology, expressed frustration with the school, along with adoration for its students and faculty.

"I think the stuff that's been going on [with the merger] really left a sour taste in my mouth," said Amit. "We have no idea what it's going to be like next semester at all because they haven't been telling the current students."

"But I think this [commencement] is for me, and I love the people at Mills. I love the students. I love the faculty that make it what it is ... This is about celebrating their achievements. I'm just here to celebrate me and my friends and all the teachers that got me here."

Lorelei Bresler has a lei tied on her head by a friend at the final commencement ceremony of Mills College in Oakland on May 14, 2022. Bresler graduated with a master's in management from the business school. (Annelise Finney/KQED)

"Mills is not dead ... Mills did not come this far to only come this far," said LJ Miranda, senior student speaker in a commencement address. "Regardless of how the merger changes the school, every student, every faculty member, every staff member, every alum makes Mills what it is [and] is carrying a piece of that legacy with them."

Mills College awarded honorary degrees to three women at Saturday's commencement, including an honorary doctorate of humane letters for Lynette Gibson McElhaney, the first Black woman to serve as president of the Oakland City Council.

"We are grieving the loss of our beloved community and the things that are familiar," McElhaney told the graduating class. "You all who are the last graduating class of Mills as we know it, are celebrating with a tinge of grief. And so I just wanted to share with you all some of what I've been learning in this decade of leading while grieving. You'll take your next step. And you will enjoy your next laugh because you will be empowered by hope."

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