Simon's Rock grads asked to ‘rise to the occasion'


Photo Gallery | 2014 Bard College at Simon's Rock Commencement

GREAT BARRINGTON -- Nina Perales' passion for justice was put to the test eight years ago during her first-ever appearance before the U.S. Supreme Court.

The civil rights attorney specializing in immigrants' rights litigation successfully proved to the justices that part of the 2003 congressional redistricting map in Texas discriminated against the Latino population. On Monday, Perales told the newest graduates from Bard College at Simon's Rock, the legal victory proved she could achieve new heights in her career -- having never argued before an appellate court.

"Standing at the Supreme Court podium, about to begin my argument, I knew that I didn't have the option of fainting or running away," said the 1984 alumna of Simon's Rock. "My clients and a lot of other people were waiting and, like it or not, I had to rise to the occasion."

She added, "As you move forward, as you find your passion and commit to it, just remember that you will be asked to, and you will, rise to the occasion."

Perales' keynote speech to the Class of 2014 at Simon's Rock highlighted the early college's 45th commencement on the Great Barrington campus where 57 students received Bachelor of Arts degrees; 96 received Associate of Arts degrees.

The San Antonio wife and mother of three children is vice president of litigation for the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund. She and her MALDEF colleagues have spent 11 years fighting laws and regulations -- primarily in Arizona and Texas -- intended to keep immigrants from voting, receive decent housing, even to legally remain in the country.

In recent years, Perales says America has been suffering from "anti-immigrant hysteria ... a reaction as much about race as immigration."

"I've met people who think Latinos can't be Americans," she noted. "[They say] stores with Spanish signs, new kids in school and new faces in the neighborhood are an attack on their American way of life."

"Even if we are born here, our looks subject us to questioning and suspicion," added the attorney.

Perales urged the graduates, as she has done, to take responsibility for the outcome of issues and challenges before them.

In addition, Bachelor of Arts graduate Heather Meehan called on the Class of 2014 to embrace what it learns beyond Simon's Rock and the differing viewpoints it will encounter.

"Through open-mindedness we can cultivate self-awareness," she said in her commencement speech. "Through self-awareness we become conscious of our center, and whatever the next step is, we can center into it with grace and assurance, knowing that there will always be other opportunities."

As for rising to the occasion, Pearl Weggler says Simon's Rock has taught her to take on unexpected challenges. The Associate of Arts graduate recalled in her speech when she was the high scorer for the school's women's and men's basketball team -- on the same day -- her freshman year. The high school basketball star from Northfield, Vt., was willing to play for the men, after learning they didn't have enough players for the game. While Weggler's feat has gained her notoriety in Sports Illustrated, she was simply solving the problem of the men's team being short-handed.

"Our Simon's Rock education has prepared us to recognize and identify the problems we face, which are the first steps in crafting attainable solutions," she said.

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