Life as a ‘Group Project’ and Other Lessons


Cum Laude keynote Tolu Onafowokan ’05 brings wisdom


On a snowy January 7, 2022, in a de-densified Phillips Stevens Chapel, Williston Northampton School inducted 13 seniors into the Cum Laude Society, an honor society modeled after Phi Beta Kappa. Keynote speaker Tolu Onafowokan ’05 presented what she called a rough guide to life—”a handful of lessons that I have learned on my personal path from Williston to where I stand today.”

Families of inducted students were present, while the rest of the student body tuned in remotely by advisory. The wider community was able to watch the event live-streamed. Please scroll down for links to related content.

Head of School Robert W. Hill III congratulated the 13 students, and lauded them for their academic prowess and hard work, particularly in light of the pandemic. History and Global Studies teacher and Secretary of Williston Northampton School’s Cum Laude Society Thomas Johnson explained the society’s commitment to excellence (Areté), justice (Diké), and honor (Timé). Beatrice Cody, a Latin teacher and the President of the society, welcomed the students to the “fellowship of scholars” while Cum Laude Vice President and Dean of Academics Greg Tuleja presented each inductee with a certificate.

group of 13 students

The 13 seniors inducted into the Cum Laude society are Edward Bergham, Francis Cataldo, Rosie Crooker, Avi Falk, Sage Friedman, Anita Hua, Jerry Landman, Sydni Landman, Zac Landon, Sarah Markey, Sofia Michalski, Alan Rodal, and Natalie Stott.

Hill then introduced Tolu Onafowokan, a Strategic Communications Officer at the Ford Foundation and a graduate of Columbia University and the London School of Economics. Onafowokan praised the students for their accomplishments and commended their families and friends for their support. She advised all students to be kind. “Life is not a competition,” she said, “at best it’s a group project. And kindness will take you farther than anything else.”

Her second recommendation: have fun. “It’s easy to get caught up in the rush that is working to get through school, get into college, and then get a job and forget to prioritize rest and relaxation,” she said. “You are young people with many years ahead, remember to live them.”

Stay curious, she added. “Remember that learning can take many forms, a lesson that I was taught at Williston and that I carry with me each day. In my work we often say that art helps us understand the world around us—and so I personally love to stay curious by engaging with culture and people.”

Her fourth suggestion: focus on your own path, and try to block out the noise. “Not everyone’s idea of success is the same and you cannot allow other people’s personal milestones to have bearing on your own,” she explained.

Particularly to students from historically marginalized identities, she addressed her fifth pillar of advice: “It can be difficult to move through life as an ‘other,’ but what makes you different is also what makes you absolutely extraordinary,” she said. “I want you to know that you are powerful, you are valued, and you are a force to be reckoned with. Anyone who makes you feel anything less is an enemy of progress and they are not worth your time.”

She then related the story of her paternal grandmother, Caroline Onafowokan, who would have been 100 this year, “starting her life in 1922, in what was then a British colony and is today an independent Nigeria,” she said. “On my father’s side of the family, she was the first woman to be educated. She initially went to school in secret, before eventually convincing her father that girls deserved an education, too. She was a young girl who simply wanted to learn. What she could not foresee were the results of her efforts. Caroline left behind several generations of girls and women who went to school, went to college, and saw the world. Every single one of us. She did not know that what she started would continue with me, standing here, in front of you, celebrating one of the nation’s highest secondary school academic achievements. She was a first, she was certainly an ‘other,’ and the seed she planted grew into a very proud family tree.”

As Onafowokan concluded, she reminded everyone listening to, “remember that life is an iterative process and change is eternal. The person who you are today is laying the groundwork for the person who you will be tomorrow.”

See photographs of the Cum Laude Induction Ceremony on Flickr.

Watch a recording of Tolu Onafowokan’s speech, or the entire event.

Read the full text of Tolu Onafowokan’s speech.