By John King
The 500-plus students who received degrees and certificates at Mills College in Oakland on Saturday were sent into the world by another graduate of a women's college: House Speaker Nancy Pelosi.
In a commencement speech that steered clear of partisan politics, Pelosi emphasized the personal side of her ascent to power as the nation's first female speaker.
'My message is: 'Be ready,' ' the 1962 graduate of Trinity College in Washington, D.C., told the students and their families and friends gathered on Toyon Meadow in the heart of the 139-year-old campus. 'It may be a path that isn't planned for you.'
The conferring of an honorary doctor of laws degree on the San Francisco representative coincided with the 20th anniversary of a 16-day student strike that caused Mills' board of trustees to reverse an earlier vote to admit men to the college's undergraduate program.
The original decision - made because of concerns over the institution's long-term finances - prompted a boycott of classes by nearly 40 percent of the student body. In the two decades since, the number of undergraduates has grown from 777 to 926, while Mills' endowment has increased to $176 million from $71 million. The graduate programs, which have always included men as well as women, have more than doubled in size to 584 students.
Pelosi praised the 1990 protesters as 'suffragettes ... they fought, they won, they made a difference.'
The speaker was introduced by Rep. Barbara Lee, D-Oakland, who worked up the graduates to hooting applause as she lauded Pelosi as 'a fierce woman warrior, fierce, and I mean fierce!'
But Pelosi played down fierceness for family, emphasizing 'my path was not a planned one,' explaining that she gave birth to five children in rapid succession.
'When you raise five children in six years and get them off to school, you think you can do anything,' Pelosi explained.
That drew laughter from the students, as did Pelosi's description of how her reservations about running for Congress in 1987 ended when her youngest daughter, then a high school senior, told her to 'get a life.'
'What teenage daughter doesn't want her mother out of town for a few days each week?' Pelosi said.
The speaker of the House is in high demand at graduation ceremonies. After assuming the post in 2007, she gave the commencement speech at the University of San Francisco. Last year Pelosi spoke at Johns Hopkins University in her native Baltimore.
Inevitably, there were upbeat depictions of the Obama administration and congressional priorities, particularly the passage of health care reform: 'This bill gives you a healthier life, the liberty to pursue your happiness, whatever it is.'
Pelosi seemed more animated, though, in response to the unique facets of Mills' 122nd commencement, such as the students' graduation robes made from fiber that can be composted - 'I understand in one year they can become a tree or something like that' - and the presence of Hazel Griffin Soares, a 94-year-old San Leandro resident who earned a bachelor's degree in art history.
'Do we need any further inspiration than that?' Pelosi commented after the ceremony. 'Ninety-four, and she wants to be a docent.'