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MMC Selects 2024 Senior Class Speaker

When Jessica Watkins ’24 started her freshman year at MMC—just five months into the Covid-19 crisis—she was so stunned by how the pandemic had upended life that she passed through the first semester in a daze. The Virginia Beach, Virginia, native had dreamed of studying dance in New York City. But due to Covid, she spent the fall in her family’s living room, taking classes remotely—and wondering if coronavirus would rob her and her peers of a traditional college experience, just as it had eliminated milestones like the prom and graduation in their senior year of high school. 

“I had gone numb by that point, I think to protect myself from feeling so completely shut down,” she said. “I just kept wondering if this will ever be over.”

Four years later, Watkins, a BFA Dance and Business major, has been chosen to serve as the senior class speaker for MMC’s 2024 commencement. And she plans to sound a triumphant note at the ceremony, one that her freshman-year self might have had trouble imagining: If she and her peers started college in a time shaped by restrictions and fear, they’re leaving it stronger and with the road wide open before them.

“We’re about to go out in the world, and the opportunities are endless,” she said. “That’s what I want to tell the Class of 2024. I want my peers to be fully present in the moment, to breathe and take some time to celebrate everything we managed to accomplish in the past four years.”

Class speaker is one of the most esteemed honors the College can bestow upon a graduating senior, with those awarded the role representing their classmates before an audience of family, friends, faculty, and staff.

It’s a natural fit for Watkins, who has been active in campus organizations such as the MMC dance troupe The Throne, where she served as captain in her sophomore year, and the Black and Latinx Student Association (BLSA). In recent years, she has leaned into the power of “speaking encouragement into others” the way so many have done for her. “I was raised in the church and have a strong relationship with God,” she said. “I think encouraging others is my calling in life, and I try to use my voice in that way as best as I can.”

Watkins fell in love with dance at eight—what some might consider a late start in a world where children often don their first pair of dance shoes as toddlers. “I was heavily into sports as a kid—I ran track and did gymnastics,” she said. “The only reason I started dancing was because my mom found a studio that offered acrobatics but required students to take ballet and jazz as well.”

In high school, she discovered a passion for choreography and became determined to pursue dance professionally. Although she knew little about New York City colleges, a member of her church was familiar with MMC and suggested that she apply. Her audition in February 2020 was life-changing; Watkins remembers being deeply inspired by Katie Langan, MMC’s interim vice president for academic affairs/dean of the faculty, who was then serving as Dance chair.

“I felt like MMC’s mission aligned with my journey,” Watkins said. “And overall, there was an intimate, personal quality to MMC’s dance auditions that made me feel seen.”

After spending that first fall semester in Virginia, Watkins came to New York in spring 2021, happy to wear masks and maintain social distancing if it meant she could interact with peers and professors in person. But beyond the unprecedented circumstances created by Covid, there were other hurdles, including the growing pains of living away from home for the first time and the culture shock of moving to a northern city and becoming one of a few Black students in some of her classes.

Though it was a difficult transition, she gleaned from those experiences that it was possible for people “to learn and grow together” no matter their differences. “One thing I’ve learned from my four years is you never know what connections you can make, so it pays to keep an open mind,” Watkins said.

As her time at 71st Street comes to a close, Watkins is eyeing a range of opportunities in the arts and entertainment world, here and abroad. At MMC, she has choreographed productions for the Dance Department and student organizations and interned with the acclaimed dance company the Urban Bush Women. She has also performed with the Brooklyn-based roller dance team Miss’ile and appeared in artist Jacolby Satterwhite’s 2022 multimedia performance piece, An Eclectic Dance to the Music of Time, commissioned by Lincoln Center’s David Geffen Hall. As a testament to her strong work ethic and commitment to excellence, Watkins has earned a spot on the Dean’s List and membership in the National Dance Honor Society.

“There are so many things I want to do,” she said. “And MMC has been really good about helping me see my options—and that they aren’t all just in New York. So I’m feeling optimistic and excited to enter this next stage.”

Published: April 25, 2024