Voting Rights Leader Jocelyn Benson ’99 Will Deliver This Year’s Commencement Address

Studio portrait of Jocelyn Benson ’99
Author  Stacey Schmeidel
Published on 

Jocelyn Benson ’99, a fierce advocate for voting rights who currently serves as Michigan’s secretary of state, will deliver the commencement address when Wellesley’s class of 2023 graduates on Saturday, May 20.

“Jocelyn Benson knows firsthand how vital it is to stand up for our democracy and to serve as a bulwark against the forces that would damage it,” said Wellesley College President Paula A. Johnson. “At a time when we need champions like her more than ever, Wellesley is honored to welcome this distinguished alumna back to campus to serve as our 2023 commencement speaker.”

Benson oversaw Michigan’s 2020 and 2022 general elections, both of which drew record-breaking turnout. She implemented new voting rights for all eligible Michiganders before the 2020 election, including the right to vote absentee, and she became a national spokesperson for fair and accessible voting when Michigan’s election results were among those called into question after President Joe Biden’s win over Donald Trump. As Michigan’s top election official, Benson faced criticism and harassment from voters who mistakenly believed the election had been mismanaged. Benson stood by her state’s vote count, becoming one of the most vocal and recognizable election officials in the nation; more than 250 audits after the election affirmed its integrity and accuracy.

“I will stand up every day in my job for all voters,” Benson said in a statement at the time, “even the votes of the protesters who banded together outside my home.”

In a video announcing the news to the senior class, Class Council Co-President Ahalya Ramgopal ’23 said, “As an alum herself, Jocelyn reminds us that graduating from Wellesley is just the beginning of the rest of our lives.”

In a video greeting to the class, Benson told students she was honored and excited to address them at graduation. “I cannot wait to meet all of you on campus,” she said. “If history is any guide, I know that all of you are just getting warmed up.”

In 2015, Benson became one of the youngest women inducted into the Michigan Women’s Hall of Fame. She received a 2022 John F. Kennedy Profile in Courage Award, and on January 6, 2023, Biden awarded Benson a Presidential Citizens Medal for her “undaunted and unflinching” work in performing “exemplary public service to advance free and fair elections.”

Benson’s strong commitment to voting rights activism was born while she was at Wellesley. A political science major, Benson was the first Wellesley student ever elected to the Wellesley Town Meeting. As a senior, she was named one of Glamour magazine’s top 10 college women, earning special recognition for encouraging political activism among minority groups. “Each effort has stemmed from my belief that the minorities of America are the majority,” Benson wrote in her 1998 application for the award, “be us old, young, Black, Hispanic, female, or disabled. Our government must not only be receptive to that—it must reflect that. If I can use my life to bring us one step closer to that reality, then it has been a success.”

During college, Benson interned and worked at the Southern Poverty Law Center in Montgomery, Ala., focusing on white supremacy and neo-Nazism. She continued her research into hate groups while earning her master’s degree in sociology as a Marshall Scholar at Magdalen College, Oxford, then received her J.D. from Harvard Law School, where she served as a general editor for the Harvard Civil Rights-Civil Liberties Law Review.

At age 36, Benson was named dean of Wayne State University Law School in Detroit, becoming the youngest woman in U.S. history to lead a top-100 accredited law school. She continues to serve as vice chair of the advisory board for the Levin Center at Wayne Law, which she co-founded with former Sen. Carl Levin (D-Mich.). Previously, Benson was an associate professor and associate director of Wayne Law’s Damon J. Keith Center for Civil Rights.

Benson is the author of State Secretaries of State: Guardians of the Democratic Process, the first major book on the secretary of state’s role in enforcing election and campaign finance laws. She is also a co-founder and former president of Military Spouses of Michigan, a network dedicated to providing support and services to military spouses and their children.

Wellesley’s 2023 commencement ceremony will be held in person on Severance Green on Saturday, May 20, at 10:30 a.m. EDT, and it will be livestreamed on the WellesleyLive website.