Dr. Miriam “Duchess” Harris ’87 felt both nervous and excited as she stepped onto the Canterbury campus for the first time in three and a half decades. “My mind is exploding! This is remarkable,” she said. “Seeing the students and trying to reimagine myself in these seats feels like a very long time ago in some ways but also feels very familiar. I feel so connected.”
A highly accomplished academic, author, and legal scholar, Duchess is a professor of American Studies at Macalester College in Saint Paul, Minnesota. She was recently chosen to receive Canterbury’s Thomas J. Sheehy III Distinguished Alumni Award, which will be presented to her during Alumni Weekend in June.
While students typically hear from “Saints on the Hill” at School Meeting, this time it was a “Saint Beyond the Hill” as Duchess participated in our Women’s Leadership Speaker Series. Sharing her experiences from her time on the hilltop to college life to her professional career, she started by telling students three things she knows now that she didn’t in 1987.
“The first thing I know now is that being part of this Canterbury community meant that I was going to succeed in whatever I did,” Duchess explained. “The fact that you are a part of this and are being nurtured by these people—I can tell you with tremendous confidence that things are going to work out for you.
She continued: “The second thing I learned is you can’t let people put a ceiling on your sky. And the final thing is one of my personal favorites—perfection is the enemy of the good. Sometimes you need to just do it and get it done.”
Duchess has certainly gotten it done during an accomplished career as an educator and advocate for social justice and equity. At the University of Pennsylvania, she was the first Black woman to serve as Student Body President at an Ivy League institution. She earned a Juris Doctor from the Mitchell Hamline School of Law in Saint Paul while taking night classes with three children at home. And in 2021, she was appointed to the board of The Kamala Harris Project, a collective of scholars who will track all aspects of Kamala Harris’ tenure as the nation’s first woman of color to serve as Vice President of the United States.
So she was speaking from experience when she advised students to get out of their comfort zone as they grow and learn. “I would encourage you to try the things that feel challenging,” Duchess told them. She did just that during her time at Canterbury. Among her many roles were Sacristan, Proctor, Editor of Cantuarian and Tabard, Editor-in-Chief of Carillon, Debate Club President, Drama Society Stage Manager, and member of Student Government, Social Service, Photography Club, Choral Club, and Chapel Singers.
She also urged students to seek out mentors. “You will be surprised at how open people will be to mentoring because it fills them up so much. When my friends back home said, ‘You’re going to Connecticut…why?’ I answered, ‘Because this sounds wonderful! Because it fills me up!’ And it really does.”
Following her talk, Duchess sat in on a Q&A with Canterbury’s Board of Trustees, toured the campus, met with the Academic Committee and other staff members, and chatted with students and faculty on the Diversity, Equity, Inclusion, and Justice Council. The visit reminded her just how much she loved being a Saint. “It is infectious here; the enthusiasm, the excitement, all of it,” she said. “The academics here are so strong, it’s enviable. I wish all young people in America would get the kind of education you get here.”
As her weekend on the hilltop drew to a close, she perfectly summed up the ethos of her alma mater. “This is a mission-oriented space, a way of life, which is different from a job—and I think that is why you get this great vibe. What you feel here is that people believe in this,” she explained. “It feels very twenty-first century; it feels like exactly where we should be. That makes this place exciting, the kind of place I want to tell people about!”