Irene Mata addressed the class of 2013 at the Senior Luncheon on May 29
Thank you all for the opportunity to address you today. It is a tremendous honor and I am humbled by your decision to invite me to give the senior class faculty lecture. First of all, let me begin by saying “Congratulations.” You did it! You should be immensely proud of yourselves. We are. For some of you, Wellesley has been a place of amazing growth and intellectual development—a place where you blossomed. For others, Wellesley has been a difficult place to navigate, a space so different from what you’d known before. At the beginning, many of you struggled to find your place, trying to figure out where you belonged. Although it got difficult at times, and you might have stumbled, you not only survived, you thrived. You never gave up, even when doubts and insecurities seemed to get the best of you, you hung in there and carved out a space for yourself. You leave here smarter and stronger than when you first arrived and you take with you the tools of knowledge, perseverance, and a sense of community that will help you navigate the world outside of our Wellesley bubble. With all that you have learned, what advice can I possibly offer you? What nugget of wisdom can I impart that will help you as you move on? I’m sure by now you have received some wonderful advice from friends and mentors and so the most important thing I can share with you is what I wish I’d learned at your age. Love and passion can make all of the difference in your life—they can help transform the world.
When I say that love and passion are important, I am not talking about romantic love or passion as it is represented for us in the media. Life is not a romance novel or a romantic comedy—no matter how entertaining one might find them. What I mean when I speak of love is a love for those around you and a passion for the work you choose to perform. Let me give you an example. When I first found out I had been elected to give this speech, I was incredibly honored. Then the panic set in. I am terrified of public speaking. It is one of those things that causes me the most anxiety in life. When I share with others my fear of public speaking, the most common response I get is: “Wait, but you’re a teacher? Don’t you talk in your classes? Don’t you present at public conferences?” “Yes,” I answer, but “teaching is different” and then I have to explain to them why teaching doesn’t count as public speaking—at least not for me. Standing in front of a room full of people, having all eyes on me, is not exactly my piece of cake.
But teaching is different. Teaching is where my passion lies. The classroom is where I feel most at home in academia. For me, it is the place where magic happens—not the Harry Potter type of magic—but the more subtle, every day magic, inspired by the awe and wonder that comes with the exchange of knowledge, with the sharing of ideas, with the expanding of perspectives. And so I decided that the best way to approach this talk is to discuss that which makes me the happiest: my work.
One of the most common questions I get from students is: how did I know I wanted to become a professor? I didn’t always know I wanted to be a teacher. Growing up, my passion was reading. I would read any book I could get my hands on. Instead of playing outside like most kids, I would lay under our pear tree and spend hours with my nose in a book. My parents helped fuel this passion. Every Saturday, I would pester my father relentlessly until he drove me to our public library. My father worked the second shift and the weekends were the only time he got to spend with us. I’m sure he would have preferred to use that time playing with my siblings or relaxing at home with my mother. But he understood how much reading meant to me and, while he couldn’t afford to buy me the books I wanted, he made the time to drive me to our tiny community library. In high school, the library was where I went to imagine my life after graduation. More than just reading the words on a page, the books I read helped me imagine a world that was different from my own reality. In books I found egalitarian worlds and strong and empowered women and people of color. If writers could imagine more just and equal worlds, why couldn’t we aspire to create those worlds? Combined with the ethics of care my family had instilled in me, reading infused in me a deep desire to make a difference. I just hadn’t figured out how.
When I started college, all I knew was that I loved reading and was a pretty decent writer, so I became a Liberal Arts major—what my friends called the “I have no idea what I want to be when I grow up” major. They were somewhat right. From Political Science to History, to Anthropology, I loved all of my classes—well, maybe except math. I loved the written word, but my passion for learning did not apply to numbers. With all of the fun I was having in my different courses, I didn’t think it was possible decide on just one field of study. Then I began to take literature classes and my world shifted. Here was a major where all you did was read books and write about them. I had found my own academic nirvana. The practice of reading literature reconnected me to the passion I felt for stories in my childhood. Unfortunately, I still had to decide what I wanted to do after graduation. While I was enjoying the imaginary worlds created by American authors, I had also taken Women’s Studies courses and found myself compelled to fight the patriarchy. So how could I combine my love of literature and my hatred of multiple forms of oppression? I had no clue. I decided to enroll in a master’s program in literature to give myself time to figure out.
During my master’s program, I finally narrowed down my career paths to two: I would either go to law school and fight for the rights of women and children, or I would go to graduate school, become a professor, and inspire young minds—just like Robin Williams’ character in Dead Poets Society. I was incredibly idealistic. However, something really important happened to me in graduate school. As a graduate student, I was expected to teach sections of rhetoric and composition. After one whole week of training, I was tossed into a classroom to teach first-year students how to write. Considering the fact that I had never taught, that I was terrified of public speaking, and that the students in my class where just a few years younger than myself, it is surprising I didn’t hyperventilate the first day of classes. What made all the difference in the world was my first assignment: I was supposed to guide students through a reading of Paulo Freire’s “Banking Concept of Education,” a chapter out of his text, Pedagogy of the Oppressed. In this chapter, Freire is critical of an education system that teaches students to be passive. Under this system, education becomes an act of depositing, where students are the containers into which the teacher deposits knowledge. This approach to education, what he refers to as the “banking concept,” leaves no room for critical thinking or engaged pedagogy. The essay helped me frame my positionality in the classroom and helped students think of their own responsibilities in learning. It helped me see how I too had often been just a receptacle, rarely questioning what I was taught. After all, isn’t that what made me such a good student?
By seeing my students and myself as active participants in our education, I learned the about the process of truly sharing knowledge, a process in which we learned from each other. In the first couple of class meetings, we learned to create in our classroom a structure that challenged the teacher/student binary and instead began to think critically about creating a new system for sharing knowledge. The process was incredibly difficult but immensely rewarding. It was after those few class meetings that I realized I loved teaching because it helped me make a difference. I wasn’t invested in inspiring students through the lofty words we read. I was 5
invested in a process of critical pedagogy, helping students become critical thinkers so that they could learn to identify how knowledge has been constructed and acquire the skills necessary to question structures of power and inequality. Such a form of pedagogy also helped me learn from my students’ own experiences and knowledges. I had finally found my passion. I have no doubt that I would have succeeded in law school, but I don’t know if I would have been as passionate about the law as I am about education.
Don’t get me wrong—teaching isn’t easy. Nothing ever worth doing well is simple. There are days when teaching doesn’t feel very magical, when I leave the classroom wondering if students really “got it.” It is these days, however, that prove to be the most important. These are the days that remind me of how important it is to always keep growing, to keep learning, to want to be better. How can we better understand the intersections of oppression, the ways in which classism, racism, sexism, able-bodiedism, and homophobia function together? How do we learn to challenge injustice…to speak back to power? It is my passion for teaching that pushes me to ask hard questions that don’t have simple answers. It is my passion that motivates me to continue to learn from my students. Teaching is not the magic of illusion, but an inexplicable process of imagining alternatives, of creating possibilities for change. It is the hope that what one learns in the class can make a difference outside of the walls of the classroom.
I share my story with you to encourage you to nurture your own passion for global justice. Find endeavors that make you feel connected to a larger movement of social change. If you can find your passion in your work it will make what you do so much more enjoyable and fulfilling. It will make the long hours you spend at your desk go by just a little bit faster, the thankless tasks you perform on a daily basis a little less tedious. It isn’t always easy figuring out how to combine your book knowledge with your activism. For many, your occupation will be a job that will give you the economic security you crave but not necessarily the passion to feed your soul. If this turns out to be the case, find your passion for social justice elsewhere. If you are invested in your immediate community, find it in local volunteer work. There are always organizations looking for individuals to give their time and energy for nothing in return. If you love creating art, music or dancing, think about cultural activism and how you can use your skills to educate and make the world a better place. If you see a need in your community, think about ways that you, in solidarity with community members, can help meet that need. You don’t have to start your own non-profit to make a difference in the world. There are so many ways in which the world can benefit from the knowledge you have acquired during your time at Wellesley. Create your own small moments of activism. It can be as simple as refusing to drink bottled water because you know it is environmentally toxic and that the privatization of water is negatively impacting so many communities across the globe—and then telling others about it. Use your privilege for good. Don’t be satisfied with simply living.
In the beginning of this talk I also mentioned the importance of love. We as human beings feel the need to love and be loved. Life is too short to not share your love with others. I want to encourage you to freely and openly love those that deserve your love: your friends, your family, your community. The world can be a harsh place and you will need a support network to help you navigate the difficult times. This network will be made up of individuals who will be there to celebrate your accomplishments and remind you that you are awesome even when you fail. They will keep you rooted when you get lost in your own visions of grandeur and they will remind you of what is most important in life. More importantly, however, I want you to think about love as a political act. Remember, loving is a privilege and many still do not have the right to openly and freely love whom they chose to love. In “Love as the Practice of Freedom,” bell hooks writes, “the moment we choose to love, we begin to move against domination, against oppression. The moment we choose to love, we begin to move toward freedom, to act in ways that liberate ourselves and others. That action is the testimony of love as a practice of freedom” (250). Loving makes you a compassionate person and practicing love as a political act is a radical project of loving that recognizes the humanity in everyone. It means being able to love in difference—loving people because of their difference and not in spite of that difference. The practice of love also means holding each other accountable for how our actions affect our communities. It is much more complicated than merely claiming to love one another.
My research on gender, labor and immigration comes from a deep love of my community. As a first-generation, working-class queer Chicana, I am scholar strongly motivated by the desire to see my community, and other marginalized communities treated justly and with respect. My motivation comes from a place of anger that the media and politicians never seem to get it right. It is a righteous anger. While I get incredibly upset in the face of any kind of injustice, as should everyone, the love I feel for members of my different communities keeps me from internalizing that anger. Love is the motivation and the buffer that allows me to continue to engage in various social justice movements, especially in the face of disappointment or setbacks. Change is often slow and love helps give me the patience to continue to hope in that change.
Oftentimes we are encouraged to think negatively of feeling. We are told we should always be strong and emulate the masculine model of stoicism. If we want to be successful, we can’t be emotional—as if somehow having emotions negates intelligence. We can’t feel and think at the same time. Having lived as long as I have I can tell you this is a lie. My success and the success of many those I admire the most has been based on recognizing what moves us, what motivates us to do the work that matters to us. We have found that feeling and thinking simultaneously is not only possible, but helps us make better decisions, even when those feelings are unpleasant or painful. In her book World As Lover, World As Self: Courage for Global Justice and Ecological Renewal, Joanna Macy writes, “the refusal to feel takes a heavy toll. Not only is there an impoverishment of our emotional and sensory life...but this psychic numbing also impedes our capacity to process and respond to information. The energy expended in pushing down despair is diverted from more creative uses, depleting the resilience and imagination needed for fresh visions and strategies.” It takes courage to love and feel, to face the danger of being hurt or disappointed. It takes audacity to embrace passion. It takes a leap of faith to let yourself be guided by your love.
I encourage you to take the knowledge you have gained here at Wellesley and make a difference in the world around you. I know you have it in you. I have seen you rally together to defend workers’ right, understanding that the lived reality of those who care for you on this campus is intimately tied to larger movements of labor justice. I have witnessed you educating your fellow students along with faculty and staff on the needs of gender non-conforming members of our community. While changing the signs on bathroom doors might not seem like a major change, it is an important acknowledgement of the work that is just beginning. I have seen you come together and support each other when you feel an injustice has been committed or when you see members of your community being disparaged. Your demand for a more inclusive curriculum illustrates your understanding of how the needs of a few actually represent the education of the many. The actions you have participated in during the past four years stem from your investment in our academic institution, and your activism has led to changes in how we as a community think about ourselves. This activism is greatly motivated by love and a passion for social justice. It is activism inspired by your desire to make Wellesley a better place. As you leave this space, do not forget what you have achieved in your time here. Do not forget the friendships you have created or the relationships you have forged. Continue your work as alumnae and continue to advocate for those Wellesley students that follow. While your time here at Wellesley has come to an end, your legacy as Wellesley graduates is just beginning. You now get to choose how you will use the knowledge and the privilege that comes with your degree. In the words of Dylan Thomas, “do not go gentle into that goodnight”…instead, let your love and passion help you set the world on fire.