Student Speech

Student Commencement Speech by Karla E. Cooper '91

The origins of this speech go back to my sophomore year at Wellesley as I was planning to write an English paper on the poetry of Nikki Giovanni, an African-American woman writer.

In the process of doing my research, I discovered something unusual. In my other English classes, I had heard many lectures and discussions about Shakespeare's portrayal of women, Spenser's attitude toward women, and so on, but in Giovanni's beautiful poems, I was hearing for the first time a woman's voice, loud and clear. I felt as though she were speaking directly to me.

Two and a half years later, I stand before you, an English and Women's Studies major with a whole new direction in life. I have read the work of many inspiring writers since I wrote that paper about Nikki Giovanni's poetry, but I keep coming back to her words again and again. Especially during this sentimental final year at Wellesley, I have often been struck by the strong connections between her words and the lessons that Wellesley teaches all of us.

One of her poems that I find best illustrates these connections is called "Space." In it, she describes a flying saucer that lands in her living room, and the visitor that emerges from it. She expresses her confusion at how to approach the space person, since she does not know where it comes from, what gender it is, or even if gender exists in its homeland. But the final three stanzas of the poem show the surprising ease of conversation between the speaker and this space creature.

Here is how Giovanni describes the encounter:

I think I should tell you
she reported as she stepped from her craft
you possibly are not seeing me
depending on the solar year
you may only be seeing my aura

don't worry I assured her
happy it was a woman
depending on my aura
you are most likely only seeing
my solar years

we sat down to talk

What is so amazing about this poem is that we as readers don't know what this space woman looks like. We don't know if her aura is beautiful or monstrous. Giovanni's point, of course, is that it doesn't matter. The speaker know immediately that the space creature is a woman, and with that as the sole connection the two share, they "sit down to talk."

In the imaginary situation that Giovanni describes, this instant communication may seem farfetched. However, we have all experienced this phenomenon at Wellesley College. Take for example, your first day of orientation, first year. Each of us had a great sense of anticipation that day, much like what Giovanni describes in her poem.

We each waited anxiously to meet our roommate, this girl (that's how we thought then) from a different town, a different state, a different country. Classic stereotypes ran through our minds as we wondered how she would be different from us. Would she be a wealthy debutante who wore strings of pearls, even with her pajamas? Or, would she be an ardent feminist/environmentalist/activist who carried picket signs to class?

Hopefully, most of us, like the speaker in Giovanni's poem, were pleasantly surprised on that first day to be able to connect with our new roommate on some level. We were finally able to focus on our similarities as well as our differences. I will never forget how relieved I was to see my roommate's warm smile. Of course, her Boston accent made me feel at first like she was from Mars. But fortunately, I quickly got used to her accent and she got used to mine, and we began to learn and grow from each other's differences. And, like Giovanni and her space woman, we were always able to just "sit down to talk."

I believe that all of us in the Class of 1991 have experienced this powerful connection, if not with our roommates, then with other Wellesley women we have known in our dorms, our classes, and our organizations. It is important for us not only to appreciate these connections, but also to recognize as we leave this wonderful place, that they carry with them a great responsibility.

This idea became clear to me last January when I attended a political demonstration in a small Ohio town. It was a cold, windy night and there were only about twenty of us standing on the courthouse steps chanting and holding candles, while over one thousand opposing demonstrators marched around us, drowning out our chants with their own.

Surprisingly, I was one of only a few college-age women there. One older woman, about 50, approached me and smiled weakly. "I have been fighting this battle for twenty years," she said, "and I am so tired... I'm counting on you young women to take over this fight."

That strong woman, that tired woman, said it better than I ever could, and I often hear her words when I least expect to..."I'm counting on you young women to take over this fight." Her poignant statement applies to all of us who are graduating today. Regardless of the cause or causes that you choose to support, whatever it is that you care for, support it actively and thoughtfully. Reach out to the older women who have lived through the history of the movement, learn from them, and make their fight your own.

Throughout our education at Wellesley College, we have all learned about the women who came before us, the women who struggled against the majority so that we could do the things we now take for granted, such as attend an excellent college and look forward to a life full of our own choices.

Today, and always, we have an obligation to these women, especially, to take over their fight. This does not mean we have to sacrifice our future careers and families in order to become full-time women's rights activists. It does mean, however, that in all of our struggles and experiences, whatever they may be, we must make ourselves aware of the way that women are viewed and affected by the organizations that we support, the graduate schools that we attend, and the companies that we work for.

Speaking out against the injustice that we witness or experience will almost never be easy. We should be prepared, for out in the real world, we may not feel as supported as we often do at Wellesley. We may be part of a minority, much like I was at the demonstration I described. Even more frightening, many of us may be alone in our struggles.

But as women, we must never lose sight of the significance of simply using our own voices, whatever the purpose. And as Wellesley graduates, we must never lose sight of the education and spirit that support us, and make our voices even louder.

In celebration of the life-long connections that we have all made at Wellesley College and in celebration of the strong woman each of us has become, I would like to close with an excerpt from another poem by Nikki Giovanni called "Revolutionary Dreams."

i used to dream radical dreams
of blowing everyone away with my perceptive powers of
correct analysis
i even used to think i'd be the one
to stop the riot and negotiate the peace
then i awoke and dug
that if i dreamed natural
dreams of being a natural
woman doing what a woman
does when she's natural
i would have a revolution.

Thank you.

 

Related

1991 Pinanski Prize for Excellence in Teaching

 

Read the full citation.