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Student Commencement Speech by Jay Vanasco '94
Good morning, my own class of 1994. We made it! And welcome to all of you who have come here today to support us and celebrate with us. On behalf of the seniors, I thank you.
The first time I was identified as a "Wellesley woman," I was a senior in high school. It was May, and my English teacher brought up the Barbara Bush controversy. Immediately, a member of the class swerved around to face me. "Aren't you going to Wellesley?" he asked. I nodded and wished my teacher would hurry and turn the discussion back to Dickens. I wondered what I was getting into.
What I should have said was simply, "Yes." Yes, I'm going to Wellesley. There are books out there which teach us to say "No." The books say that as women, we try to do too much, that to make space for ourselves we need to let "no" be our watchword. We must guard against those who will demand things of us. I disagree. Maybe sometimes, in some circumstances, we should say "no." But we need to learn to shout out "yes."
How many times have we been in our rooms with the door shut when someone has knocked and asked us to do something we would love to do? To walk to White Mountain for a fresh waffle cone of chocolate chip cookie dough ice cream. To take a rainy spring walk around the lake. To go traying exuberantly down Severance Hill. To go tunneling at one in the morning. How many times has someone asked us to do something like that, and we turn to look at the pile of books piled up on our desks and say mournfully , regretfully, "no. I really can't." We need to make room for "Yes" in our lives. We need to say, Yes! I will go to that march to help protest. Yes! I will take that male role in community theater even though I have always been taught to walk, talk and move like a woman. Yes, yes, yes.
Wellesley was founded on "yes." Henry Fowle Durant believed that yes, girls could learn as much and as well as boys- and they could row crew and play tennis, as well. Wellesley is the only college in the country to have a female president from the start- because Durant believed, yes, a woman could do the job as well as a man-or better. Wellesley women have always been encouraged in the sciences- astronomy, biology, chemistry, geology, physics- because from the beginning the trustees have had a vision, and that vision was yes, Wellesley women can do it.
"Yes" requires courage. But we have courage. We have learned it from fighting battles on scales large and small. We have fought against the meal plan (we lost that one) and for extra credit for labs- that we got. We have held a "Take back the night" march, a march in anger over the Rodney King verdict, and a march to support the lesbian victim of a hate crime. We have argued in Senate, we have argued over public bulletin, we have argued in the Wellesley News, we have argued in our dorm rooms and in our classes. That intellectual, critical fighting that Wellesley women are so good at, that takes courage. A philosophy professor who taught here in the thirties said, "I want our students to be fearlessly critical, to know facts and respect them, and to know possibilities that allure them to adventurous living." To have the courage to say "yes" is to embrace a rainbow of opportunities, to have faith that the individual direction we have chosen, though different from the choices of our classmates, is the right one for us.
To say "yes" also needs confidence. That's not a problem, because we have that, too. Mostly, it comes from practical experience. We have thought out proposals. We have hammered out details. We have gone on an alternative spring break and helped build a house for a poor family. We have done office work for local and national political campaigns. We have taught English as a second language in Chinatown. We have written for feminist newspapers. From figuring out a new technique in lab, to starting an organization, from pulling a team together, to debating with trustees, at Wellesley we have learned to assimilate everything we know and have done in order to see our ideas fly. And each time, we have begun by saying what we think. Shakespeare's Rosalind says, in As You Like It, "Do you not know I am a woman? When I think, I must speak." We have taken on this world of ours and helped to shape it to mirror our diversity by speaking our thoughts. And each time we do, we are saying, yes, I want this community to reflect what I look like and think about and believe in. Yes, I will be courageous and confident and stand out here alone- or enlist the help of others. Yes, I will do this, because it is important to me.
Which leads me to what is unique about the Wellesley women of the class of 1994. Maya Angelou describes it best in her poem "Phenomenal Woman." She writes,
"They try so much
But they can't touch
My inner mystery.
When I try to show them
they say they can't see.
It's the arch in my back,
the sun of my smile,
the ride of my breasts,
the grace of my style.
I'm a woman,
A phenomenal woman is a woman who can gaze at the world and all that's in it and say "yes."
I stand before you today looking at women I feel I have known all my life. We have stayed up all night discussing dreams and wishes and desires. I have seen you evolve from first years to seniors, and today when I look at you I know you are phenomenal women.
I used to fight with upperclasswomen over the word, "woman." I am not a woman, I would say. I am a girl. Happy, fun-loving, free-spirited. I will never be a woman. A woman is someone with her stockings bunched around her ankles and orange lipstick smeared on her mouth.
Today I know better, because I have spent my time with the women of the class of 1994. I do not know if we were women when we came here, but we are certainly women as we leave. We walk proudly, like women. When there is a job to do, we do it, as a woman would. When there is a dream to take hold of, a battle to fight, a mountain to climb, we do it as women. When there is a song to sing, a mystery to uncover, a problem to solve, a hand to hold, we do it as women. Phenomenal women.
The first day of Orientation, I walked around campus with a new friend. We looked at the majesty of Tower Court, and the beauty of Lake Waban. At one point, she turned to me and said, "I can't believe that I do not have to leave when my parents go home today. I can't believe that I get to stay here." I couldn't believe it, either. But now, when our parents leave today or tomorrow, we have to leave too. We need to drag all the boxes of things we have collected to the car. All the pictures and baseball caps, and books, and candles- which we, of course, have never, ever lit in our dorm rooms- all these will need to be hauled away from this place that has been home for four years.
But then, in ten years or twenty years or fifty years, most of us will be back again. The women you are sitting among now will be the ones who lead the world, in both large and small ways. Among you may be a future Editor-in-Chief of the New York Times, an educator, an entrepreneur, the President of the Federal Reserve Bank, or the physicist who discovers the true origins of the universe. But even if they do not make the headlines, the women sitting next to you will leave here and make a difference. Whether they will hold a family or a country together, these women will take all they have learned at Wellesley, and all they will learn in their lives, and find a cause and speak for it. And when someone approaches you with an idea or a cause that you believe in, and when they ask you, "Will you work with us? Will you fight with us?" you will accept the challenge. You will say "yes." Because you are a Wellesley woman from the class of 1994.
Honored guests, I present to you the phenomenal women of the Class of 1994.