President's Address

President Diana Chapman Walsh's Charge to the Seniors

When you return, 5, 10 or 50 years hence (and I hope you will come back soon and often), this College will be here for you:

  • here as a place of peace to heal your spirits and mend your hearts,
  • here as a place of history to anchor your memories and stir your dreams,
  • here as a place of prophesy to reawaken your hopes--for the safer, saner, fairer future we need you to build.

Wellesley will still be here for you in all those ways if we dedicate ourselves, each of us, to the bedrock values on which this College stands, values of intellectual integrity and exploration, respect for difference, for human freedom, a commitment to lifelong growth, and to serving others.

You'll take the astounding body of knowledge you have mastered in your four years here, but more than knowledge, you will take a way of approaching the world--inquisitively, critically, with empathy, ever curious and open to stories others have to tell.

You've developed here, I hope, in the company of a great variety of fascinating women from a great variety of backgrounds the genuine interest in other perspectives out of which learning occurs. Please hold your minds open, always, to radical encounters with those who are other than you.

That leads me to the last--and perhaps most important--of the sensibilities I see you taking from your experiences here. It is also a vital part of the legacy you leave. In struggles we've had this year over authority and decision-making, the larger claim I've heard you asserting is the claim of community. And that claim reconnects us to our deepest roots.

Going back to the Greeks, higher education has been about a particular kind of interaction--a special kind of intellectual community that makes ethical demands: honesty, openness to alternative views, humility, responsibility for one's truth claims and for a systematic form of self critique.

There was a time when a college like Wellesley could depend for its ties of community on personal relationships and tacit understandings about the workings of the social world. But as we become an increasingly diverse, cosmopolitan, and inclusive intellectual community that prizes, welcomes, and thrives on difference, we cannot assume the conformity and homogeneity on which a system of unspoken rules depends.

Nor is it fair to privilege some groups (the keepers of the tacit rules) and leave others on the margins, trying to figure them out. A commitment to learning from difference requires that we negotiate openly our expectations and disagreements, that we engage in the frank and extended debates--the fruitful conflicts--that can produce a clearer alignment around common goals, objectives, and values.

So ... one way to understand the struggles that are occurring in our time is as healthy evidence of communities reaching out for new connections, defining new kinds of accountability in a period of rapid change.

Having led that process as seniors, you now leave Wellesley with a fuller sense of your own capacities as agents of change, your own responsibilities to make a difference in the world--and not only for yourselves--your own deeper appreciation of the complexities and ambiguities of a "common good."

This work of forging unity out of pluralism will be the defining task of your generation. It is demanding work, high-stakes work, and what I would ask of you is to find the best in others--always--forgive their mistakes, and, yes, forgive yourselves for mistakes you will surely make.

Even as you undertake the serious work of fostering change, I hope you won't take yourselves too seriously. In that spirit, I want to leave you to ponder the fate of the world's smartest woman.

Four passengers and a pilot are flying in a small airplane, with only three parachutes when the pilot suddenly drops dead of heart attack.

The first passenger, a lawyer, grabs the first parachute saying, "I'm a world-class lawyer and my clients depend on me. I have seminal work to do. I'm out of here." He jumps out of the plane.

A second passenger grabs the second parachute and announces: "I'm the world's smartest woman, admired all around the globe. My public needs me as a shining symbol of women's liberation. I must be off." And she exits.

The remaining two passengers, a priest and a Boy Scout, look at one another and the priest says: "Son, I've had a long life, with many gratifications. Your life lies before you. I insist that you take the last parachute."

"It's OK, father," the Boy Scout replies cheerfully. "There are still two parachutes. The world's smartest woman just jumped out of the plane wearing my backpack."

So as you set out on your travels, the balance you will have to strike is not to overestimate how smart you are, or how indispensable, but not to lose sight, either, of how truly remarkable and unstoppable you are.

Keep that balance and your sense of humor--your sense of whimsey and absurdity--and remember all you have learned and done in your four years here.

"You need only claim the events of your life to make yourself yours," Florida Scott Maxwell wrote: "When you truly possess all you are and have been, you are fierce with reality."

We are so proud of your accomplishments and so grateful for your contributions--for the ferocity of the reality you have brought to this place. We send you forth, now, ready to claim the events of your life.

You go with the pride of our institution, and with our great faith in your abilities, your instincts, your passion and your promise. We send you forth with that faith, with our admiration, our hopes, and our love--and with a parachute.

Good luck and soft landings to each and every one of you.

Related

1999 Pinanski Prize for Excellence in Teaching

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