President's Address

President Diana Chapman Walsh's Charge to the 2001 Senior Class

Now we come to the traditional moment in our Commencement program when the president issues her "charge" to the graduating class. No, it's not about bills you still have to pay, or battlefields I want you to storm. Nor is it a commentary on whether you seem excited enough. You do. Definitely.

It's about the most basic meaning of the verb to charge, the one that's listed first (in my dictionary, anyway): "to impose a duty, a responsibility, or an obligation upon." This is my last official chance to impose anything on you -- a reality that I suspect has not escaped your notice.

In just a few minutes (if you can contain your excitement) Dean Cuba and I will enact a little ritual that transpires up here every year. Then I'm going to confer upon you the Degree of Bachelor of Arts and "admit you to all the rights, dignities, and responsibilities of that degree." And finally I'm going to hand each of you that small--and oh-so-expensive--piece of parchment for which you've worked so diligently these past four full and challenging years.

So you've earned it, right? We all know you've sacrificed enough--sleep, social life, luxuries--essentials too. You've jumped through all the hoops. You even rolled one down Tupelo Lane. (Well, some of you did. Some taped hoops together in an alarming Rube Goldberg machine and rolled it as a group, ostensibly in the name of teamwork, but I did wonder about the beer.)

No matter. You are worthy of this exalted new status I'm about to confer on you. You've done everything we've asked, and more. So what is this talk of responsibilities, obligations, duties you still owe? Did we forget to tell you the diploma comes with strings attached? Well, yes it does, and, of course, this is no surprise. Non ministrari sed ministrarae; there's no escaping the motto.

All this year, as we've celebrated the College's 125th anniversary, you've been surrounded by colorful banners reminding you that we expect you'll make a difference in the world. You've spent the year in the company (symbolic and embodied) of dozens of impressive alumnae who've challenged all sorts of assumptions about the impact women can have in every sphere of endeavor.

And now it's your turn to work out what impact you will have, and where, and how it will matter. When you return for your 25th reunion --and I hope you'll be back before then-- but at your 25th, Wellesley's 150th anniversary year will be winding down, and you will be the ones whose stories are being told, the women who have taken on the establishment in bold and exciting ways. I know you've been wondering, off and on all year, exactly who you will be then. I know you have big ambitions; you've spoken to me of them.

So you are leaving this place with all sorts of hopes and expectations-yours, ours, and those of the many others who care most about you--the friends for life that you've made here and the family and friends who've come to celebrate with you today. As you leave, you will carry with you the pride of this College and of the generations who have preceded you here. And you are leaving to open new possibilities for those who will follow behind.

For each of you this day is both the end of a period of transformational growth and the beginning of another new life: Incipit Vita Nova all over again. For me, it marks the end of eight years in the presidency. That's two full cohorts of bright and engaged Wellesley students eager to make this College reflect their passion for what is right and true and good. So I feel a special kinship with you, the class of 2001. We've been through a lot together--a complex cycle of turmoil and change.

Do you remember your first opening convocation on September 4, 1997, the day we welcomed you to Wellesley--a new class for a new millennium? That seems a very long time ago, and yet only yesterday. It's hard to believe it's time for you to go. We'll miss you.

That September Thursday four autumns ago was a beautiful day in the Hay Amphitheatre and you were out in full force and full voice, as you have been ever since. We saw then that you were going to be a powerful influence on this campus. And you have been.

You've begun here some of the urgent work our society will need you to advance if we are going to make headway against the military, economic, and ecological threats that hang over all our heads.

Robert Bellah and his colleagues, in their book The Good Society, document failures of the institutions on which our common life depends, institutional flaws (such as those producing poverty and homelessness) that make it difficult to be "a good person in the absence of a good society." A good society depends fundamentally on its institutions. They shape the way we organize and experience all public life.

Increasingly, we Americans tend to think of our institutions (the economy and the government, education, and health care, corporations and the media) as beyond our comprehension and control. The latest presidential election was a chilling case in point. We leave the tyrannies and irrationalities of these institutions to the technical experts; we sit on the sidelines as detached, ironic or disgusted observers; and we conserve our energies to carve out for ourselves and those we love a safe personal sphere.

But we won't make a safer world until we can make more responsive institutions. Our democracy is seriously imperiled by our inattention to the social arrangements that enact our public philosophy, bear our collective memories and cultural traditions, and shape our patterns of meaning and self-understanding.

And this is where you come in. For you were not content, while you were here at Wellesley, to retreat to the personal sphere. As absorbing as your academic lives here were, as fulfilling as your friendships were, you took time to apply what you were learning in your classes to make sense of our common purposes as a college community.

You insisted that we imagine together how we might become more inclusive and more fair. You worked hard to engage your own differences, to learn -- and to teach -- from them. You developed a capacity for thoughtful public discussion and creative invention of new ways of conceiving and advancing the common good.

At commencement ceremonies all over the country now, groups of graduating seniors are being called to a life of service with soaring rhetoric and sobering inventories of the world's ills and urgent needs. You've already demonstrated that you mean to assume your public duties with intelligence and compassion. It won't be easy. But you're ready.

So - as you take your leave now from this place that has nourished you, it's time for me to say good bye and to give you that piece of parchment. And I want also to give you another keepsake I hope you will value and save, a copy of the United Nations Declaration of Human Rights.

Its adoption, in December 1948, was among the first major accomplishments of the United Nations. It was crafted by the first UN Human Rights Commission, chaired by Eleanor Roosevelt, who considered its successful negotiation her crowning achievement. It has since been codified and extended repeatedly in international treaties, resolutions, conferences, and national constitutions of newly-formed states. It exerts an enormous influence on lives all over the world.

I distributed the declaration at last year's Commencement for a particular reason, thinking I would do it only that once. But your classmate and College Government president, Marisa van Saanen, asked me if I would repeat the gesture this year and so I shall to honor Marisa and the exceptional leadership she and her cabinet members provided this year (a leadership of peace and justice), to honor all of you and your many triumphs and aspirations, to honor this College and the unfinished business it falls on you now to take up with the courage, creativity, and tenacity we have come to admire in you.

I hope you'll keep this declaration (tied with a ribbon) as a symbol of the strings that are attached to your diploma, as a reminder, always, that with rights come responsibilities to preserve the institutions of freedom; with privileges come duties to others less fortunate than you; with wisdom comes an obligation to use your knowledge in the cause of justice; with power comes the opportunity to remove that which subverts love.

And one final request as you take your leave. Please be forgiving, gentle, and compassionate towards yourselves and one another. Don't struggle to do it all in the first five years, or even the first 20. You will have plenty of time -- trust me -- and each of you will craft your own special life of purpose, and beauty, and meaning. Save some time simply to be. Treasure your friends. Prize your families. Notice the trees reflected in a lake. Stay together. Breathe and be mindful. Live each moment as if you love yourself -- and you'll discover one day that you do.

I thank you, magnificent seniors, for all you have been, and are, and will be -- for each other and for this College, for the past and for the future, for your families, for the nation, and for the world. I celebrate your successes and I send you forth with my pride, and with my love. Go in joy. Go in peace.

Related

2001 Pinanski Prize for Excellence in Teaching

 

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