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President Diana Chapman Walsh's Charge to the 2002 Senior Class
"Women who will." 603 of you. Now there's an arresting thought.
"Will" what? we've all wondered when we've actually noticed the banners festooning College Road. Will … "make a difference," the next proclaims. "In the world"… trumpets the third.
Is this a subliminal message? A propaganda campaign? You will make a difference. You will enter the world. (In case the seductions of senior week have occasioned second thoughts). Nine words extracted from our mission statement to launch The Wellesley Campaign.
But make what difference? Where in the world? Make the world different? Make a different world? Many of you have signed a "graduation pledge," promising to try to improve the social and environmental impact of any organizations for which you work. That will make a difference, if you work at it.
Meanwhile the banners were graying all winter. Creeping mildew, I fear. And some were disappearing. Have you noticed that no one steals the "make a difference" banners, or the "in the world" banners? It's always the "women who will" pole that stands naked and exposed, its empty metal brackets bearing witness to its sad fate. Where are those banners going, I wondered, and found an answer one day in a weekly police report. "Banner seen hanging in front of MIT fraternity house," the entry said, "officer dispatched to recover it." Campus Po, ever on the alert. We have installed a fresh new batch for your graduation.
My favorite reaction to the women-who-will campaign came, I presume, from you -- the chalking on behalf of a group of outraged "women who won't." It appeared during the kerfuffle over Lake House, now happily resolved, but the message remains on the brick wall where I enter Green Hall, and I smile every morning at this implacable and resolute challenge to authority.
The chalk will eventually wear off and the banners will succumb to the mildew. But each of you will leave an indelible mark on this college. And although I trust you don't have banners in your luggage, each of you will be taking metaphorical pieces of this college with you for the journey ahead.
Of the gifts you'll carry from here, the most valuable by far is the first half of the mission statement-the part that lends itself less obviously to banners, lampposts, sly slogans or slick brochures for a fund raising campaign. Nevertheless, it is deeply implanted now in who you are, what you can do … most of all, who you will be.
The first half of our mission statement commits us to "provide an excellent liberal arts education;" the second half directs that education to "women who will" do all that good stuff warranting that the college exists for a purpose larger than us all. Our college was founded on the conviction that educated women can make a better world, a world of social systems bending toward justice and knowledge systems bending toward truth.
And nothing is more vital to achieving that goal than the excellent liberal education that you take, now, from this college. It has made of you a lifelong learner, we earnestly hope, taught you, ironically, how little you know, how much you have to learn, and yet how much you are capable of learning, when you apply yourself.
Your faculty have challenged you, stirred you up, unsettled your simple assumptions about life and the ways of the world, opened new vistas for you, offered fresh foundations on which you will construct your own philosophy of life. What the faculty have given you is more valuable, more powerful, by far (if less voluble and visible) than the fabled Wellesley network … all those women willing, all over the world.
You know about the network, that you'll rely on it: the mysterious proclivity we Wellesley women have, wherever we go, to find and help one another, to reach out and help others less fortunate than we, to minister and be ministered unto, in reciprocal alliances of mutual support.
We hope you'll always remember that official Wellesley motto, the commitment to serving others and orienting your lives toward a conception of the common good. But please don't forget that the precondition for doing that effectively is that you must own and continue to hone the qualities of mind you began to develop here that distinguish a liberally-educated person.
And perhaps, in your Lake House rebellion, you've opened new possibilities for thinking about that project. For here may be the true work of women who won't. Women who won't accept uncritically anything you see or hear. Women who won't let anyone think for you, won't ever be helpless victims. Women who won't make assumptions about others: who they are, what they value, what they believe. Women who won't stop wondering, questioning, learning, deepening your knowledge. Women who won't objectify other humans, make them a means to an end. Women who won't tolerate structures that perpetuate for anyone conditions of inequality, inhumanity, cruelty. Such are the preoccupations of a liberally-educated person.
Resisting the pull of negative forces is one of life's most epic struggles. Learning to recognize and resist them has been central to your education here. You arrived on campus in 1998, eager, full of energy and anticipation. I suggested, playfully, at opening convocation that you would be remembered as the palindrome class because your year - 2002 - reads backwards and forwards. You looked at me blankly. You were right.You will certainly not be remembered as the palindrome class.
You will be remembered, I suspect -- when you come back for reunions 5, 10, 20 … 50 years from now (can you imagine that?) - you will remember yourselves, in part, as the class that arrived with a new dean of students and graduated with her, moving on to exciting new ventures all in the same beat.
You'll revisit that multi-layered drama, I predict: some of the confusion and pain it entailed. You'll have your own readings of what it all meant. I hope, though (and I do believe) that many of you will come in time to see that experience -- and the example Geneva set - as having made you stronger, wiser, humbler, perhaps, better equipped to sustain an alliance through moments of high tension and doubt, better able to keep on listening and straining hard to understand vastly different perspectives, better prepared to hold your head high even in adversity, and to maintain your dignity no matter what.
And you'll certainly always be remembered -- and always carry a collective consciousness, a shared wound -- as the class that led the college through a traumatic senior year. The cataclysm on September 11, and ongoing worldwide events, tested your focus and resilience, shifted the ground under you, surfaced value conflicts among you that exposed sharp edges and raw nerves.
We Americans have all been painfully reminded this year of our vulnerability. We've seen frightening weaknesses in institutions on which our very lives depend. We've tasted the abject terror with which many of the world's people routinely live. We've come to understand in a wholly new way the reality and the consequences of our interdependence with people everywhere.
In all of this, our urgent need for reliable communal ties has become ever more apparent at a time in history when the forces of fragmentation seem to be splitting us apart. The training manuals found in Afghanistan instructed terrorists to "disappear" in "enemy society" by finding "apartments where people don't know each other" or "suburbs where neighbors don't talk."
Our small college community weathered these storms bravely and with compassion. You were a steadying influence on campus through this trying year. I'll be forever grateful for the leadership and maturity you summoned when it was needed. Now it's time for you to take your courage and your strength -- and your experience of this global learning community -- out into a world at war.
You're ready. You have a great education. You've learned to be disciplined thinkers, astute readers, acute listeners, cogent speakers, persuasive writers, trustworthy leaders, colleagues, friends. You've garnered an impressive record: a stunning array of national fellowships, admission to leading graduate and professional schools, much external recognition of your talents and promise.
You've given generously to each other and to all of us. You fought hard for your convictions. You raised money to fight AIDS in South Africa, to build schools in Afghanistan. You tutored in Framingham, Chinatown, China. You inaugurated the Tanner Conference and the Community Appreciation Society, impressed us at the Ruhlman, struck classic poses under cover of darkness in your power suits. The list could go on. I hate to stop. It's hard to say good bye. But it is time.
We are so proud of what you have accomplished here, of who you are, who you are becoming. I wish we were sending you out into a world less fractured and chaotic than the one you inherit from us. But we have every confidence that each of you will work out through your lives how you can be a force for peace and better days.
God speed to you all, sweet seniors of the purple palindrome class. May you move forward and backward on the road ahead with the grace, intelligence, idealism, and capacious spirit you've cultivated here. May you circle back often to this place of which you have been such an integral and beautiful part. May you stay together and support each other always. May your lives be full and fulfilling. May your dreams come true.