President's Address

President Diana Chapman Walsh's Charge to the Senior Class

Well, seniors. This is it. My last words to the great and generous class of 2006. You have been a special class—and I do not say that lightly. Many of us have been talking about you in recent weeks, coming to terms with the fact that we have to let you go.

We’ve been remarking on what a remarkable class you’ve been from the day you arrived—intelligent, curious, confident. You’ve infused the campus with your energy, your can-do spirit, your unconditional support of each other, and your instinctive commitment to the purposes for which this college exists. I want to remind you to remember those purposes, as you prepare to go, but first I want to say a few personal words to you.

As you know, I announced recently that I’ve decided to leave Wellesley next year. This was a difficult decision, for reasons I’ve spoken and written about, and I’ve explained why it is right in my view—principally because it offers us a chance to anticipate an inevitable transition at a time and in a way that can open a path to self-renewal, both for the college, and for me.

And yet there is so much I will miss about this beautiful community of learning, of inquiry, of intensity, and of determination, this college that honors women and all they can be, and do, and all they can imagine into being. There is much that you will miss after you leave in just a few hours. Starting with friends and that sense of impending loss is a feeling we share today, yours more immediate than mine, but scarcely more profound.

At the same time, we have in common the excitement of another new beginning (Incipit Vita Nova all over again), a chance to surrender ourselves anew to the process of self-renewal described by John Gardner in his book of the same name: “an endless and unpredictable dialogue between our potentialities and the claims of life – not only the claims we encounter but the claims we invent.” You are setting out now on another phase of your lives, another cycle of that iterative encounter through which you will find your passion, the “vocation” Frederick Buechner describes in a definition I quoted to you on your very first day here -- “the place where your deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet.”

I have such high hopes for you and for the women you will be. Such a sense of pride and satisfaction in the women you are becoming. That process of becoming will unfold in surprising ways throughout your lives—and that lifelong pattern of forever becoming is why it’s time for me to go too, as much as I may yearn to sojourn longer here. So I feel a very particular kinship with you and always will, this Wellesley Class of 2006.

Moreover, you are a purple class as is mine—mine and that of my classmate and trustee, and (now) our favorite building—Lulu Chow Wang. We graduated 40 years ago almost to the day and we will celebrate our reunion with you at five-year intervals—’66 and ’06—four decades apart.

We’ll march in the alumnae parade together, festooned in all sorts of bizarre purple garb and gear. (I tremble to imagine how festooned you’ll be, based on your excessively exuberant purple-izing of the campus on the last day of classes.) I’ll wave to you and marvel at your fascinating life stories—graduate school, jobs, careers, families, children, more graduate study, more children, grandchildren – the joys and the sorrows, the setbacks and triumphs. We’ll know we can always find our way back to this place of memory and inspiration.

You’ll wave back to me and cheer me on (and I’ll love that) as I move ever more slowly to and through my winter years. We’ll note the telltale signs of life’s inescapable transitions, as we let go of the person we used to be and find someone new, someone deeper, more aware, more expansive, more fulfilled—ever remaining open, if we’re lucky and resolute, to growing ourselves forward, even as we age.

Looking at you now, I’m filled with the awe of that image: generations of intrepid women outfitted in purple parading bravely through life—the silliness of it, the poignancy of it, the deeper potential it evokes—growing older, saluting one another, managing life’s transitions with wisdom, humor, and grace.

You have brought those qualities already to your Wellesley years. You arrived at a time of tension around the country on college campuses, a resurgence of the bitter and polarizing “culture wars.” We had our own local skirmishes during your first year—Mona Lisa Smile, Baraka, Schafly, the Iraq War—and I saw you learn lessons about the kinds of leaders I saw you chose to become.

You resolved to embrace and live the values of cooperation, collaboration, and community—to exercise those values, underscore them, work them out in intricate detail, and in the heat of the moment—the honor code review, the national presidential elections, the tsunami in Asia, the large party ban, the Gulf Coast hurricanes, Sisters’ Keepers, the Ally Conference, the Graduation Pledge, which, I understand, 83 of you have signed, committing “to explore and take into account the social and environmental consequences of any job [you] consider and…to improve those aspects of any organizations for which [you] work.”

In these and in many other instances, including moments of tragedy, you staked out the place where this historic college can meet the claims of a troubled world. Our deep gladness—as you have lived it in your time here—is educating women who can bring balance and perspective to a world dangerously out of kilter.

My point is emphatically not about biological destiny, but it does begin with the reality that the Western intellectual project, for centuries, has been predominantly a masculine undertaking, emphasizing autonomy, individuality, self-determination, separateness, freedom – all good things.

And it has advanced those goals by repressing the aspects of human striving (by women and men) that are more contextual, more holistic, and more attuned to the environment, to connections, and to sustaining relationships than is the patriarchal male model within which this feminine prototype has had to make an uneasy peace.

We are seeing the negative impact right now of structures and cultures still operating according to a logic of authoritarianism, competition, isolation, domination. And we are seeing counter movements -- feminism, multiculturalism, the new physics, Eastern and indigenous wisdom traditions – bringing alternative epistemologies and sensibilities to bear on questions about what constitutes a good society … what constitutes a good life.

It is through those counter movements that women and other marginalized people have begun to mobilize memories of centuries of disempowerment and invisibility to press beyond mere tolerance of difference to true and deep engagement with that which is other, unfamiliar, threatening.

So I see Wellesley College—historically and prospectively—involved in this epic struggle to introduce greater balance into the social technologies through which we humans can lead ourselves and one another toward peace and justice in the world.

How do we do we do that? What’s our story? It’s your story. When we found you, you were bright, eager to learn, courageous, passionate. You came from many backgrounds and brought many experiences, and you opened yourselves to one another from the very day you arrived here.

And then through the special alchemy effected by the faculty—and everyone here so invested in your learning—you refined your critical judgment, expanded your perspectives, learned patience and persistence, connected to one another, to women through the ages, and to the power and the sweet beauty of ideas.

You developed a sense of responsibility for the impact you’ll have in any setting, and you learned how to think well, how to learn well, and how to recognize the limits on what you know—at least I hope you did.

And now, as you go, you open a new chapter. As graduates of Wellesley you will in time become leaders across a wide swath of pursuits—in families and communities and places of work, here and around the globe.

Wherever you go, I hope you will carry the memory of this place where everything you did mattered—because it always does. I hope you will apply your critical thinking to all your pursuits, together with your commitment to collaborating and valuing differences.

You will be forgiving, gentle, and compassionate towards yourselves and one another—I ardently hope—knowing that you don’t need to do it all in the first five years, or even the first 20. You’ll treasure your friends, prize your families, stay together, breathe and be mindful, live in the present, savor each moment.

So I thank you, magnificent seniors, for all you have been, and are, and will be—for each other and for this college, for your families, for the nation, for the world. We celebrate your successes and send you forth now with the pride of our institution, and with faith in your abilities and your qualities of mind and character. You represent our aspirations, our vocation, our vindication. We send you out with all of that, with our admiration and affection, and with the profound hope that your lives will be filled with learning, adventure, and love.

Go in joy. Go in peace. Be a force for good.

I know you will and I’ll see you again in 2011.

Related

2006 Pinanski Prize for Excellence in Teaching

 

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