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President Kim H. Bottomly's Charge to the Senior Class
130th Commencement Exercises
May 30, 2008
My being here today to give the formal charge to you, the seniors, to provide you with some words of advice or inspiration, is a bit of a role-reversal for us. About ten months ago, I arrived on campus needing orientation myself and as many words of advice as I could find. And I found a lot.
You seniors all took seriously the responsibility of assisting a new president in her inaugural year. Wherever I turned there was always someone willing to redirect me (yes, I did occasionally get lost on campus at first). You participated actively in my education, making sure that I knew that the yellow class was “first years” not freshmen, that I knew who “Wendy Wellesley” was, explaining the mysteries of step-singing and “class colors” to me, including the compelling arguments for why red is best, encouraging me to eat “peppermint pie,” teaching me to sing unsingable songs with difficult lyrics, and ensuring I quickly exchanged my Yale umbrella for a Wellesley one.
That last, like all of them, was accomplished with the grace and humor I have come to expect of Wellesley students. One of my first days on campus was a very rainy one. I grabbed an umbrella and walked quickly to my office. I don’t remember seeing anyone, and at the time I didn’t even think anyone would recognize me. You did. Not long afterwards, we celebrated Lake Day with a community picnic at which I was given, among other things, a new Wellesley umbrella and a note that read, “You can’t be walking across campus with a Yale umbrella.” Later I was given, for use during the Boston Marathon, a poster that said, “Kiss me, I’m the president.” I actually used the umbrella, but I liked the concept of the poster.
At the start of your Wellesley journey, in the Chapel at the end of August in 2003, you were welcomed by President Walsh. She spoke of the transition you were undertaking, the sense of anticipation, nervousness, excitement, trepidation that you and your family members may have been experiencing. “Incipit Vita Nova,” you probably read everywhere on campus. “Here begins the new life.” It was to be a transition with many unknowns ahead.
And now, somehow, four years have passed, and here you are, at another rite of passage: this commencement ceremony. There are probably again mixed feelings, both excitement and anticipation, tinged with regret and apprehension. Today, we have an established format, a prescribed way to dress, procession, a defined order of speaking. When we woke up this morning, we all knew what would happen here, in this big tent, today. Tomorrow, it may seem, you are back to “Incipit Vita Nova” again. But that is not true. Your new life began four years ago; tomorrow and the days that follow will be just a continuation, a new phase. You are prepared for it, and you will be great.
Today, you should take great pride in your accomplishments. We do. You, your families, and friends have every right to be very proud. You are a Wellesley graduate. That will come to mean even more to you as the years go by, and as distance allows you to come to recognize fully what an accomplishment that is.
What advice can I offer you today? The simplest is this: don’t think of today as the ribbon you got for crossing a finish line, and tomorrow as the beginning of your next race.
The racing metaphor is in my mind because we have recently experienced the Boston Marathon here and the remarkable and justly renowned “Wellesley scream tunnel.” In a marathon, there are only a handful of elite runners who are really in it to win. Crossing the finish line with a good time is their only goal. The rest of the runners, the majority, the many thousands who pass by us here, are all there for reasons of their own; each has his or her own personal motivation – and it is not to win. Think about how much effort and pain goes into training for a marathon and then into actually running it. Thousands do this every year – we cheer them by – and they aren’t doing it to win; they don’t care about that.
Through life, each of us must journey at our own pace, and for our own reasons. Most marathoners are enjoying the process and the sense of accomplishment; they are living…and loving the journey. Crossing the finish line is rewarding to them, but so is every part of the race, including the uplifting Wellesley scream tunnel. No matter how well prepared we may feel for our journey, and regardless of what path we are following, we all need our own “scream tunnels” – those sources of inspiration and support that provide encouragement when the going gets tough.
I have heard some of you express the pressure you feel to succeed in a certain way. You feel that there is some benchmark or ideal that you are being measured against, and you must reach that benchmark in order to win. It is important to resist the tyranny of others’ expectations of you. As you journey through life, you must figure out your own answers: Why am I doing this? Who am I competing against? Is it what I really care about?
Like the marathon to most, your life should not be a competition; it should be an individual passion realized. There even may be times when you prefer not to run at all – maybe it is time to support others, to hand out water and orange slices. John Milton wrote, “They also serve, who only stand and wait.”
Have patience. There is no one right way to create a life. Most importantly, don’t let finish lines dominate your life. Of course, you should relish your accomplishments, but do enjoy the journey.
Throughout your life, I hope you remember the words of Henry James, “Live all you can; it’s a mistake not to. It doesn’t so much matter what you do in particular, so long as you have your life. If you haven’t had that what have you had?”
Find your passions. Having passion for what you do helps, particularly when the journey is difficult. And since you will have a multifaceted life, you will have more than one passion. Scientific inquiry is one of mine; so is the development and support of female scientists. I am passionate about being a mother, wife, grandmother, daughter, and friend. I am passionate about the importance of a liberal arts education and about women’s education – and about Wellesley College. I haven’t had all of these passions simultaneously, and I haven’t always embraced or understood them right away; passions don’t always emerge fully formed. Give them time to develop, and most importantly, leave them some space to develop.
While today we celebrate the completion of your formal Wellesley education, I hope you see it as just a way station, not a finish line. It is important to remember that you – like every one of us – are on a journey that has no preordained destination. My hope is that you will continue that journey for many years to come, and that you will enjoy every step of it. Fifty years from now, I hope you are able to say, as Thoreau did, “My life has been the poem I would have writ.”
I’ll leave you with one final point. There are stories each year of marathon runners who turn around on Route 135 after they pass Munger and loop back past the Sports Center, just so they can experience Wellesley’s scream tunnel once again.
I encourage you to do that, too. Wherever your journey takes you, I hope that you will return to Wellesley often during your life. And that you will stay in touch with your Wellesley sisters, that tremendous worldwide tapestry of alumnae that you join today. Reach out to members of the faculty; they can be tremendous sources of inspiration and support.
As you leave Wellesley for your journey, these sisters, these friends, these colleagues, these teachers have become, in four short years, your own lifelong scream tunnel. We will be cheering you always onward toward your goals. And you will hear us; you will always hear us. You have only to listen.
Have a good journey.