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President Kim H. Bottomly's Address to the Senior Class
College Commencement June 5, 2009
Green Class of 2009, you’ve left your imprint on campus in many ways. The rising greens entering next Fall will have a lot to live up to. When I walked around campus recently and saw leprechauns, green balloons, banners, and our very own Emerald City, I realized how much we will miss you.
When you arrived on campus four years ago, you were filled with anticipation, excitement, and – no doubt – some anxiety about what lay ahead. Here you are, four years later. You have taken over the place! You are very different today than you were four years ago. You are only four years older, but you are many, many, many years wiser. You are a Wellesley woman. You leave Wellesley today well prepared for whatever lies ahead. Armed with your natural ability and your Wellesley education, you should march confidently into this economic maelstrom. I know these things about you. You will meet obstacles. You will revise and re-revise your strategies. You will be challenged. But you will find that place where you belong. And you will be great. Don’t be timid as you venture out; don’t be worried about leaving the shelter of Wellesley. Remember what John Shedd said, “A ship in harbor is safe, but that is not what ships are for.” And it is not what you are for. Sail forward from here with confidence – you are well fitted-out and ready for the voyage.
I thought about this last month as I watched you participate in hoop rolling. As always, it was a glorious sight from the finish line: a hoard running full speed with hoops flying in every direction, wearing flip flops, sneakers, fancy shoes with graduation robes blowing behind; shrieks of joy and exasperation blending - and a look of happy determination on every face. I liked the determination, but I also liked the happy. Keep them both.
You may think of hoop rolling as a recent thing and a girly thing. It is neither.
Hoop rolling can be found on almost every continent and in almost every historical era. Euripides has Medea’s sons enter the stage coming from their hoop rolling. Hoop rolling was recommended as good exercise by Hippocrates in 300 BC. In ancient Rome, hoop rolling was a manly activity. The Romans had hoops as tall as a person and they jumped through them as they rolled them. Ovid lists as suitable activities for “tough young men” javelins, horsemanship and hoop rolling.
Hoop rolling has been a Wellesley tradition since 1895. Let me tell you how it came about in the words of a senior from the class of ’95 – that is 1895. She said, “As seniors we thought everyone seemed too serious and the Wellesley tendency was to take oneself too seriously.” We haven’t changed much in 114 yrs have we? This 1895 senior continues, “’95 was always trying to put some pep into things … sometime in April, we decided to cut loose on May Day. We procured hoops from Boston. We electrified the college by rolling hoops in our caps and gowns from our cottages … Freeman, Stone Hall, etc. up to college hall, around and around in a circle until chapel time.” From that first experience, hoop rolling developed into an independent Wellesley institution in itself and has continued with enthusiasm until today.
As with all good traditions, it has adapted to the times. The route has changed, the date has changed, and the expectation of what winning the race symbolizes has changed. The fate of the winner of hoop rolling has also changed. In the earliest years, the winner was supposed to be the first in her class to get married. That led to some consternation even then. One of our early winners at the end of the race was heard to exclaim “but I don’t even have a boyfriend.”
With time, and societal changes, the projections for winning changed from being the first to be married into the first in the class to be a CEO. Some years later that projection changed again so that the winner was to be the first in the class to achieve success, however she defined success.
Looking at this superficially, some outsiders have shrugged this change off as a move to political correctness. But it is far more than that. It mirrors changes in what is expected of women and in what they expect of themselves. Early on they were expected to marry, to “catch” a man. Later, after women began pushing toward parity in the workforce, nothing could demonstrate that success more clearly than becoming a CEO. That was the prize. And it was a prize that brought benefits to all women. They broke glass ceilings for the rest. Now women have demonstrated ably that they are capable of anything. They don’t have to prove themselves. They can follow their individual passions whatever they are.
As Wellesley went, so went the world. Definitions of success changed everywhere. Success is a fluid concept. Success means one thing to you now. Your idea of success may also change. Know who you are, and when that changes always know who you have become.
You will all be doing different things. You will find your own answers about what really matters to you. Be happy with your choices. Just like in the hoop-rolling race, some want to win. They practice and position themselves to win. Others just want to participate. They are happy with a starting position at the back of the pack. Now, I am sure that there are a number of women who didn’t want to win because they didn’t want to be thrown into the lake (not an irrational decision!). I even saw many arrive with hoops after the race was over. They joined the tradition in their own way. You can see there is more than one way to roll a hoop. There is more than one way to live a successful life. It’s an individual decision and it should be one that each of you makes for yourself. Don’t let others define your passion for you.
Take to heart the words of Sandra Carey: “Never mistake knowledge for wisdom. One helps you make a living; the other helps you make a life.” Make wise choices. You aren’t leaving here to live a career; you are leaving here to live a life. Make it a good one, and make it one that you actively choose.
As you continue to define your own route, you will find that some parts of hoop rolling will be an apt metaphor for your experience.
You are emerging into a more difficult world than last year’s seniors. Things have changed considerably since I was at this podium a year ago. The economy is in tatters around us. I talked to last year’s class about the Boston marathon. But, unlike the marathon runners, you are not going to be running on a well-managed smooth road. You are going to be running instead in a crowded field of many obstacles to overcome and unexpected twists and turns to deal with.
Think of it as rolling your hoop through life. It is going to be crowded. It is going to take determination. But, like our hoop rolling, it is going to be fun. One senior said to me, “I practiced a lot. I thought I would be good. But it was ridiculously hard surrounded by people, feet, elbows, and robes flying around me. There was so much bumping; people running right into my back. It was not nearly as simple as it was when I was rolling my hoop by myself yesterday.” Here at Wellesley, you have gained the basic skills. You know how to do it. Don’t get discouraged if the in the next few years, you have to figure out how to do it in the middle of bumping and elbows.
Hoop rolling is also over in a flash. That rough and tumble experience only lasts a few minutes. Even though I would never be so bold as to predict when the economic uncertainty will end, I do know that in the totality of your life it will account for just a small fraction of it. Always remember what G. K. Chesterton said, “An adventure is only an inconvenience rightly considered. An inconvenience is only an adventure wrongly considered.” The next few years will be a brief adventure.
Find your passion. Having passion for what you do helps, particularly when those around you are bumping you off course and knocking over your hoop. And since you will have a multifaceted life, you will have more than one passion, more than one hoop to roll. Passions don’t always emerge fully formed. Give them time to develop, and most importantly, allow them to develop. Welcome your new passions.
There is another aspect to hoop rolling that is important. Many little sisters camp out overnight and hold a spot for their senior big sisters on the starting line. In the future, the community you create around you – family and friends – will help you make and protect the spaces that you need in life. And they’ll stick around to cheer you on; they’ll pick you up when you stumble; and when you succeed, they won’t throw you into the lake.
Hoops are passed down big sister to little sister, sometimes over many, many years, creating a network of women linked by this experience. Most of you sitting here today are big sisters. This is not the end of your term as a big sister. Tomorrow you will be the newest Wellesley alumnae and waiting for you out there are over 36,000 big sisters ready and eager to help you. And, 20-30-50 years from now you will be the big sisters of graduating classes. Our alumnae are a true sisterhood.
A week from now our reunion classes will come and when I see them walking together by class in the annual parade, I have the vision of each group as they must have looked on their hoop-rolling day. That same bright Wellesley look of determination; that same happiness.
In the hoop race, the President is waiting at the finish line holding the tape and presenting flowers to the winner. You are all winners now. You are Wellesley women, and you always will be. Wellesley will always be here for you. You will always belong here. We will be waiting, and we will be holding flowers.