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Mona Minkara's Speech for the Commencement Class of 2009
As Wellesley women, it has always been expected of us to strive to our utmost to reach the top, to be the best that we can be. Time and time again, since the speeches of orientation week, we have been told that we have the ability to achieve whatever we set our sights on, that we can go wherever we dream of going, that we can overcome any obstacle to reach the summit. We are Women Who Will. I don’t doubt this for a second.
But I want to make sure that in seeking to reach the heights, I never forget where I once was and how I got here. I hope that as we await to receive our diplomas today, we each remember where we came from and how we got here today.
Let me tell you my story. Apparently I’m going to be one of the first legally blind students to graduate from Wellesley College with a science degree. I’m not saying this to be boastful, but this was not what was expected of me. When I was seven years old, I was diagnosed with macular degeneration and cone rod dystrophy; doctors predicted I would be completely blind. Currently I have no vision in my right eye, and just peripheral vision in my left eye. Around the time of my diagnosis, during a summer trip to Lebanon, my mom and my uncle took me to one of the most prestigious eye doctors in Beirut. I remember that day so clearly; my mom came out crying, and my uncle was telling my mom that he would go to the ends of the world to help us. I found out only later that the doctor had told my mother that it wasn’t worth spending a penny on my education because I was going to be blind anyway.
But as my life went on to prove, it was not I who had limited vision, but he.
I have been blessed to be surrounded by people who believed in me, first and foremost my parents. My parents gave up their dreams of going back to Lebanon so that I could stay here and become educated. My mom would stay up all night going through projects with me. My dad would literally wake up at the crack of dawn to go through math and physics questions with me. But the list doesn’t stop there. There were many more individuals who were instrumental to my success.
As I await my diploma, I fully realize that I would not have been able to make it onto this stage today, if it wasn’t for the help of so many individuals who have aided me, every single step of the way. From my fellow classmates who would read to me on a daily basis to my professors who would regularly meet with me and go over concepts and were willing to adjust their teaching techniques, I was never alone in my journey. If it weren’t for these individuals—family, friends, faculty, staff, and even strangers along the way—who took time out of their lives and ambitions, I would not have been able to graduate with all of you today. Their kindness and generosity have inspired me to strive to help others. As I approach the end of my time here, I see, or sense, to be more accurate, many of my supporters around me, and I would not have wanted it any other way.
As I share with you my story, I want you to reflect upon your own story. Because the truth is, no matter how independent we imagine ourselves to be, we’ve all been on the receiving end of someone else’s kindness and generosity. Every single one of us sitting here today has a story: a set of goals and ambitions that drives us. Some of these goals have been achieved, like waiting here today for our diplomas. Some have yet to be realized. Surely though, just like there were individuals who helped me get to this day, there were individuals who helped you. Family, friends, faculty, staff, and even even an invisible hand, have all played a role in making this day possible.
Sometimes though, to be honest with you, we get so caught up in our own ambitions and our own struggles that we don’t notice the people around us. We don’t notice those who need our help. We become so self-absorbed and oblivious to whose struggles are much greater difficulties than our own. We become so consumed by our drive that we might even avoid or look down upon those who do not measure up to our definition of success. But I have come to realize, that as Wellesley Women, we don’t only achieve what we put our minds to, but we do so while helping others achieve their own goals. For how else could we claim to live according to our very own motto: Non Ministrari Sed Ministrare: Not to be served unto, but to serve?
Let me share with you another story: Over the past spring break, Wellesley sent a group of students to Utah for the annual American Chemical Society meeting, and I happened to be one of those students. On my way there, I had a connecting flight in Denver. So I was sitting in the airport, growing kind of thirsty, and I asked a lady, a stranger, where I could find a water fountain. The next thing I knew, she had bought me a water bottle. I asked how much did it cost so I could pay her back. You know what she said to me? She said, “You can pay me back by buying somebody else a water bottle.” I can’t share enough with you how much her words struck me. I have realized from this simple incident, that it doesn’t take something phenomenal to make a significant impact. But something as simple as buying a water bottle for your fellow human being. Or even planting a seed to grow. Done selflessly, a small gesture can have a powerful rippling effect.
So during my time in Denver, while I was discovering the power of generosity, a fellow Wellesley sister was flying down to Costa Rica. She was volunteering her time farming, to help the local community. Now she’s not going to be awarded for spending her free time toiling outdoors under the hot sun, planting seeds she will most likely never see the fruits of. She did what we all should do, offering to lend a helping hand to those in need of support, to our fellow human beings, to make a difference in any way possible.
Let us ask ourselves, as we embark into the real world, how happy can we be if all we do is work for our own ambitions and our own goals, and don’t notice anyone around us? Is this a life worth living? Do you want to grow older and remember that you only concentrated on your own interests? Or do you want to remember that you have helped our fellow human beings, and reaped the harvests of seeds that have been planted not only for our own success, but for the success of others? Among my quotes that have inspired me throughout my time here at Wellesley has been a quote from Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. It’s been actually in my signature, part of FirstClass for the past four years. This is how it goes: “Lives of great men all remind us we can make our lives sublime. And, departing, leave behind us, Footprints on the sands of time.”
Now I hope we can all leave footprints on the sand of time, whether they be big or small. Yes, I bet one of us might find the cure for cancer, and that would be an amazing achievement. But I’ve come to realize, that’s not the only way to make a difference. Giving a helpful hand or even just a smile is, in my faith, an act of charity. Take it from me, it matters. An act of kindness or generosity goes a long way. And these are the acts that brought me here today. And for that I thank all of you, Class of 2009. Congratulations, Class of 2009! Thank you! Thank you, Momma and Papa! Thank you, Pam, Katie….thank you professors! (More shout outs).
I have something for the President. Where’s my President Bottomly? I have a water bottle. I have it for the symbolism. I hope you enjoy the water.