President H. Kim Bottomly's Charge to the Senior Class
Wellesley College Commencement May 28, 2010
Seniors, members of the class of 2010, here you are at last – congratulations.
At the start of your Wellesley journey, in the Chapel at the end of August 2006, you were welcomed by President Walsh. She spoke about starting college as one of the “rites of passage.” As part of that rite, she noted that you would be adding an identity: You would be "The Wellesley Class of 2010." It is an identity, she said, that you would wear with pride for the rest of your lives.
Now 2010 seemed a long way off back then. And yet, here you are now, four years later, experiencing another remarkable rite of passage at this commencement ceremony. You are the same person, but in many ways, you are also a new person – a more aware person with a much broader vision, a more creative and determined person, more prepared to make a difference in the world.
When you awoke this morning, you knew what would happen here in the Academic Quad, today, in this standard rite of passage. And there is a sense of comfort in this last formal ritual because what follows – what happens tomorrow, and next week, and next year – are unknown, and the unknown can be unnerving. Don’t worry about being worried about it. That’s what gives you your edge. I've watched you here at Wellesley, and I think you can do anything. Don’t ever doubt it.
We are happy that you are moving on to a new phase in your life, that you are going out to exciting new ventures. But we will miss you. You have left an imprint on this place.
You also left your own mark on campus just the other day; one that is not permanent, but it was great fun: You festooned the campus with purple decorations; you created a wide area of “extreme ultraviolet radiation,” as one of your signs read.
You also have left a permanent reminder of all that your class has meant to this institution. On the Saturday morning of Family and Friends weekend in 2007 you planted your class tree, a Forest Pansy. You probably did not anticipate that it would be watching over you when you graduated today. After all, at that time, it was standard for Commencement to be held on Severance Green.
As you might remember, that fall was the start of my first year at Wellesley, and your tree planting was one of my first encounters with a Wellesley tradition. It was great fun. I walked by your still small tree just about two weeks ago, and it had begun to sprout small purple flowers, clearly determined to be appropriately accessorized for its own class’s commencement.
We have many traditions and rituals at Wellesley, but Tree Day is among our oldest rituals and began with the very first classes at Wellesley in 1877. The College was brand new, and had only two formally enrolled classes – the sophomores, class of 1879, and the first years, class of 1880. Our founder Henry Durant’s idea was that Wellesley girls, would have “… a tree, whose growth they could watch, as it watched theirs, all through the four college years, – a tree in which, on every future visit, they would recognize a long-acquainted friend!” On that first Tree Day, Henry Durant provided two trees that our neighbor across the lake, the Hunnewells, gave him. They are still our neighbors, by the way. They were Japanese golden evergreens. Henry Durant had his own ideas about where they should be planted that first year: the one for the class of ’79 by the dining hall and the one for the class of ’80 by the library. The next year, he had plans to plant another evergreen in front of the library in the honor of the new class of 1881.
But even back then, Wellesley women were Wellesley women, and they took matters into their own hands. They confronted Henry Durant, informed him that they didn’t want an evergreen tree – they wanted to pick their own tree (an elm, which was much less delicate and much more majestic). His trees, they pointed out, kept dying. And, they said firmly, that they didn’t want to plant it in front of the library as he intended, they wanted to plant it at the entrance to the College where it would be noticed.
Mr. Durant was taken aback by this demure rebellion, but acquiesced, and tree-planting day, as a true student activity, was born. It always involved planting a tree, but the celebration took many forms over the years: For a while, it was a campuswide event in which students would form a giant “W” on the quad, with each class – in their colors – making up one leg of the “W”; there was a beauty contest associated with Tree Day for a number of years; there was even, at one time, a maypole with deans dancing around it – something I’m sure we’d all like to see again. In time, the celebration became what we have today: the sophomore class planting the tree and devising their own ritual to mark the occasion. However celebrated, it remained an important tradition all these years.
At reunion each year, members of each class seek out their tree – they always want to see it, to see how it has grown.
I think you are the only class to have your tree looking on as you receive your diplomas. Mr. Durant would like that. Some Ivy League schools in the 1800s had the tradition of students planting ivy in their senior year as they left. Mr. Durant’s idea was that a tree should be planted early so that it would grow along with the class as they grew in their education.
I'd like to think that your tree has a story to tell. Last month, we all got to see a great performance of Shakespeare’s "As You Like It" – starring some of you sitting in front of me today. In Act II, scene 1, I remember the lines:
“And this our life exempt from public haunt
Finds tongues in trees…”
Trees can teach us. And there is a particular lesson to be taken from these class trees – just as there is a lesson in all of our traditions. When we look at the array of Class Trees that now populate the campus, it's a rich variety. Some were planted and immediately thrived. Others needed particular care and attention. Some found that they were too rare a breed for our particular climate and soil. Some needed to be relocated as the campus changed over the years, and finally thrived in their new places.
As you live your life, you will have to find your best spot as well. Sometimes, you might find your best spot right away, but other times, you might find the conditions unwelcoming to your ideas and your aspirations. In those times it might be tempting to think that the problem is you. But stay true to yourself. Know that it’s a matter of finding the right place, and have confidence that such a place does exist for you. Sometimes it’s just a matter of weathering the storm, of waiting for the sunny calm. Look at the trees around you; they have weathered a lot of harsh winters. They are glorious.
It is important for you to follow your own dream, listen to your own muses. There is a poem by a Japanese poet of the Edo period that I have always liked because I think it speaks an important truth. The poet was Matsuo Basho, who, in the 17 th century, wrote the following three short lines.
The oak tree:
in cherry blossoms.
You don’t have to be interested in cherry blossoms. Never let others define for you what success is – define it for yourself. Maya Angelou said, “You can only become truly accomplished at something you love…. pursue the things you love doing, and then do them so well that people can't take their eyes off you.”
That said, it still isn’t so easy to choose the right place to begin to root yourself. Unlike the trees we plant, you can’t do soil tests, and study historical weather patterns to get a sense of whether the place will suit you. What you can do is to learn as much as possible about your choices you make. Of course, you can’t anticipate everything. You might be perfectly happy, thriving in the life you have arranged for yourself, and along will come some external force that will require you to relocate – as the Trees for the classes of 1927, '42, '63 and '87 had to be moved in order to build the new Campus Center. But look at them today – they are wonderful and form an important part of the landscape with several near the Sports Center and Davis Parking Facility and one down near Lake Waban.
Like the trees, you are all a beautiful part of Wellesley but you are all different. Your difference is Wellesley’s strength. Some of you will be craggy pines, fiercely clinging to hostile outcroppings, protecting the environment; some of you will be flowering dogwoods, beautifying the place you are in; some of you will be sturdy oaks, feeding the souls and squirrels around you; some will be sugar maples, always useful and occasionally brilliant. There is no one thing I hope you all do, and no one outcome I could predict for all of you. None, except this: You will all make a better place out of wherever you are; you will all be glorious; you will all make a difference.
There's another side to this coin, as well. Trees obviously have one very limiting factor: their lives are strictly determined by their identity. You do not have the benefit – or constraint – of this simple determinism. You will have a multifaceted life and you likely will have more than one passion. Passions don’t always exist fully formed. They will be shaped by your identity, by the education you’ve received at Wellesley, and by the landscape in which you find yourself over the course of your life. Be open to them. You are not like the apple tree that can only ever produce apples, and never make acorns. You can be many things and do many things. Unlike Basho’s oak tree, you can actually become interested in cherry blossoms later. Don’t limit yourself.
Whatever life you choose to live, wherever you root, I hope you will return to Wellesley often. Stay in touch with your Wellesley sisters, that tremendous worldwide tapestry of over 36,000 alumnae that you join today. Reach out to members of the faculty; these gifted teacher-scholars. They can be tremendous sources of inspiration and support.
As you leave Wellesley, these sisters, these friends, these colleagues, these teachers have become, in four short years, your life-long touchstones. We will be here, always, watching you and encouraging you through your lifetime of growth. And we at Wellesley hope you will come home often to sit in the shade of your tree, and to take comfort in the shade of your Wellesley memories. Look at your still-small tree today. Hold it in your mind. Then come back and see it again in 5 years, and in 50 years. It will be here then, like us, waiting for you. You are a Wellesley woman now, and, like your tree, you will always belong here. Thank you.