Mira Sethi Commencement Speech to the Class of 2010
So about four years ago, I was on a train, two bulky suitcases at my feet. A seat away, I saw another pair of feet, encased in flip-flops that said Wellesley on each strap. I tapped the lady on the shoulder, and she turned around.
She was young – twenty-something – with an easy, open smile.
“Do you go to Wellesley College?” I asked.
“I did!” she said.
“Well, I’m just starting there,” I said. “Did you like it?”
“Hmm,” she said, narrowing her eyes. “Intellectually, yeah. Small classes, great professors – hot professors – but socially…it kinda sucked.”
“Oh,” I said.
“But, hey, you’re not from here are you?”
“No. I’m from Pakistan.”
“Oh, yeah. You are gonna love it.”
As it happened, I didn’t immediately love it. Nor did some of the people I became friends with. There were pangs of homesickness, and a suspicion that one was marinating in a convent while the kids in the neighboring schools went about their business. Four years on, though, I think I can speak on behalf of most of my lovely Wellesley siblings who are sitting here when to say that we’ve loved our time here. It has been, for some of us, a bit like the love in a successful arranged marriage – slow to bloom, but secure, in the end, in its attachment.
So what is the Wellesley experience like? Well, it’s mostly about a journey – a journey that begins with vague confusions, confusions that luckily persist to grow into real questions. What do you really want to study? What kind of battles do you want to fight? What kind of person do you want to spend your life with? What’s it like, the difficult pleasure of being at an all-women’s college? These questions become avenues for growth and self-sufficiency. But there is a rumor in the big bad world. It goes something along the lines of: why go to an all-women’s college when real-life is “co-ed”? The answer is quite simple. Being in a place like Wellesley makes us all the more eager, wiser, and readier to cope with the challenges of life. It breeds a certain introspection – an awareness of environment and of one’s place in it. It breeds courage – the ability to first identify what one believes, and then to stand up and fight for those convictions. It breeds a certain hunger – the desire to make the most of every experience, to have a go – each and every one of us – at that glass ceiling. Henry James the novelist once said, “ Experience is never limited, and it is never complete; it is an immense sensibility, a kind of huge spider-web of the finest silken threads suspended in the chamber of consciousness, and catching every air-borne particle in its tissue.” A place like Wellesley wills us to catch every air-borne particle. More importantly, it makes us aware of the process through which we acquire and hoard those particles.
For me, a central question through out my time here as an English major has had to do with the process of art and the obligations of an artist. Does art presuppose leisure? If so, how does that bear consequence to the role of art? Is it enough for art to be aesthetically pleasing or should it be held to a higher standard? Or does that depend on where the artist is from and what he or she is trying to illuminate? As a young Pakistani whose country is under siege by certain radicalized extremist elements, I struggle not only with the role of art, but how art can be actually wielded to counter those extremist elements.
It was James again who mused (in a moment of uncharacteristic concision), that “deep experience is never peaceful.” Wellesley women, rather than shying away from the complicated truth of that statement, have celebrated and embraced a complex understanding of the world – and, especially, of a woman’s experience in it. I remember the atmosphere on campus in the spring of 2008. We were all sophomores – the class of 2010 – and Hillary Clinton had decided to run for the highest post in the land. I had never seen Wellesley women so charged about a political event. My roommate Jenny and I walked around campus with a permanent rash of goosebumps on our arms. Everywhere we looked, Obama supporters cheered for their guy, Hillaryites for their woman. But when Secretary Clinton eventually bowed out, her supporters waved Hillary banners in the crowd, laughing and swaying and crying, some of them clearly aware – hence the simultaneous release of tears and laughter – that something better would come of it – as it did. The beauty of real experience is that it is often not peaceful.
So we’re all gathered here today, the class of 2010, to celebrate the beginning of an end. But each of us is aware of the shape of the journey we’ve taken together to get here. A journey of joy and happiness – of that unspeakably beautiful moment, when at 2 a.m. on a Saturday night in subzero temperature, the Peter Pan bus finally rolls around Harvard Square. A journey of growth – of the conversations that began in class and continued in rooms and dining halls. And, finally, a journey of a camaraderie of introspection – what does it mean to be a woman in today’s world? What does it mean to call yourself a feminist, if at all? Wellesley’s greatest gift to us has been the enabling of difficult and important conversations – those that have reminded us, if anything, that the universe does not revolve around us. Whether it’s mentoring students in Boston or volunteering at a shelter in Bangladesh, the phrase “Women Who Will” means, really, that we have not been, as a quirky man once put it, marooned in our own skulls.
So when you go out today, celebrate the privilege of having spoken your mind, and of having passionately believed in a cause, and of having asked tough questions. But celebrate also the uncertainty that has attended that experience – the difficult pleasure of the journey that led us, in the first place, to ask those questions.