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President H. Kim Bottomly's Address to Students, Faculty, and Staff
133rd Commencement Exercises
May 27, 2011
Seniors, Class of 2011! You have made it! Today is the last time I will call you seniors. Tomorrow you will be Wellesley College alumnae.
This is a landmark day for you, and for your families and loved ones. It is a significant day for me, as well. I feel a special kinship with your class, the “yellow” or should I say the “golden” class of 2011. We began a journey here together in the fall of 2007. We were all new arrivals on the shores of Lake Waban, you and I.
Together, we have come to know and love Wellesley, experiencing Wellesley traditions for the first time and discovering the ways in which they bind our community together. You will soon learn something that our 36,000 alumnae already know – those bonds are permanent. Today, you are a Wellesley student. Tomorrow, you will no longer be a student here, but you will always be a Wellesley woman. In the words of one of our trustees, Laura Gates,
“Other people go to college for four years; with Wellesley, it's for life!”
We are participating today in a predictable tradition – this commencement ceremony. There’s an established format, a way of dress, a formal procession, a set order of speaking. There is a sense of comfort in this formal ritual because what happens tomorrow, and next week, and next year, are unknown and the unknown can be unnerving. I am here today to assure you that you are ready for whatever happens tomorrow.
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 recently left a very visible mark on campus; one that is not permanent, but it was great fun: You covered the campus with yellow – balloons, streamers, and signs – letting us all know that you were still here. You needn’t have worried. We will not forget you, golden class of 2011.
The first time I spoke to you – four years ago at your orientation – I referred to you as pioneers – intellectual pioneers. I told you that in your years here you would be outfitting yourselves with the toolkit you needed to successfully live and work in a globalizing, interconnecting, rapidly-changing world. Like the original pioneers, I said, you would be entering a world in which change is ubiquitous and challenges are large. I pointed out that the original pioneers didn’t know what they might encounter as they ventured past the frontier. They had to be inventive, intellectually agile, creative problem solvers. They had to be prepared. And now your preparations are done. Your wagon is loaded.
You are ready to begin.
Four years ago, I used the analogy of the original pioneers to convey the idea that you needed to ready yourselves for a world that we couldn’t predict. How true that has proved to be. I confess that I had no idea how drastically and dramatically the world would, in fact, change during your time here. My pioneers analogy seems to me now to be not so much an analogy as a literal fact. The change we are on the cusp of today is a momentous one. It is the kind of change that defines generations. In the past century, we have the depression generation, the WWII generation, the 60s generation, the MTV generation. I don’t know what history will call your generation, but I am certain it will be named. It is the first generation that will live their adult lives in a truly global world.
Think about what has happened in the world during your four years here. There have been so many things, but just the bare highlights provide a sobering roster: There was the BP Oil Spill, which highlighted our environmental vulnerability. There was the Haiti earthquake and its revelation about the importance of infrastructure and the fact that we are and need to be a global community. There was the H1N1 epidemic, a stark reminder that a sneeze in Kansas can kill people in Beijing. There was the economic crisis – our worst since the great depression – a crisis that is ongoing and has already reshaped the geopolitical world. There was the earthquake and tsunami in Japan, and the resulting nuclear crisis, as well as the ongoing political upheaval in Northern Africa and the Middle East as people are taking to the streets, challenging the legitimacy of longstanding regimes, debating the merits of Democracy. And earlier this month, the world paused when we learned of the death of Osama bin Laden, marking another chapter in the complicated era that followed 9/11. Like never before it has been made strikingly clear to us – often painfully clear – that this new world is inextricably knitted together so that pulling on a tiny thread somewhere causes unraveling everywhere.
Although you spent these years within the relative safety of Wellesley, you were no doubt affected in some way by these global events. They have defined the world you knew as Wellesley students, and will continue to shape the world you know as Wellesley graduates. I mention these global events not to worry you, but rather, to encourage you. And you should feel encouraged. You may not yet realize it, but you’ve spent the last four years preparing for this moment. And believe me, you are well equipped to live and thrive in this redefined world. You are ready for that pioneering journey.
Why am I confident about this? Because for the last four years, you have been in an intellectual community. You have had access to faculty experts and mentors. Because you have been surrounded by debates and discussion about these events. Because you have been part of a very diverse and international student body. Most people could only
read and hear about these events passively. You were able to directly appreciate the impact of these events in conversation with some of your classmates. You were able to understand the nuances of these events, and their potential effects on our future. It was
a gripping four years. You are fortunate to have been exactly in the right place to fully appreciate it. It has truly been a revolutionary era. When I look at you today, I think of what Wordsworth said about a similar era.
“Bliss it was in that dawn to be alive, But to be young was very Heaven!”
At Wellesley, you learned how to comfort and be comforted; how to empathize and to offer help at the same time; how to plan and organize for the common benefit. You learned how to analyze, to think critically, and to stand up for what you believe in. You
learned how to make a difference.
In thinking about what I wanted to say to you today, and as I reflected on the past four years, a famous literary passage entered my mind. It was inevitable, perhaps, since it is the opening lines of one our best-known works about a revolutionary era.
“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness. It was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity…”
It seems almost like Charles Dickens was talking about our era. There is uncertainty, there is rapid change, but there is also the opportunity to have a hand in remaking and reshaping; an opportunity to share in the creation of a better world; an opportunity to connect with all parts of the world and improve not just our national condition but the human condition worldwide. Yes, these are difficult and challenging times – the worst of times – but they are also times full of promise and new possibilities – the best of times. It is an invigorating time to be you, to be so well prepared by your years at Wellesley, to be prepared to make a difference, to lighten burdens, to stay engaged, to fix what is broken, to create what is needed. I know you will, wherever you are – whatever you are doing.
During your time at Wellesley, your primary purpose has been to develop and to find the best in yourself. It hasn’t always been easy, but you have done it. My charge to you today, as you enter this next phase of your life, is – keep on doing it. You have navigated this environment. You have flourished. You are ready to apply all you have learned and become to this new setting – the world.
There is one more important thing to keep in mind as you venture forward. To stay with Dickens, I think it is best captured by G.K. Chesterton in an essay about Dickens. Chesterton wrote:
“The whole difference between construction and creation is exactly this: that a thing constructed can only be loved after it is constructed; but a thing created is loved before it exists…”
Don’t try to construct your life, so you can look back years later and maybe love it. Instead, create your life. You are all different. There is no blueprint for what you should do and what you should aspire to do. There is no plan that tells you how to pile block on block to construct a life you will love. Make your life be not what others expect it to be, but what you want it to be – exactly that and no less. Create your life. Live your life. And love your life. That is the most important thing.
Finally, let me return to the pioneer analogy. Unlike the original pioneers who were going into a land alone and couldn’t easily go home again, you have an advantage. As you make your way in the world, you will find that you are supported by a powerful network of women. It is one I have referred to as a “bright and brave sisterhood, a network spanning the generations and the globe.” You are going into a world to join over 36,000 of your Wellesley sisters, all pioneers in their own way. Take advantage of this network. Become part of this network, and in future years, reach out to help new members of the network.
The pioneers could not go back, but you can. You have a place. You have this campus. You have this community. You can return often to Wellesley to remember and to renew. Tomorrow you will not be a Wellesley student. You will be an alum. I want you to take my last thought and engrave it on your hearts. You will always be Wellesley women. This will always be your campus. You will always belong here.