2013 Convocation

Convocation Remarks

Wellesley President H. Kim Bottomly
September 3, 2013

Good afternoon! It’s nice to be back here in the Diana Chapman Walsh Alumnae Hall Auditorium to celebrate Convocation, and to be back on campus with all of you for another year. It is my pleasure to welcome you to Wellesley’s 139th year.

Today we begin Wellesley’s 139th year. Beginnings are exciting—they are filled with anticipation—we know that inspiration and insight lie in front of us; as do hard work and accomplishment, success and failure, promise and progress, and new intellectual heights to be climbed. And we know that we will be looking at the world a little differently come May. It’s going to be a busy year. It’s going to be a great year.

Last week, I had the pleasure of greeting a remarkable group of students—the new green Class of 2017. Welcome to Wellesley! As I said last week, you will soon find out that Wellesley is a good place to begin to grow—and to continually learn new things. This is your community now, and we’re glad you are here.

This year, we also have with us eight new Davis Scholars and 13 new transfer students.  We are happy you have joined us.

I would also like to say a special welcome to our 13 new tenure-track faculty and our new staff. Welcome to Wellesley.

To the red Class of 2016: Welcome back! As sophomores, you have a lot to teach our first year students.

To the yellow Class of 2015: It’s wonderful to see all of you again!

And a special welcome back to the purple Class of 2014. You are now officially the Senior Class of Wellesley College! There are many responsibilities inherent in being the senior class, and I know you are ready for this important role on campus. It is your turn to set the tone with your leadership. As a symbol of that leadership today, you have joined the faculty in wearing traditional academic robes.

Seniors. You still have one-quarter of your Wellesley career in front of you. Enjoy it.

Finally, let me welcome back our faculty and recognize our staff, many of whom were here working this summer. I hope you each had an enjoyable summer, and, like me, you are looking forward to another great year.

Convocation marks the traditional start of the academic year, and as we begin Wellesley’s 139th year, I want to recall the words of our founder, Henry Durant. In a speech to the first class of Wellesley students in 1875—the year Wellesley opened—he declared that the College’s objective was to prepare students for “great conflicts, for vast reforms in social life, for noblest usefulness.”

Today, I want to speak a bit about his notion of noble usefulness.

What does it mean to be nobly useful? Noble, in this sense, means worthy, principled, meritorious. Each of us may interpret this differently, depending on our backgrounds, experiences, interests, and ideals. Noble usefulness—whether we call it that or not today—very much continues to be a part of our culture at Wellesley.

  • For instance, some students studied how nanoparticles can be used to treat pancreatic cancer in our Science Center Summer Research program.
  • And off-campus this summer, another student launched an art-based project to aid women in the Republic of Congo.
  • On the shores of Lake Baikal in Siberia, a team of Wellesley students, faculty, and alumnae were once again engaged in research on the most biotically-rich body of water in the world.
  • On an archeological dig in Greece, a Wellesley-led team of students, faculty, and alumnae increased our knowledge of history by studying an area believed to be among the earliest inhabited regions in ancient times.
  • And at the Vatican this summer, a Wellesley student worked in the photo archives of the Vatican Museum, thanks to a brand new internship established with the help of our Italian Department.

Indeed, Wellesley is the perfect place to discover what noble usefulness might mean for you.

As we begin this new academic year, I would like to offer some thoughts on how Wellesley continues to support and sustain us in our individual and collective endeavors to achieve noble usefulness.

Wellesley is a place where we as an institution advocate for what we at Wellesley believe in. And that is educating women to make a difference in the world; enabling women, no matter their financial background, to benefit from a Wellesley education; and advancing women’s global leadership.

In this coming year, I encourage you to advocate for what you as an individual believe in. Thoughtful activism can be powerful. In fact, it was one of the ideals in which Henry Durant believed. Wellesley College was founded to give women an education equivalent to that of men—a radical and unpopular notion at the time. 

Shortly after the College opened, Henry Durant declared to students: “All of our plans are in outspoken opposition to the systems and the prejudices of the public. Therefore, we expect every one of you to be, in the noblest sense, reformers.”

Wellesley students have a long history of raising awareness in pursuit of change. The same goes for our faculty. You may have recently seen an open letter from a number of our faculty to the administration at Peking University, in which Wellesley faculty affirmed their commitment to the principles of academic freedom and voiced their concerns that our colleagues and partners at Peking University lack that. 

And this coming year, you will no doubt hear from a group of Wellesley students who are joining the nationwide movement to divest from (withdraw endowment investment in) fossil-fuel companies. It is an important question that will be considered by the Trustees, and discussed with the whole on-campus community to determine the right approach for Wellesley.

Wellesley is also a place of incredible diversity. The members who make up this community share vastly different opinions and ideas on issues of local, national, and international importance. This difference is a good thing. It is one of the many benefits of our intellectual community. Take advantage of this diversity to explore your own beliefs and to challenge your own beliefs. Listen to what others have to say; listen very carefully to those whose opinions and beliefs are in stark opposition to your own. We don’t all agree, but we are all very smart or we wouldn't be here. We are all worth listening to.

Engage in dialogs that bring about productive conversations and healthy debate. We all benefit from such conversations, and unless our minds are closed, we all learn from them.

And finally, Wellesley is a place where it is impossible to remain stagnant. This is a community devoted to a love of learning, to developing a habit of mind. You can’t help but keep learning here. Students, it is up to you to take full advantage of our liberal arts curriculum, which is unparalleled in the world. You are here because you want to learn from the best of the best. And faculty, you are here because you want to teach the best of the best. Indeed, what happens inside—and outside—of the classroom at Wellesley will spark something in you—something that I have no doubt will be put to good and noble use.

Henry Durant would be pleased to know how many generations of Wellesley faculty have helped prepare alumnae for lives of noble usefulness. One such alumna who lived a most nobly useful life is Kathryn Davis, Wellesley Class of 1928. As many of you know, Kathryn passed away in April this year at age 106.

Kathryn was the quintessential Wellesley woman—wherever she went, she had a positive influence on people and places. She had a zest for life, an insatiable appetite for learning, and she loved Wellesley with all of her heart.

I will forever hold in my mind the beautiful image of this indomitable woman boating on Lake Waban last fall at age 105. Kathryn was a trend-setter. She had a Ph.D. in international relations at a time when very few women earned doctorates. 

She championed a great many causes, long before they became popular causes, including global education, world peace, environmental conservation, and art. She is also the Davis whose name adorns our world-class museum, the plaza in front of the museum, as well as the parking garage behind you.

As a community, we haven’t yet had an opportunity to celebrate the life of this extraordinary person, and so I invite you to join me over the coming year as we honor, remember, and celebrate Kathryn and the ideals and values in which she believed. There will be various opportunities to do so this coming year, culminating in a community-wide celebration in April. I look forward to telling you more about these events soon.

Kathryn Davis encouraged those around her to stay active and involved always, and to never stop learning. In 2007, upon receiving the prestigious Woodrow Wilson Award for Public Service, she said, “We don’t know what tomorrow holds, and therefore let us take advantage of today to be as useful as possible.”

With those words, I encourage you all to take advantage not only of today, but to take advantage of this remarkable place and all it has to offer, as we all aspire to a life of noble usefulness.

Thank you.