Convocation 2021

September 8, 2021
Wellesley College
President Johnson speaks from a podium

Good afternoon!

Welcome to all of you at the start of Wellesley’s 147th year. It is so wonderful to be together in person. 

A special welcome to the incoming green class of 2025, to our seven new Davis scholars, and to our two new transfer students. We are so happy to have you among us.

Welcome, too, to our new faculty, and to our new administrative and union staff. 

And a big welcome back to all of our returning students—we are thrilled to have you back!

To the intrepid red class of 2024—this is your first in-person convocation, too. We are delighted that you are with us.

To our juniors and seniors, the brilliant yellow class of 2023 and the fantastic purple class of 2022—the keepers of our traditions, the passers-on of Wellesley wisdom—it is great to be with you today.

As the green class will soon discover, Wellesley students tend to be both original and inspiring. In fact, my theme today—time and its strangeness during this pandemic—was inspired by a student project. 

It was Shakespeare who inspired Charnell Jones ’23—namely, a speech in The Winter’s Tale, when Time itself comes onstage to justify suddenly forwarding the action 16 years. 

In response, Charnell made a very simple but profoundly moving video that captures the deceptive nature of time in a world of social distancing. For four minutes, without moving, the camera records the view from her front door, a quiet courtyard of townhouses in Detroit, while Moses Sumney’s mournful song “Am I Doomed?” plays. Only when cars zoom past and the occasional person scurries to a neighboring door do we realize that this is a time-lapse video that was filmed over many hours. 

The video seems to ask whether time has been compressed during our pandemic solitude, so that the eventless hours feel like mere minutes. Or has it stretched out endlessly in the sameness of every day?

All of us have experienced such pandemic doldrums. I had high hopes that we would be fully past them at this point—and that the miraculously rapid development of effective vaccines against COVID-19 would mean that we were emerging from the pandemic. Yet, because of so many shortcomings in our own society and a lack of concern for the entire world, we have seen the advent of the Delta variant, with its high transmissibility, and we are emerging more haltingly than we thought. 

In a sense, a new virus such as SARS-CoV-2 reveals the capricious nature of time: Any infection with an R naught—or basic reproductive number—greater than one can potentially spread exponentially. If nothing is done, we are fast-forwarding from a few cases to many many more. Change can overwhelm us. 

While we have fought back by requiring vaccination in many settings, we have also fought back by forcing the hands of the clock to move more slowly—hunkering down, wearing masks, and restricting our movements and social contacts, as we all have been doing since March of 2020.

The past year and a half also revealed other tricks of time. It became starkly clear that as a country we have not moved as far toward social justice and gender equality as we thought or hoped. 

The tragic deaths of George Floyd and so many others, the fact that minorities suffered far worse health outcomes from COVID-19, the ways women’s careers were impaired as schools and daycare centers closed, and last week’s Supreme Court ruling upholding a Texas law that denies women their constitutional right to abortion and that potentially unleashes abortion bounty hunters, which is all too reminiscent of slavery— all of these provoke the question, what is the progress we have made? 

Are we stuck, staring out the front door at a landscape that never alters in its fundamentals?

I am optimistic that we are not. 

Many historians agree that pandemics are such extreme events that they transform societies. 

As a country, we have not been this engaged in questions of racial equity since the civil rights movement when I was a child. We have not so openly discussed the ways that our economy and our society disadvantage women since the feminist movement of the 1960s and 1970s. COVID-19 has mobilized us. 

This crisis also has emphasized our country’s need for a transformed public health system, more cooperation among all levels of government and academia and industry, clear communication from our leaders, and a greater degree of care and responsibility for the whole of our society. So, while we have been shutting down, we also have been opening up to new ideas in our public sphere. 

A time like this also transforms institutions. 

At Wellesley, the pandemic disrupted a project very important to our community. We were hard at work on a comprehensive strategic plan—the very first for Wellesley College—in March of 2020, when we had to make the painful decision to send our students home for the rest of the academic year. We put the plan aside to deal with the many logistical challenges we were facing. 

But when we came together last fall to resume our planning process, it was with a new sense of clarity and purpose. The inequities revealed all around us made us more determined than ever that Wellesley College offer a contrasting example. Our strategic plan puts inclusive excellence at the very heart of a Wellesley education. 

In fact, my own career as a physician and a scientist has taught me that there is no real excellence without inclusion. Whether we are treating a patient or designing a research study, who we are influences what we see. None of us has all the answers. In every field, it takes a diversity of perspectives to bring us closer to the truth.

At Wellesley, we stand with every truth-seeker whose voice is in danger of being silenced, so we have offered to host scholars at risk from Afghanistan. We are very proud of a Wellesley alumna in the military who assisted with the evacuation at the Kabul airport—and very proud that our Wellesley alumnae network helped nearly 150 Afghan women students from the Asian University for Women to escape Kabul—so that someday, the world can benefit from their perspectives. 

But so many others are still imperiled under Taliban rule—and we will continue to look for ways to help.

To our new students: The amazing diversity of the students around you is such a gift. You have so much to learn from each other, including about yourselves. We work very hard here to create an environment in which each of you will feel a deep sense of belonging, and the freedom to be your most authentic selves and to thrive. 

All of you have lived through a difficult time over the past year and a half, but that experience itself will open up new possibilities. Moments of stasis can be misleading. We feel that we are going nowhere, but we are mulling, observing, thinking, planning, making beautiful videos out of our melancholy. The very longing for change can help to bring it about.

We are always growing, sometimes unobserved by ourselves. Most of us have discovered new aspects of our own resilience and resourcefulness during this period. Consider the courage of our red and green classes, who were willing to leap into adulthood by starting college during a pandemic.

Remote instruction spurred our faculty and staff to rethink what it means to teach, and our students to rethink what it means to learn. The pandemic forged deeper bonds within this community because in-person classes, and the chance to appreciate each other in three dimensions, seemed so rare and so wonderful.

The beginning of a new academic year is always exciting, and I wish it were an entirely fresh page in the sense that the pandemic was behind us. But since it is not, whenever the days seem a little stale, I hope you will refresh your spirits by reaching out to your amazing mentors and peers. If you experience moments when it seems as if time has stopped, I can assure you, it has not. A few years from now, you will look back at your four years at Wellesley and be astonished at the expansion of your mind, character, and power. 

And whenever you are frustrated by a lack of progress in the world around you, I hope you will contribute to this community, which aspires to be a model of excellence, equity, and kindness—and then take that experience and translate it into leadership in the world.

We have a very beautiful motto at Wellesley: Non Ministrari sed Ministrare. That means that Wellesley students do not stare at the clock on the wall, waiting for someone to minister to them; they minister to others. They not only take care of themselves—they turn the hourglass upside down and right what’s wrong with the world. 

We are not stuck in the past; rather, the pandemic has woken us up to those aspects of our society that deserve to be consigned to the past. It is time to envision and realize a new and better world, and you will contribute to this great project.

You start this work right here, right now, and I hope you enjoy every single minute of your Wellesley College experience.

I wish all of you a year full of love, learning, and growth!

Thank you.