Convocation 2016

August 31, 2016

Good Afternoon! 

I am so happy and honored to be here with all of you at the start of Wellesley’s 142nd year and at the beginning of my first as President of Wellesley.  My family and I arrived on campus just last July, and we already feel the power of the Wellesley Effect. I am so grateful to all the faculty, students, staff, alumnae, and friends who have so warmly welcomed us.

What a great pleasure now to welcome you.

To those of you here today who are, like me, first years: We share a special bond. If you’ve noticed me wearing a lot of red lately, you, the red class of 2020 are the reason! A shout out to you!

A warm welcome, too, to our nine new Davis Scholars and our transfer student, to our new faculty, and to our new administrative and union members. We are so delighted to have you with us! And a warm welcome back to the yellow class of 2019, to the purple class of 2018, and to the green class of 2017, our seniors; may this year at Wellesley be your best.  You have the experience of the past three years to guide you. We look to you and are lead by you.

I am humbled that you have trusted me with the mantle of leadership of Wellesley College.

My work over the past 30 years has been at the nexus of science, medicine, and public health. My focus has been women’s health and advancing the science of how women and men experience health and disease differently.  In reflecting on the connection between my past and the present, health is and should be an issue of civil rights—of human rights.  And the greatest accelerant for human rights is education. It’s a true joy and privilege to join in this work—to join in this mission with you.

For all of us, this is a season of firsts; first convocation, the first time the seniors wear their robes, the first day of classes, and for some of you, your first Fall in beautiful New England.  

And, if the polls hold true, on Tuesday, November 8th, just 69 days from today, we will have another big first, our first woman president: Hillary Rodham Clinton, Wellesley Class of 1969. No matter our political views, that has to make us proud! As has been widely reported, the young Hillary Rodham showed early signs of leadership, and at commencement, she was tapped to speak on behalf of her class. This was the sixties; a time of sweeping change and challenge, and her words reflected the spirit of the times. She talked about the “gap between expectations and realities” and how she and her classmates aspired to bridge that divide, both on campus and in the larger world.   She spoke of the goal of education as being nothing less than human liberation. And she spoke about, and I quote, “the art of making what appears to be impossible possible.” Making what appears to be impossible possible. The very fact that a woman is poised to become our next president in can alone, be seen as a fulfillment of this aspiration.

In 1875, when Wellesley first opened its doors to students, women could not vote. It would be another 50 years before ratification of the 19th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution corrected this injustice. Much has changed since then. We know that the impact of women in leadership, taking their rightful places across the globe, is profound.  Much more research needs to be done to give a broader picture of women’s experiences. But we know that the impact of their leadership across a range of occupations is transformational.

Some achievements make headlines. Others that are equally important are felt more than seen. When we change the world of science, when we create new fields of knowledge, when we prepare the next generation for what lies ahead—that is leadership. We also lead through example. We lead by sharing lessons from our own life journeys. Leadership can be global or even just across the hall.

Yolette Garcia, a member of the Class of 1977 who has worked in public broadcasting and higher education, exemplifies this kind of leadership. In a letter to her younger self, published in Wellesley’s Alumnae magazine last year, she offered the following advice:

“Seek the best in others. Learn to listen first and speak last. And be patient.” To this last sentence she added, with a note of humor: “[K]eep working on that, Yolette.”

Our nearly 35,000 alumnae are often called “the most powerful women’s network in the world” and for good reason. This lifelong community is both the inspiration and the support that allows us to have the courage and the boldness to dream – to dream the impossible.  This network will enrich your life in countless ways, and amazingly enough, it could even save it.  That was true for Yolette Garcia, whose Wellesley dorm-mate donated a kidney to her.  A truly remarkable story of deep Wellesley relationships.

As I think about all of this, I find myself tremendously moved and excited for all that has gone before and all that lies ahead. This is why I am here, and I imagine it’s why you’re here.

At the same time, perhaps you wonder how you’ll get from here to there? How will you take your place in this remarkable company of women? How will you bridge the gap between reality and expectations—between the possible and what seems entirely impossible? Well, I have good news. You’re exactly where you should be.

Not a single person whom you admire burst onto the world fully formed as the goddess of wisdom Athena is said to have emerged from Zeus’ skull. Unlike Athena, we are not born wise.  Our accomplishments are functions of time, played out through a series of choices.  That is the process through which we grow, and that is your Wellesley mission; the glorious, daunting, messy, surprising process of self-creation.

I’ve always loved the start of the academic year.  There are few times in which time feels so abundant, with the months spooling off ahead, calendars largely unfilled. And all of us know, how quickly this sense of bounty can give way to anxious scarcity, as deadlines loom and competing commitments clamor for attention. So, as you look towards the months to come, I urge you to reflect on your relationship with time—to be conscious of how you choose to use it, not semester by semester, or month by month.

And in the wise words of writer Annie Dillard:

“How we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives. What we do with this hour, and that one, is what we are doing.”

You can’t possibly know what life will throw at you 10 years or a day from now. You can only make decisions based on what you know now.  Live your days at Wellesley with intention.  Be present in each hour of every day.

So, as we prepare for an election where a Wellesley alumna stands a good chance of becoming this nation’s first woman president, I urge you to take this possibility as inspiration for the coming year—to challenge the seeming impossibles in your own lives.   In doing so, you take your place in a long line of change-makers—those who ignore others’ conviction that their goal is impossible.

As is widely attributed to Nelson Mandela—

“It’s only impossible until it’s done.”

This recognition is deeply rooted in what it means to be fully human.

So what to make of all of this? Consider these words from Wellesley alumna Ophelia Dahl. The Partners in Health co-founder wrote:

“Many of the tools you will need to make a difference in the world have been in your hands since you were in your 20s, maybe even earlier. But it may take you another 20 years to realize it.”

In other words, start where you are. You don’t need to wait 20 years or 20 minutes.

A special word to seniors: Even as you look towards graduation, take time to savor the time you have left with us. Take time for friendships.  Take time to explore that intriguing subject that you haven’t made time for until now.  According to the 2015 Senior Survey, many graduating students wish they had gotten involved in more diverse activities, gotten to know faculty better, and explored the curriculum more—especially the humanities.  If any of that resonates, you still have time!

Last, take time to support your classmates behind you. You have been in their shoes. You can offer wisdom and support like no one else. Help them make their time at Wellesley the very best possible.

And to all of you: Be curious. Experiment. Take joy in the many possibilities that lie before you. Whatever your questions, you can count on finding good counsel on matters large and small, whether in conversation or through our wealth of resources.

An extraordinary resource that deserves special note this year is our new re-imagined career education initiative—made possible by an extraordinary gift from two dedicated Wellesley alumnae.  One of the most important and exciting aspects of our new career education is that it is designed to be in service to a liberal arts education. That may sound paradoxical but here’s why: A lot of the pressure students feel about the future stems from a lack of information.  With clearer guidance and information, we believe you will feel new freedom to explore your passions or what may become a passion -- to have the freedom to take full advantage of a liberal arts education.

As you explore your passions, and consider your choices—as you create your future day by day, hour by hour, you may notice that through the years, a memory of music echoes in your thoughts, marking the moments that changed everything. One of my most distinct memories from my first weeks at Wellesley was the carillon—hearing those remarkable bells ring through the clear warm air.  That music has stayed with me. Bells have a long history in human culture.  They are both signal and sound—they remind us of the passage of time—it’s time to get up, time to go to class, time to come to the table.   They ring out at times of both celebration and of mourning. They call us together, with beauty, enriching our shared experience of being alive in this moment.

One of the unique things about Wellesley’s carillon is that it is played by students. As the world has changed, as students have changed, so have our carillon concerts. Yes, we may still hear America the Beautiful or Mozart, but we’ve also been treated to songs from Phantom of the Opera or the Addams Family theme. This strikes me as a beautiful evolution, a metaphor for what we aspire to at Wellesley as a whole: to breathe new life into our traditions, to make them wholly ours even as we take our place within a long and proud history.

Wellesley has changed a great deal since it opened its doors in 1875—the fact that I stand here before you today is one indication of just how much.  At the same time, our highest aspirations remain very much the same: To educate Wellesley women—women who will use their excellent education, the totality of their Wellesley experience, to make a difference in the world. This difference will be yours to define, it will be “your difference” and it will look different for each and every one of you.  

So, when you hear our beautiful carillon, let that be a reminder of the passage of time—a reminder that, in Annie Dillard’s words,

“How we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives.”

And if in that moment, you find yourself somewhere other than you want to be? You can pause and start again.      

So today, as we look towards the months ahead, we start and restart together—we go on the journey of making the impossible, possible.  I couldn’t be happier or more excited to be starting this year with you.