President's Address

President Diana Chapman Walsh's Charge to the 2000 Senior Class

Now we move to the traditional segment of the Commencement program in which the president issues her "charge to the seniors," sending them off into the world as if shot from a gun.

Often I've observed from this vantage point that the seniors look charged up enough and hardly need an infusion of energy from the president -- or anyone. And so it is today. But every year is different -- each class is sui generis.

This year's seniors -- the millennial class of which we've made such a fuss since the day you set foot on campus -- this Class of 2000 has turned the tables in various ways. And one has been that you have charged the president to bring you something particular on this, your, graduation day.

In late March, two of you brought me a petition asking that I bring an outside voice into these proceedings. It wasn't that you wanted a celebrity, you insisted, and you were delighted and excited to have Dean Daniels as your speaker.

But you worried that something would be missing without that outside presence to mark this life transition you were anticipating. I listened hard for what lay behind your concern; it was a desire that this day be out of the ordinary, memorable.

And so I have resolved to bring you outside voices today, along with a memento to keep and ponder I hope, perhaps even to treasure. This is something entirely new, an innovation inspired by your request.

We send you off today, I first want you to know, with utter confidence not only in what you will do in this world but who you will be. You represent the pride of this institution. We send you off, as we often say, to make a difference in the world. We know that you will take your places in the sisterhood of Wellesley women who have crafted lives of commitment to serve causes larger than yourselves. You have developed here a thirst for learning--and a knack for it--that will define you throughout your lives.

And as you leave this institution whose first obligation has always been the full development of women, you carry with you possibilities for women everywhere. You will write the next chapter of the story of women's gifts to the world, and you will enlarge women's hopes for the next generation.

As a symbol of those hopes, a token of our esteem, and a tangible reminder for you today of that voice you wanted from the outside world, we are giving each of you a copy of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. This is a tradition I bring you from the Harvard School of Public Health, where I was a professor before I came to Wellesley 7 years ago.

This document, adopted in December 1948, was one of the first major achievements of the United Nations. It was crafted by the first UN Human Rights Commission, chaired by Eleanor Roosevelt, who considered the successful negotiation of this remarkable covenant the most consequential accomplishment of her long and productive life.

A product of the horrors of the Nazi Holocaust, the declaration has been codified and extended in international treaties, resolutions, conferences, and national constitutions of newly-formed states. It exerts an enormous influence on lives all over the world. It is the first time in history that a broadly-representative international organization has been able to agree on a document considered to apply universally, a point of contention then, and now.

At the same time that it represents optimism for the future, and aspirations we all can share, this declaration serves as a poignant reminder of work we all need to do. In 1997, two months after she took up the responsibilities as UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Mary Robinson, former president of Ireland, pointed to discrimination, genocide, and poverty as "a failure of implementation on a scale which shames us all."

And so -- the passionate Wellesley class of zero-zero--we send you out now into the world to breathe meaning into these principles. This declaration speaks to you in many outside voices: in the voice of Eleanor Roosevelt and all that her life signified, in the voice of Mary Robinson and other contemporary women who are taking up the cause of human rights around the world.

This declaration speaks to you in the voices of the victims of ethnic hatred and genocide -- incidents that were a steady drumbeat during your four years here:

  • the hundreds of thousands of refugees from Rwanda and Burundi who trudged to eastern Zaire and back in your first semester here;
  • the thousands killed and maimed these past four years by dozens of terrorist bombs;
  • the Serbs, Croats, Kosovars, Chechnyans who suffered unspeakable miseries while you studied here;
  • Matthew Shephard and the children who died at Columbine many others.

This document speaks to you, too, in the voices of whole countries and continents--like India, China, the Soviet Union and sub-Sarahan Africa where HIV, silently but relentlessly, is mutating and decimating families, communities, societies … entire nations, reversing recent improvements in the quality of life. By 2010, roughly 40 million African children may be orphaned by AIDS, a calamity on a scale that's difficult even to imagine.

Few infected Africans are receiving as much as an aspirin to relieve their suffering, while rich countries are spending $15,000 a year on drugs for a single patient. Funding for prevention programs is equally skewed, with 95% of the funds being spent in industrialized nations, where 5% of the infected people reside. Who among us doubts that the response to this catastrophe would be dramatically different if it were befalling not Africans and Asians but Americans and Europeans?

This Universal Declaration of Human Rights speaks to you in the voices of all the suffering people it is too painful for us to countenance. And so we look the other way and go on about our lives, taking our privileges for granted.

So that this day will stand out in your minds as one in which we remembered our privileges--and the reciprocal obligations we owe--I want each of you to have your own copy of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. I hope you will read it, save it, mull it over in your minds, ask yourself what you can do to advance human dignity and equal rights as the essential foundation of a free, just and peaceful world.

And when someone asks you, years from now, what you recall from your graduation, I hope you will find this document tucked away with your diploma, or your scrapbook, in a box of treasures … or your underwear drawer--wherever it is that you end up storing the few things that accompany you through your life's journey.

I wish all of you great adventures in your travels ahead. May they take you safely to places you never dreamed you would encounter, and may they bring you back here--soon and often. And as you strive to live up (as I know you will) to all the expectations we have for you, and all those you have for yourselves, I hope that you will cut yourselves a little slack.

I've been more serious in these comments to you than I often am on this occasion. At another graduation some years ago, after a particularly grim invocation, the next speaker said to the graduates, "Having heard the words of the good father about the troubles of the world, my advice to you is … don't go." So maybe my ulterior motive is to scare you into staying. We are going to miss you, your energy and your caring. But I think you're ready to go … am I right?

When you do go, do me one favor. Please be forgiving, gentle, and compassionate towards yourselves. Don't struggle to get it all done in the first five years--or even the first 20. Wellesley women are made of sturdy stuff. We are durable. I know this from the thousands of redoubtable alumnae I've met around the world and across the generations. You will have plenty of time -- trust me--and each of you will craft your own special life of purpose, and beauty, and meaning.

So take your time, enjoy your friends, prize your families and this exquisite world, this amazing life. It is a precious gift as my own experiences this past week have driven home to me. Don't let your relentless search for meaning drive the meaning out.

Stay connected to each other and to the joys of the moment. Smile -- if nothing else, people will wonder what you're up to. Travel light. Listen, always, to your curiosity, and don't ever let anyone talk you out of your passion for justice -- it is a wonderful thing.

Go in peace. Go with our love.

We are so proud of you.