President Paula Johnson’s 2017 Address to the Senior Class
Long before I ever set foot on this beautiful campus, I knew about the power of the Wellesley Network. For years, I’d heard the stories—from my mother-in-law, a Wellesley alumna, and from my many friends and colleagues with deep Wellesley ties. What I didn’t know—until this year—was what this truly means. Indeed, all of the things that make Wellesley extraordinary—and pretty much every day, I continue to find new ones—none has impressed me more than the ties that bind Wellesley women.
Two decades ago, Secretary Clinton wrote a book. And you've heard it mentioned already today. It Takes a Village. While its focus was on children’s issues, the title has far broader meaning. It speaks to the fundamental truth that we need each other—that we are stronger together than we could ever be apart. You—the members of the Class of 2017—have been each other’s village. You've cheered and challenged each other in times both happy and hard. You’ve formed lifelong friendships. You’ve celebrated and mourned. You’ve lived and learned and experimented. You’ve spurred each other on. This village has been what it is because of you. Now, as you step into a new chapter, you will carry its spirit with you. That is no small thing.
These are not easy times. Along with the usual challenges life inevitably brings, you are graduating into a world that is increasingly polarized, where many of the values at the heart of a liberal arts education are under fire. These include the importance of evidence-based debate in the pursuit of truth. The belief that diversity—both of ideas and lived experience—enrich us all. The conviction that every human being—every woman—deserves an opportunity to thrive.
In such times, community offers a singular source of strength. Social isolation is dangerous—and not only to our spirits. More and more research suggests that it poses health risks—risks that may be even greater than smoking and other well-recognized dangers. The fact is, it is very very difficult to be resilient on your own. It is also difficult to change the world alone. As we strive to serve the larger world, community both sustains us and propels us forward. It is where we share hopes and dreams, and imagine possibilities.
I recently came across these words, widely attributed to Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor. She says:
“We don’t accomplish anything in the world alone and whatever happens is the result of the whole tapestry off one’s life and all the weavings of individual threads from one to another that create something.”
This deeply resonated with me. The richer the tapestry, the richer the life. Be creative as you weave your own tapestry. Welcome the unexpected. What at first seems extraneous may be exactly what’s called for to expand your perspective and your sense of possibilities.
Some weeks back, I received a phone message from a young Wellesley alumna, Ahilya Wallia, Class of 2015. From the sound of it, there was nothing urgent. I was having a very busy week, and I almost put it aside. But I’m glad that I didn’t. This turned out to be a powerful and inspirational conversation.
Ahilya spent her early years in California. When she was thirteen, financial challenges led her family to move to India, where they could live with relatives. As she neared completion of high school, it wasn’t clear whether she’d be able to complete her senior year due to her family’s inability to pay the fees. This is where her grandmother stepped in. She took the precious golden bangles off her wrist and sold them so that Ahilya could complete school and take her SATs.
From there, Ahilya made it to Wellesley. She worked hard. At times, academics were a struggle, but she made up for this with sheer force: sheer force of her passion and relationship building, building friendships. She won a White House internship and went on to become a field organizer for Secretary Clinton’s campaign. And today, she’s headed to New York to be the deputy director for Mayor Bill de Blasio’s re-election campaign. And we know that Mayor de Blasio’s wife Charlene is a Wellesley alumna. Ahilya is with us today to attend her cousin’s commencement.
Now, why did Ahilya call me? She wanted to tell me how important Wellesley had been to her life. And I can’t tell you moved I was, how energized and inspired.
Now you might be thinking, I get what you’re saying, but if I answer every phone call, I’ll never get anything else done. How do I decide if I should veer off course or stay focused on what I perceive as priorities?
Well, a friend put it this way: Always err in favor of human connection. And in my experience, this is more than just an excellent rule of thumb. It’s a way of life!
It’s in relationships—in those connections—that magic happens. It’s often where we find the inspiration where we connect most deeply with the best parts of ourselves.
Among this year’s many Wellesley firsts for me was the annual Hoop-rolling Contest, the 122nd such event since 1895. Now this tradition, as we all know, is distinctively Wellesley, but the sport itself has been played around the world since ancient times, from Greece to China. And I’m told that it’s still popular in Africa, where it’s known as Hoop and Poll. I found this fascinating—a reflection of how we are both uniquely Wellesley, and exist within a larger fabric of traditions that cross time, place, and cultures.
This year’s first-place winner was Laurel Wills. Laurel left no doubt that her victory was a group effort. Hooprolling, she said, is a “team sport ... I couldn’t have won without all the people who camped out on the starting line.” There’s a metaphor here. The hoop that Laurel rolled to victory. The bangles on Ahilya’s grandmother’s wrists. Both of these bring to mind the beautiful circle of life. The legacies that both bring us together and carry us forward.
Today is an ending—and it’s also a beginning. From here, you head off in so very many different directions. Many of you will soon embark on your first post-college jobs. Others are on your way to graduate or professional schools. Yet others are still looking for the next opportunity, a search for which you will have Wellesley’s support.
None of these is better than any other. Whatever your next steps, each one of you will bring unique gifts to a world that needs them.
While you may never again be together as you are today, you will always be bound together by your time at Wellesley, members of the one and only Emerald Class of 2017.
You are now and forever Wellesley women—members of a village, a network, a community of which I’ve never seen the equal.
The wooden hoop Laurel Wills rolled this year was passed down through the Shakespeare Society’s Sonnet 55 family. It’s inscribed with this quote: “You live in this, and dwell in lovers’ eyes.” You live in this. To all of you here today, look around you—at this beautiful campus, at each other. Think back on what you’ve learned and what you’ve shared. This is what you live in. What you will always live in. Congratulations, Class of 2017!