Kavindya Thennakoon ’19 delivered the student speech
To the members of the Board of Trustees, President Paula Johnson, distinguished speaker Professor Anita Hill, faculty, staff, family, and the graduating class of 2019.
The strongest and most inspiring woman I have ever met in my life—my mother—isn’t here today. She was excited to make her first trip out of the country to see the first person in our family graduate from college but, unfortunately, her visa to enter the United States was denied. This speech is a tribute to women like my mother—who move oceans so that we can sail on smoother seas.
In my little island home of Sri Lanka, we have a time-honored tradition where, during auspicious moments, like coming of age, the new initiate is given seven gifts. Each gift bears sacred significance that is thought to provide one with peace, purpose, and clarity as they transition from the old to the new. On this 141st rite of passage that Severance Green has witnessed, I thought it was apt to give all of you seven gifts each. Seven gifts that I have carefully picked over these past four wonderful years at Wellesley.
My first gift is the gift of freshness of those “first-times.” I remember coming to Wellesley in September 2015 with two red luggage bags in tow, 8,578 miles away from home—alone, wide-eyed, homesick, but insanely excited to live my best American dream. What I remember from that day was the dining hall in Lulu! There were four different types of pizza, five different types of ice cream, six different types of cereal, and an unlimited supply of Coca-Cola. To someone for whom three meals per day was sometimes a luxury, that was magic. I still go to Lulu sometimes and try to remind myself of that sheer feeling of fascination. I hope that as you venture forth into the world beyond, you keep the freshness of those precious first-times real and alive in your heart.
My second gift is the permission to be vulnerable. During our time here, some of us lost family, parted ways with old friends, broke up with high school boyfriends for other more accomplished women. We lost, we cried, and wished it would be the last. More often, we were asked to just move on, but Wellesley taught us that we never move on from failure or grief, we simply move forward with it. This is the gift to talk authentically and boldly about our failures and celebrate everything—from the internships that never got back to you, to those awful Tinder matches who never swiped right, and everything in between that is yet to come. Celebrate it all and move forward with it.
My third gift to you is the permission to forget your GPA and just throw it off into the murky depths of Lake Waban, just like we did with that penny when we moved into our first-year dorms. We’ve spent close to 1,364-ish days pulling out our hairs wondering if we might ever graduate summa cum… (whatever the rest of it is called), and in the grand scheme of things nobody really cares (except those of you who will be applying for your PhDs, MFAs, and MBAs—too bad for you), but for the rest of us, now we can finally make peace with that Wellesley professor across the aisle who made us go all the way to MIT just to bump up our GPAs.
My fourth gift is for my first-generation siblings in the audience today. We played on an uneven playing field. We applied for internships when we did not even know what a referral meant. We listened to our peers discuss citation styles with their parents while we were too busy discussing the best way to send money home so that our parents could pay their rent. We did not even understand the concept of office hours because for many of us asking for help was most often not an option. My gift to you is the courage to unapologetically take up space and to audaciously own it, because we made it. We really did.
My fifth gift to you is the realization that, even though many of us came here with the hope that we will someday save the world…somewhere between Jewett and the Science Center, Wellesley taught us that many of us would not end up saving the world, but we would end up doing something way more humble and pragmatic. And that is to radically transform the communities that we come from. From the rural classrooms we will transform in Minnesota and Indonesia, to the elections we will run for; from the parliament in Sri Lanka to the U.S. Congress right here. From the communities that we will mobilize as we fight for the rights of our trans siblings across the world to the voices we raise as we fight for freedom in Palestine—we will transform communities big and small, and I hope this gift reminds you to always, always, speak truth to power. To make space for the difficult conversations. To always ask the uncomfortable questions and to not only speak loudly, but to listen boldly.
Just like the pearl necklace that reminds one of home, my sixth gift to you is of Lake Waban. When you’re in a lonely bus stop in New York or New Delhi with a broken heart and a cold cup of coffee, or when you’re mansplained for 26th time and the glass ceiling seems stronger than ever before, I hope that you will close your eyes and think of Lake Waban at 5:30 p.m. on a beautiful day in April. Remember how every time its gentle waves get turned back by the fringes of Wellesley, it just keeps coming back every day, every night to kiss it goodbye. I hope that reminds you that there is a home for you here, among us, no matter how rough and vicious the seas will get.
My last gift to you is a story and a request. In 2015, I was an ordinary girl with ideas larger than myself, working three jobs, living in a 4 x 4 room, trying to make ends meet. College was just a nice, fancy, distant dream. An incredible mentor, who I had the chance to work for, sat me down one day and told me, “Kavi, a college degree would really change things for you. And I think Wellesley would be the perfect fit.” My response obviously was, “What is Wellesley?” followed by a cursory Google search, when the cost of attendance made me immediately regret the three minutes I had even spent thinking. To cut a long story short, a tribe of incredible Wellesley women banded together to make this moment possible. I sat in my first-year triple in Shafer that night and called my mentor, overwhelmed with disbelief and gratitude, and I asked “How I could I ever repay you back?” Antonia De Meo ’89, who is sitting right there in the audience today, told me these words: She said, “One day you will meet someone just like you, with dreams larger than themselves, but without the means to make them a reality. Make Wellesley possible for them and pass this forward.” And that is my final ask from you—let’s try to make Wellesley possible for someone else.
As Anita Hill did in 1991 and as Nora Ephron reminded us right here in 1996, “Let’s go out there and make some trouble!”
Congratulations to the class of 2019!