President Paula A. Johnson’s 2021 address to the graduating class
Thank you, Liz. Thank you for those uplifting words. Your story is an inspiration to all of us. Thank you.
Good afternoon, evergreen class of 2021! You have just completed a remarkable journey. Let me be among the first to say: Congratulations!
What a day this is, and what a moment.
Congratulations, too, to all who supported you along the way, especially through this last, most difficult of years. To your family and friends, teachers, mentors, allies, and inspirations—a heartfelt thanks for all you did to make this day possible.
This is a commencement like no other—which is fitting because you, class of 2021, are a class like no other.
Sadly, you can’t all be on campus today. Due to the pandemic, you are scattered around the world, across nations and time zones. Yet the same challenge that’s kept you apart also draws you together.
This truth was beautifully captured in a Wellesley News piece by your classmate Misia Lerska. “There cannot be shared drinks nor tender embraces, and tears can feel redundant,” she wrote. “But there is connection and there is pride in this time. Nobody has done this before, and that is a senior year worth remembering.”
Nobody has done this before—and we certainly hope no one will again. Your senior year was so different from what you had imagined. Yet, again and again, you found new ways to keep Wellesley, Wellesley.
Your many triumphs this past year truly inspire me.
That said, they don’t surprise me.
From the start, it was clear that you were extraordinary.
Your brilliance, your passion, your idealism—these qualities shone through from your first days on campus. The crises of this era have only spurred you on. You’ve voted, you’ve protested, you’ve organized. You’ve learned and you’ve taught. You’ve advocated and volunteered. You’ve fought for what you believe.
Wellesley’s mission is to prepare students to make a difference in the world. You, class of 2021, are already making that difference.
You have also left an enduring mark on Wellesley College. You have challenged us—and you have changed us. It hasn’t always been easy, but you have made us so much better.
Thanks to you, we are doing far more to address climate change. Your leadership and willingness to approve a carbon-reducing student ballot initiative was instrumental in our board of trustees’ decision to prohibit new endowment investments in fossil fuels—a major step toward our goal of carbon neutrality by 2040.
Thanks to you, we are moving to recognize our nation’s longstanding debts to Indigenous people. Activism on behalf of members of your class and leadership by College Government spurred our decision to replace Columbus Day with Indigenous People’s Day and fueled our commitment to publicly acknowledge that Wellesley is built on the ancestral and unceded lands of Indigenous people. And we look forward to having our official land acknowledgment to share next year.
Thanks to you, Wellesley has made major strides toward equity and inclusion, an essential foundation of all true excellence. You have held us accountable to these values in many ways, from pushing for changes in the role of campus police to urging us to work with our food service provider, AVI, toward encouraging their 100 percent divestment from prison food systems. Because of your continuing advocacy on this issue—and that of the College on your behalf—I can now announce that just this week, AVI has indeed committed to ending any existing business they currently have in prisons, and has pledged not to pursue any new business with public or private prisons in the future. You spoke, the College listened—and together, we have made change we can all be proud of.
Thanks to you, we made it through this pandemic year with only a handful of COVID cases on campus, a sharp contrast to so many of our peer institutions. On campus, you cared for each other every day by doing the hardest thing: by holding to COVID protocols that forced you to stay apart. And so you traded free-form socializing for intimate communities of blockmates.
At the same time, you found ways to come together by reimagining Wellesley’s traditions. Your house presidents led the way, doing everything from designing a reverse Flower Sunday, where first-years gave flowers to seniors, to hosting the first remote lip-sync contest. And this spring, you sent postcards to students who had been on campus during the fall, so that they could feel connected from afar.
Seniors studying remotely—you, too, found ways to connect with each other while making a difference in your own communities, working in food pantries, as contact tracers, and advocating for the incarcerated and other vulnerable populations.
In these ways—and so many more—you have changed Wellesley.
And, equally important, Wellesley has changed you.
It’s fitting that you are the green class. Green is the color of growth, and your growth over these past four years has been nothing short of astounding.
The degrees you receive today will carry you far, a testament to the power of a Wellesley education. They reflect your deep knowledge of disciplines, your capacity for critical thinking, your agility, your integrity, creativity, and perseverance.
But the growth I’ve witnessed goes far beyond academic mastery.
At least as impressive is your growth as human beings. You’ve become more empathic, more compassionate, more flexible, and more strategic. And in doing so, you’ve become more effective changemakers.
It’s one thing to take a strong stand, quite another to make it real.
You, class of 2021, have shown that you can do both.
In remarks like these, college presidents often issue a commencement charge, a challenge to new graduates to do any number of important things: to serve the world, to be true to themselves, to pursue their dreams.
But for you, class of 2021, the only charge I have for you is: Keep going!
Keep building a more just and sustainable world.
Keep growing in knowledge, kindness, and empathy.
Keep meeting people where they are and treating others as you would be treated.
Keep cherishing, cheering on, and drawing strength from each other.
Keep becoming who you are.
Keep making the change you want to see in the world.
In this, you will not be alone. Today, you join the awe-inspiring network of Wellesley alumnae—a global community some 36,000 strong. You have likely already experienced its power, through internships, mentorships, and other forms of support. You will come to appreciate its strength and reach more and more over time.
You enter the world at a decisive moment. So much work lies ahead. Indeed, it’s never-ending. I think of these words from writer Zadie Smith: “Progress is never permanent, will always be threatened, must be redoubled, restated, and reimagined if it is to survive.”
This is ever more apparent.
Class of 2021: The challenges that lie before you are great—but so are your strengths. You are evergreen—and ever Wellesley—and I can think of no one more equipped to chart the path forward.
Thank you for all that you have done so far, and for all that you will do.
You have challenged us—and you have changed us. Now you venture forth to challenge and change the world.
This is your moment.