Lia James ’21 delivered the student speech
Hello and thank you, Katie, for those beautiful words and guiding us through this ridiculous year. Members of the board of trustees, President Johnson, distinguished guest Rep. Liz Miranda, faculty, staff, family, friends, and fellow members of the evergreen class of 2021, here and online: Good morning. Or good afternoon, or good evening. (I know at least one member of our class is watching from New Zealand, and it’s about 3 a.m. there, so to you, enjoy that cup of coffee for the both of us.) It is a privilege to be here today.
There is a Haitian proverb that says, “Sonje lapli ki leve mayi ou.” It translates roughly to “Remember the rain that made your corn grow.” When I was younger, I used to think that this proverb evoked nothing but beautiful, peaceful imagery of morning showers that culminated in a bountiful harvest. The rain that made your corn grow! One day, while I was about 15 years old and placing the third empty bucket on my bedroom floor to collect water in the middle of a hurricane, it dawned on me that rain in that proverb might actually have been meant to represent hardship. The rain that made your corn grow. After four incredibly rainy (and snowy) years, I’ve decided that both interpretations of the proverb hold water.
The earliest Wellesley memory I associate with rain is one of my first: our spring Open Campus, 2017. Since I am an international student, I hadn’t had the cross-country college tours I had seen others have on TV. Wellesley was one of the only schools I had the privilege of visiting. As many of you will recall, it rained nearly the whole time (or at least that’s how I remember it). I would get lost in the fog at least thrice trying to get from French House (where my host lived) to Bates for a meal. It’s a wonder that so many of us made it through that freezing cold, wet weekend still excited to enroll. But we did.
Since then, I have made more memories than I can possibly share in one nostalgic speech. Plus, sharing my own Wellesley memories would feel far too self-centered. We all know there is no universal Wellesley experience. This rings even truer considering that many of us didn’t spend our senior spring on campus. This past year, the Wellesley experience involved professors and interviewers seeing our made and (in my experience) unmade beds, our cats or dogs or lizards or home improvement projects regularly attending lectures with us, and using bad Wi-Fi instead of bad weather as an excuse to miss class. So no, there is no universal Wellesley experience. We haven’t all had to weather the same storms. And folks, looking at the forecast last night, I wrote so many last-minute rain jokes that I’m very glad I don’t have to subject myself to. Anyway, despite our varied experiences, there are a few things I am sure will be familiar to most of us.
We’re all familiar with tears, right? Tears of joy, relief, distress, remorse, and just about everything in between. Late nights that turned into early mornings without a wink of sleep. That feeling during the week of orientation (and perhaps every week after that) that we had maybe been admitted by accident. Not knowing exactly what the orientation theme “Stretch out loud!” really meant—was that just me? Receiving our ninth or 90th school-wide email about a missing snack from Trader Joe’s or a No. 2 pencil. Recognizing that we may never again participate in a forum as lively, as divisive, and as controversial as the Wellesley Memes Facebook page. Finally, living through March 12, 2020. I think we all remember that one. That … rain.
Four years in, I am still blown away by the radical acts of courage and advocacy I see spearheaded by members of our class. Holding members of the community accountable to a higher standard of empathy, holding the administration accountable to the values that attracted us to Wellesley in the first place, and insisting relentlessly, in any way we can, that Wellesley be the place it vowed to us that it would be.
If there’s one thing I hope Wellesley has done for you all that I know it has done for me, it’s this: Wellesley has given me the space to find myself. I hope, during your time at Wellesley, that you have discovered something about what drives you, who you are, who you like, and what you want (or at least absolutely don’t want) to do with your life.
I can’t be the only one who has experienced a moment of crisis when asked where I see myself in five years. Am I the “woman who will” that every Wellesley communication insists that I can and should be? Plus, will what? I’m meant to make a difference in the world? How? Where? Why me? In a feeble attempt to answer these questions, I’ve decided to quote the famous Wellesley alum Nora Ephron ’62, like many a student speaker before me. In her address to the class of 1996, at their commencement, which thankfully was a lot rainier than ours is (I had to sneak that in there), Ephron said, “One of the things people always say to you if you get upset is, ‘Don’t take it personally.’ But,” she continues, “listen hard to what’s going on and, please, I beg you, take it personally.”
While that was all the way back in ’96, Ephron’s charge is timeless. Our college experience is bookended by two divisive (and frightening) U.S. presidential elections, and the renewal of a revolutionary era for racial justice. Over the past four years, we have joined fights that we did not start. Fights that were started by our ancestors and that are still far from over. Fights being fought on stolen land, both here and abroad. We must continue to take this personally, understanding that liberation is a global pursuit and that your freedom is my freedom, is their freedom, is our freedom. This is the rain that makes our corn grow. It is our responsibility to keep surviving, and to fight for the survival of all of us, especially those of us whose belonging and right to live in this country are called into question every day.
On that note, to my Black, Indigenous, Asian, Latine, immigrant, low-income, nonbinary, trans, first-gen, and other minority sibs, to those among us at the intersections of the identities I just named: The odds did not want us to be here. And yet, here we are.
Here we are, thanks to all of you who supported us. Now to those watching who dreamed of being here to see your child, grandchild, cousin, parent, or mentee graduate from Wellesley; to those whose degrees are dedicated to a grand-mère, an hermanito, a 爺爺, a 삼촌, a shangazi; to my mother, who lost her battle here on earth but who I know is watching me now, just like she said she would: It pains me that because of death, circumstance, or a global pandemic, we could not have everyone we love gathered in one place to celebrate this monumental achievement. Thank you for being the push we needed to submit that assignment, to ask that question, to take that class, to attend those office hours, to follow through. Thank you for being our rain.
Now, to every member of this evergreen class: We can be revolutionary. You are revolutionary. Being who you are in a world doing its best to make you conform is a radical act. Like Rep. Miranda says: Embrace joy as resistance. One day, if each of us does the work that needs to be done, maybe joy won’t have to be resistance anymore. Maybe it can just be joy.
Sonje lapli ki leve mayi ou. Remember the rain that made your corn grow, evergreen class. In both senses of the proverb. Remember the torrential downpours that you overcame to get to this moment. You did that. You made it. You survived. At the same time, remember the peaceful mist that nourished us. The dining hall worker who gave you a kind smile. The custodian who let you run frantically in and pee before your next class before they closed the bathroom for cleaning. The goose that did not chase you across Sev Green.
What an adventure we’ve had stretching out loud these past four years. Stay loud. Say what needs to be said. Consciously and deliberately work to dismantle the systems of oppression that you see at work in each of your own communities. Be an ally, be an advocate, be a co-conspirator for change.
It has been an honor and a great pleasure to learn with and from you, to be held accountable by you, and to love you.
Remember the rain. I can’t wait to see what grows.