President Paula A. Johnson’s 2022 address to the graduating class
Thank you, Dr. Mavalvala. That was a powerful message!
Graduates, I am so proud of all of you for having overcome the many challenges of COVID-19 and arriving at this beautiful moment.
My most heartfelt congratulations, also, to the people who supported you along the way—family, friends, faculty; mentors, allies, and inspirations.
Today is a wonderful celebration, and my message to our graduates as they leave us is this: Don’t stop celebrating. Never forget the love, the beauty, and the joy that make life worth living.
It is hard, sometimes, to remember that life is beautiful—particularly at a time in history like this one, when all of us are making our way through an onslaught of terrible news, including a pandemic that has been responsible for 15 million deaths worldwide, war in Ukraine, and here at home, economic upheaval, political polarization, threats to our democracy without precedent, and the painful recognition of the persistence of racial and gun violence and white supremacy.
Beyond that, you may feel, as you enter adulthood, that you yourself have to tamp down the enjoyment, give away the dancing shoes, hang up the hoops, stop screaming at marathoners, and cease wasting time with your friends.
A piece of advice routinely passed out to young women and other young leaders is that until you get to a certain level, don’t focus on anything but your career.
That is a life-draining piece of poor advice, and I hope you resist it with all your might. Nurture your friendships. All of us need people who understand us and the context of our lives. They are crucial to our physical, mental, and spiritual well-being—and to our ability to do our best work.
Never lose your sense of play. Clearly, it kept our wonderful commencement speaker going from the time she was a graduate student—when, as she just told us, the idea of directly observing gravitational waves was considered preposterous: The measurements would have to be impossibly tiny.
So, she invented ever more sensitive instrumentation.
In the process, she has helped to invent a new way of conducting astronomy and of understanding our universe. I like to think we laid the groundwork for her here at Wellesley, where her joyful experimentation was encouraged—despite the ensuing damage!
When she was appointed dean of the School of Science at MIT, Dr. Mavalvala said, “There’s this idea…that to be as excellent as we are in science and education has to come at the cost of all other aspects of being human. And I reject that idea.”
I reject that idea, too. Do not allow anyone to convince you that the price of being outstanding in your work is sacrificing the universal sources of happiness open to you in your life. Take the time to listen empathetically to a friend or a family member, or have a laugh with them. Express yourself in song, in dance, in dress. Do what brings you joy.
I think of Madeleine Albright of the Wellesley class of 1959, who died this March, the first woman to become United States secretary of state. She will be deeply missed. Those of you who were fellows at the Albright Institute for Global Affairs had the privilege of learning from what Madeleine called her “diplomatic toolbox.” Some of the most important tools in the box, clearly, were her gift for friendship and zest for life.
At her funeral, speaker after speaker remembered what a delight she was to be around—whether Madeleine was teaching the foreign minister of Botswana “The Macarena” at a U.N. Security Council meeting; or ducking out of an official event in Buenos Aires only to be found in a dance hall doing the tango; or expressing her impatience with the lack of progress in the Middle East by wearing a snail pin.
Even after she was Madame Secretary, she spent Wellesley reunion weekends in the dorms, socializing and sharing toothpaste with her classmates, because that was where the fun was.
Madeleine combined the deepest seriousness of purpose with the greatest possible warmth and humor. Arguably, she could not have realized such seriousness of purpose without such heart.
Madeleine’s passion for democracy was personal. It arose from her own history as a refugee whose family fled both the Nazis and the Soviets. And it arose from a profound respect for her fellow travelers: “I believe that we’re all the same,” she said, “and people want to be able to make decisions about their own lives.”
We just heard Dr. Mavalvala talk about that sense of sameness, too—a crucial spur, if you are going to pay it forward and give opportunities to people who are superficially different from you.
Bryan Stevenson, the public interest lawyer and founder of the Equal Justice Initiative, which works to end mass incarceration and structural racism, has a similarly personal view of justice. In a speech he gave on campus this spring, he said that if we want to help people who have been mistreated in our society, we need to get “proximate” to them, to understand them—and that by wrapping our arms around them, we affirm their humanity and dignity.
He also said that “hopelessness is the enemy of justice.” It takes hope to fight for criminal justice reform against long odds, after years and years of inaction.
It takes hope to stand up to dictators, and to argue for civil rights and the rule of law, as Madeleine Albright did. It takes hope to accomplish something the scientific community deems impossible, as Nergis Mavalvala has.
Graduates, to do your best work, you will need regular influxes of hope. Fortunately, the sources are all around you, in the people here today who love you, in the friendships you have formed, and in the rituals of daily life that make you happy.
You already have demonstrated your ability to rise above the challenges of the past few years. Keep on going, and remember to embrace life and hope along the way.
I am so proud of the great purple class of 2022, and I cannot wait to see what your next chapter holds!