Wellesley College Commencement - May 28, 1999


Anita Tien's speech to the senior class
Alumnae Association Senior Lunch
26 May 1999

copyright © 1999 Anita Tien


I've been looking forward to this week for a long time: it's been quite a journey, and I feel very lucky to have shared part of it with you, through your private victories and public triumphs. The President's office often calls down the hall to ask the class deans, "What is your class like?" I always have a hard time answering the question--I think more about your individual personalities than your collective one--but it is easy to say this: You are an exceptional class--passionate, warm, caring, empathetic. Everyone who has worked with you says so.

Soon after I became your dean, in your sophomore year, I was told that my responsibilities included giving a speech during commencement week. You know me: almost immediately I began thinking about what I might say. That fall I imagined I might talk about the puzzle outside my office, the one entitled "The Secrets of Life," but now, of course, we know how that turned out: in Green Hall, at least, there are no Secrets of Life.

That spring, we dedicated the class of '99 tree. I don't imagine many here will remember this: only seven of you were there. It was a nasty April day, cold and rainy. We'd been told that the tree was by the chapel, so we squished around the Chapel lawn until we found the tree that had been newly planted between this tent and the Founders parking lot. We shifted our weight from one foot to the other to keep ourselves from sinking into the ground. After a few words, we weren't sure what else to do. Someone suggested that we sing "America the Beautiful," which we did, a little self-consciously. (There is nothing like warbling "America the Beautiful" in an uncertain alto, next to the president of the College, to make you self-conscious.) The next day I got a very nice thank-you e-mail from the class president. She expressed gracious appreciation, and then, almost as an afterthought, ever so casually, she added: "By the way, I found out that we were at the wrong tree."

Now this is good material, and I've been saving it ever since for today. You might think that I would turn the story into a metaphor for your sophomore year in general. But there are other images I like: the way we wandered through the mist towards one another; the loose circle we formed, not around the tree, but slightly off-center; and of course our ode to the wrong tree. To me these images speak to the strengths of the class of 1999: your connections to one another; your independent, slightly off-beat spirit; and most of all, your ability to consecrate the ordinary, to make it special.

This is a special week, when we celebrate your achievements--and they are indeed many. Wellesley isn't easy. I have seen over and over again how hard you work, how much your professors ask of you, and how high your own expectations are, for yourselves and one another, both in terms of intellectual development and personal conduct. I think this was what impressed me most this spring during the Ruhlman conference, at sessions where you spoke sensitively and intelligently, and your friends gathered in the audience not just to hear and support and applaud you (although they did all of those things), but to learn and ask really smart questions, too. You never pass by an opportunity to pick something up. Despite the slight chill in the air, the day felt warm; it was erudite and civic and surpassingly festive.

Easily, one of the charms of Wellesley is that public events such as the Ruhlman and commencement are observed with such style and delight. But for my money, these high points are not any more special than the private moments of days that the rest of the world found quite ordinary. Those were the days that you infused with your own extraordinary spirit. You got sick, or hit a rough patch. Your family--or a close friend--needed you, and you put your own life aside for a while. There was a deadline bearing down on you. Worries about money, about not working hard enough, about not being smart enough--those worries piled on top of one another and the weight took your breath away. Maybe something bad happened to you. Maybe you lost something, or--way worse--lost someone.

But you survived. Later, looking back, you might have said, "I don't know how I got through it." Still, you might have suspected: you walked through the mist, towards those who cared for you; they made you part of their circle; you found joy in small things. Sometimes you found joy in very, very small things. I think of the outbreak of haiku that flashed onto Public Bulletin during finals week, a communal shout against the misery, one that bore all your signature touches--wit, humor, panache.

There are so many things I want to say to you. I want to tell you about what it's like to work in your first job out of school; how it feels to travel through your thirties (many Davis Scholars already know this); how you never, ever stop caring about what your parents think. These are things that deep down I know you can only find out about when you experience them yourself. Besides, people have done research on advice: what they've discovered is that afterwards, the advice-giver feels great, and the advice-receiver feels terrible.

So instead of giving you advice, I just want to say this: you are ready. Whatever the coming days, months, years bring, you have the ability, the experience, the skills, the resilience, the moxie. This doesn't mean that there won't be surprises: did you ever think you would learn so much, work so hard, write so fast, sleep so little? You never know what lies ahead. But the trick, I think, is to fall back on yourself, consider who you really are, and then be that person. Life truly does get sweeter, not because things get easier, but because you become more familiar with who you are, what your heart seeks, what your soul needs. You are formidable women; you are definitely ready. There are great adventures ahead.

Next year, we'll all be scattered; I myself will be down the road. And it's hard to say goodbye. We still have a couple of days left together, though, so I'll close with an observation. The tree for our class, the "real" one, is on the other side of the chapel, across the road, by the hill leading up to Stone-Davis. There's a stone marker with the class year on it. But I like to think of the class of '99 as the one with two trees--the official tree, and the one you serenaded that April day. And here we are now, gathered in circles near that one, the one you claimed for yourselves.

So: remember what you've accomplished here. Achievement takes all forms; be brave and take that path, as conspicuous or inconspicuous as it may be, that will make your heart sing. Take it as quickly or as slowly as you want to. It need not be the one that people have chosen for you; it should be the one that you claim for yourself. You have great instincts; follow them. And Wellesley will be rooting for you. Think of all the people you've encountered here in the last four years, in the academic buildings, Jewett, Green Hall, the Science Center, the library, Schneider, the Sports Center, the dorms, the dining halls, the entire campus. All those people will be rooting for you. I will be rooting for you, too. It has been wonderful to be your dean.





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