Charge to the
124th Commencement Exercises
May 31, 2002
"Women who will." 603 of you. Now there's an arresting thought.
"Will" what? we've all wondered when we've actually noticed the banners
festooning College Road. Will … "make a difference," the next proclaims.
"In the world"… trumpets the third.
Is this a subliminal message? A propaganda campaign? You will make
a difference. You will enter the world. (In case the seductions of senior
week have occasioned second thoughts). Nine words extracted from our
mission statement to launch The Wellesley Campaign.
But make what difference? Where in the world? Make the world different?
Make a different world? Many of you have signed a "graduation pledge,"
promising to try to improve the social and environmental impact of any
organizations for which you work. That will make a difference, if you
work at it.
Meanwhile the banners were graying all winter. Creeping mildew, I fear.
And some were disappearing. Have you noticed that no one steals the
"make a difference" banners, or the "in the world" banners? It's always
the "women who will" pole that stands naked and exposed, its empty metal
brackets bearing witness to its sad fate. Where are those banners going,
I wondered, and found an answer one day in a weekly police report. "Banner
seen hanging in front of MIT fraternity house," the entry said, "officer
dispatched to recover it." Campus Po, ever on the alert. We have installed
a fresh new batch for your graduation.
My favorite reaction to the women-who-will campaign came, I presume,
from you -- the chalking on behalf of a group of outraged "women who
won't." It appeared during the kerfuffle over Lake House, now happily
resolved, but the message remains on the brick wall where I enter Green
Hall, and I smile every morning at this implacable and resolute challenge
The chalk will eventually wear off and the banners will succumb to
the mildew. But each of you will leave an indelible mark on this college.
And although I trust you don't have banners in your luggage, each of
you will be taking metaphorical pieces of this college with you for
the journey ahead.
Of the gifts you'll carry from here, the most valuable by far is the
first half of the mission statement-the part that lends itself less
obviously to banners, lampposts, sly slogans or slick brochures for
a fund raising campaign. Nevertheless, it is deeply implanted now in
who you are, what you can do … most of all, who you will be.
The first half of our mission statement commits us to "provide an excellent
liberal arts education;" the second half directs that education to "women
who will" do all that good stuff warranting that the college exists
for a purpose larger than us all. Our college was founded on the conviction
that educated women can make a better world, a world of social systems
bending toward justice and knowledge systems bending toward truth.
And nothing is more vital to achieving that goal than the excellent
liberal education that you take, now, from this college. It has made
of you a lifelong learner, we earnestly hope, taught you, ironically,
how little you know, how much you have to learn, and yet how much you
are capable of learning, when you apply yourself.
Your faculty have challenged you, stirred you up, unsettled your simple
assumptions about life and the ways of the world, opened new vistas
for you, offered fresh foundations on which you will construct your
own philosophy of life. What the faculty have given you is more valuable,
more powerful, by far (if less voluble and visible) than the fabled
Wellesley network … all those women willing, all over the world.
You know about the network, that you'll rely on it: the mysterious
proclivity we Wellesley women have, wherever we go, to find and help
one another, to reach out and help others less fortunate than we, to
minister and be ministered unto, in reciprocal alliances of mutual support.
We hope you'll always remember that official Wellesley motto, the commitment
to serving others and orienting your lives toward a conception of the
common good. But please don't forget that the precondition for doing
that effectively is that you must own and continue to hone the qualities
of mind you began to develop here that distinguish a liberally-educated
And perhaps, in your Lake House rebellion, you've opened new possibilities
for thinking about that project. For here may be the true work of women
who won't. Women who won't accept uncritically anything you see or hear.
Women who won't let anyone think for you, won't ever be helpless victims.
Women who won't make assumptions about others: who they are, what they
value, what they believe. Women who won't stop wondering, questioning,
learning, deepening your knowledge. Women who won't objectify other
humans, make them a means to an end. Women who won't tolerate structures
that perpetuate for anyone conditions of inequality, inhumanity, cruelty.
Such are the preoccupations of a liberally-educated person.
Resisting the pull of negative forces is one of life's most epic struggles.
Learning to recognize and resist them has been central to your education
here. You arrived on campus in 1998, eager, full of energy and anticipation.
I suggested, playfully, at opening convocation that you would be remembered
as the palindrome class because your year - 2002 - reads backwards and
forwards. You looked at me blankly. You were right.You will certainly
not be remembered as the palindrome class.
You will be remembered, I suspect -- when you come back for reunions
5, 10, 20 … 50 years from now (can you imagine that?) - you will remember
yourselves, in part, as the class that arrived with a new dean of students
and graduated with her, moving on to exciting new ventures all in the
You'll revisit that multi-layered drama, I predict: some of the confusion
and pain it entailed. You'll have your own readings of what it all meant.
I hope, though (and I do believe) that many of you will come in time
to see that experience -- and the example Geneva set - as having made
you stronger, wiser, humbler, perhaps, better equipped to sustain an
alliance through moments of high tension and doubt, better able to keep
on listening and straining hard to understand vastly different perspectives,
better prepared to hold your head high even in adversity, and to maintain
your dignity no matter what.
And you'll certainly always be remembered -- and always carry a collective
consciousness, a shared wound -- as the class that led the college through
a traumatic senior year. The cataclysm on September 11, and ongoing
worldwide events, tested your focus and resilience, shifted the ground
under you, surfaced value conflicts among you that exposed sharp edges
and raw nerves.
We Americans have all been painfully reminded this year of our vulnerability.
We've seen frightening weaknesses in institutions on which our very
lives depend. We've tasted the abject terror with which many of the
world's people routinely live. We've come to understand in a wholly
new way the reality and the consequences of our interdependence with
In all of this, our urgent need for reliable communal ties has become
ever more apparent at a time in history when the forces of fragmentation
seem to be splitting us apart. The training manuals found in Afghanistan
instructed terrorists to "disappear" in "enemy society" by finding "apartments
where people don't know each other" or "suburbs where neighbors don't
Our small college community weathered these storms bravely and with
compassion. You were a steadying influence on campus through this trying
year. I'll be forever grateful for the leadership and maturity you summoned
when it was needed. Now it's time for you to take your courage and your
strength -- and your experience of this global learning community --
out into a world at war.
You're ready. You have a great education. You've learned to be disciplined
thinkers, astute readers, acute listeners, cogent speakers, persuasive
writers, trustworthy leaders, colleagues, friends. You've garnered an
impressive record: a stunning array of national fellowships, admission
to leading graduate and professional schools, much external recognition
of your talents and promise.
You've given generously to each other and to all of us. You fought
hard for your convictions. You raised money to fight AIDS in South Africa,
to build schools in Afghanistan. You tutored in Framingham, Chinatown,
China. You inaugurated the Tanner Conference and the Community Appreciation
Society, impressed us at the Ruhlman, struck classic poses under cover
of darkness in your power suits. The list could go on. I hate to stop.
It's hard to say good bye. But it is time.
We are so proud of what you have accomplished here, of who you are,
who you are becoming. I wish we were sending you out into a world less
fractured and chaotic than the one you inherit from us. But we have
every confidence that each of you will work out through your lives how
you can be a force for peace and better days.
God speed to you all, sweet seniors of the purple palindrome class.
May you move forward and backward on the road ahead with the grace,
intelligence, idealism, and capacious spirit you've cultivated here.
May you circle back often to this place of which you have been such
an integral and beautiful part. May you stay together and support each
other always. May your lives be full and fulfilling. May your dreams