Charge to the
125th Commencement Exercises
May 30, 2003
And so … the final moment is close at hand, my brilliant, talented
seniors, the class of 2003. Yours has been a journey through world-historic
events none of us will ever forget. I am so proud of your accomplishments
in these momentous years - inspired by all you have mastered, produced,
and done -- and so grateful, most especially, for who you have been.
For you have labored unstintingly, during your four years here, at
the incessant task of sustaining community. You stood for community
when it was the instinctive thing to do: as we anticipated and celebrated
our 125th anniversary through your first two years, and as we absorbed
the shock of the terrorist attacks at the start of your junior year.
We learned then how much we need communal ties. And you sustained community
when it seemed well-nigh impossible, as some of us confronted -- in
others of us - stark challenges to deep convictions, treasured beliefs
at the core of group and personal identity, firmly-rooted instincts
about what is right and wrong and true.
This clash of competing world-views is the essence of learning, of
course, when learning is profound and transformational. It forces us
to scrutinize our assumptions and values, to distinguish mere opinion
from such grounded moral knowledge as we human beings can hope to possess.
You have had more than your share of opportunities in your time here
to test what you truly believe and why, what you honor most, who you
aspire to be. I know you will cultivate those inquiring habits of mind
throughout your lives.
Seeing you sitting here, ready to take your leave, I'm flooded with
memories of moments we shared -- activities I watched you organize,
choices I saw you make, talents I saw you display in so many venues,
doubts I saw you wrestle at confusing times, questions I saw you living
with such courage and intensity -- all the ways I observed you growing
towards the sun, even on the darkest days when the skies were thick
You've left us ingenious legacies that will endure for sure. The enormous
energy you poured into your cultural shows has expanded them into ever-more
popular vehicles for inviting the whole community to celebrate and learn
about the rich and varied cultures that make up the Wellesley mosaic.
They get better every year, and you've left your mark on them. You brought
us two new cultural advisors and promoted curricular expansion.
Also I suspect that years from now "Sister Can We Talk" will be a reliable
signal that it's time to come out from behind our computer screens and
engage our differences with empathy and mutual respect. Thank you for
that invention. We needed it. You were the first First Class class.
Pioneers. You entered with the new e-mail system that has been both
boon and bane, discovered the positive role it can play, and learned
to set limits when it became too consuming.
Surely, no class has ever ended the year with quite the dramatic flair
you brought to the decoration of campus on your last day of classes.
Yellow fish and bumble bees, balloons and miles of tape, crepe, and
vinyl in the most improbable and unreachable places. The Science Center
was the Zakim bridge, Green Hall was the land of Oz, Pendleton was a
beehive and the ducks were everywhere, 2003 miniature rubber duckies
numbered sequentially. The #1 duckie has mysteriously disappeared, I'm
distressed to report, but I'm saving my number 512 to remind me of you.
Thanks for all you have given us, your passion and energy; your imprint
will live on here long beyond the yellow brick road.
And the imprint of Wellesley will live on in you, of that I'm certain
too. So what's my "charge" to you at this culminating moment as you
prepare to take your leave? What can I give you in return for my yellow
duck? This is the president's chance to offer you something to keep.
And I know you expect me to tell you to "make a difference in the world."
Right? After all, we've been tormenting you with that slogan since you
set foot on campus.
Well, yes, we are counting on you to take the great privilege
of the education you received here and tackle in every way you can the
miseries of much of the world. As those miseries mount they are a rebuke
- and they are a threat -- to the freedoms and the pleasures we so take
You've had a rain-soaked week I'm afraid (could the ducks have been
a mistake?) Still, senior week is a time to smell the flowers; it's
special in that way, a slice of time dedicated to friends, reflection,
and fun. It stands out as a destination toward which seniors' labor
dutifully during the pressured last few months of their college career.
And career it has been, a vertical vision crammed with work, and tension,
and worry, and far too much to do. You juggled a thousand demands, rushed
from event to event, often were doing at least three things simultaneously,
raised "multi-tasking" to a fine art. You're consummate practitioners
of the art, a master class. It got you here and it got you through and
it's second nature now.
How could it be otherwise when your days are filled to overflowing,
one obligation overlapping another, and the culture is constantly pressuring
you to accumulate things, whether objects (all that stuff you've been
packing these past few days), ideas, knowledge, questions, skills, mentors,
friends, experiences? These things become credentials, material for
a resume -- a vita - an instrumental one, not a living, breathing organic
vita, not a real, rambling life. But even as you prepare to take up
that task, with all the urgency and intensity it demands. I want to
give you permission to slow down, paradoxical though that may sound.
And I want to offer you the image of senior week as a lasting reminder
of how much of your life you can completely miss if you lose touch -
as we all do repeatedly - with what Henry David Thoreau called "the
bloom of the present moment."
Thoreau was determined to resist the pressures of the material world.
"A man is rich in proportion to the number of things he can do without,"
he wrote. He didn't want a vita, he wanted a vital life. On Independence
Day, in 1845, he moved to a simple cabin he had built in the woods near
Walden Pond in Concord, just 12 miles from this spot. He spent 26 months
at the edge of Walden Pond, seeking to "live deep and suck out the marrow
So what I want to offer you now as you take stock of the 30-plus months
you've sojourned here at the edge of Lake Waban is a question to ponder:
How deeply did you live life while you were here at the side of this
lake? How patient were you with yourself and others when you, or they,
needed space just to breathe? How many moments of grace did you let
yourself experience here? How often were you truly awake, attuned to
Fewer than you would have liked, I'll bet, now in retrospect. "I went
to the woods to … see if I could …learn what [life] had to teach," Thoreau
wrote, "and not, when I came to die discover that I had not lived."
And so I ask you to hold your rain-soaked senior week - the memory
of this final aliquot of time on the Wellesley campus -- when you awoke,
free and alive, aware of the beauty around you, tuned in to your friends
with a rare singleness of mind, savoring the last minutes here knowing
that they were numbered. And I urge you to ask yourselves what it might
be like to live your whole life in the state of alert and open-hearted
awareness that I suspect you have brought to this last week together.
Now, lest you think you've heard me advocate that you retreat to a
cabin and escape it all, I want to draw a conclusion not entirely at
odds with Thoreau's nuanced views of individual conscience and civic
duty. For I believe, first, that what the world most needs right now
are leaders who embody equanimity, generosity, self-knowledge, compassion
for others, and for themselves; and, second, that such leaders are likely
to be those who are living mindfully, minute-by-minute and day-by-day,
who are doing all they can to enhance peace, affirm hope, and to calm
the tensions that are tearing our fragile world apart.
I trust you will be such leaders. No. I know you will. We send
you forth with our admiration, our aspirations, and our pride. We wish
you - every one of you - lives filled with meaning and joy, with learning
and with love. Congratulations, seniors. May you go in peace.