And so my sweet sister seniors, the moment has arrived. The one we’ve been anticipating – you and I – with such a molten mix of excitement and alarm. Some of you know precisely where you are destined next. Lucky you. Others of us are poised at the edge of a precipice. And I’m here to tell you – all of you — that we are going to fly – neither without our uncertainties, nor deterred by them.
You are the gentle golden class of 2007. And you have made me an honorary member of your class. We are the intrepid class of double-oh-seven. Five hundred sixty of you and one DCDubs. Not one of us entirely certain who it is we will be next.
Living unanswered questions we humans never escape: Who are we? Whence have we come? Where are we going? What must we do? (… What should we wear?) But what a time we have had here; what a swath we have cut. And what an expansive future we have opened for ourselves.
Every year at commencement, the president has the last word before the culminating ritual for which everyone has been waiting – the formal conferring of degrees. The “president’s charge to the seniors,” as this last word has been called, is a long-standing tradition, and one I’ve especially relished.
Maybe it’s the irresistible appeal of a large and captive crowd predisposed to sit still and hear me out one more time because of the oh-so-valuable piece of parchment you’re about to collect.
My practice has been to write these words over Memorial Day weekend down on the Cape. I immerse myself in memories of our four years together and I write — and write. The hard part is editing it down to a tolerable length. There’s always much more I want to say to the seniors than I know they should have to hear from me as they await their diplomas, so patiently.
This year I started earlier because of a hunch I had that I was in grave danger (but the danger was graver for you) of wanting to keep you here with me indefinitely: a filibuster to avoid the pain of letting go. That won’t be avoided though and all that remains for us is to express our gratitude, and give voice to some of our hopes.
I’m grateful to you, my Wellesley class of 2007, grateful for you and for the belief that has animated my work – the belief that you will help bring balance and perspective to a world that is dangerously out of kilter, a world that needs you – a diverse new generation of women with such opportunity and such promise — to become engaged thinkers and activists, potent advocates for human rights, confident leaders willing to take risks in the pursuit of intellectual honesty, freedom to disagree, justice and fairness, global citizenship, and mutual responsibility – qualities of mind and character that are becoming distressingly rare in these fractious and distracted times. Qualities I have seen in many of you.
I’m grateful for the determination with which many of you strove in your time here to foster mutual respect and build community, even (in fact, especially) when faced with the painful adversity that your class endured and that we humans never escape, adversity I watched you struggle to understand and then transform – the loss of classmates, the agonies of war around the world, and, here on campus, our struggles to value our differences as a resource for learning.
I’m grateful that you emerged as a constructive force. You labored together to forge your own style of leadership, balancing fun, mutual kindness, and a serious commitment to the common good. You brought an ethic of service and a sense of compassion to this learning community. I’m grateful to you for that. We needed it.
As for my hopes … I hope we’ve encouraged you – while you’ve been here with us – to refine your critical judgment and expand your perspectives. I hope we’ve taught you humility, patience and persistence, connected you to one another, to women through the generations, and to the world of ideas.
I hope we’ve enhanced your confidence and instilled in you a sense of responsibility for the impact you as an individual can have in any system or setting. I hope we’ve taught you how to think well, how to learn well, and how to go on learning … yes, that most of all.
I hope you will carry the imprint of this place where everything you did mattered — because it always does. Bring your inquiring minds to all of your pursuits, together with your understanding of what it means to collaborate and appreciate interdependence. I hope you will be alert at all times for opportunities to stand with truth and justice, beauty and compassion.
I hope you will make commitments, and make them judiciously, remembering that over-commitment undermines the ability to be committed, and to engage fully those pursuits that matter most.
I hope you will always make a conscious effort to ask yourselves what you know and how you know it, so that you may continue developing a sense of self that is deeper and more fully rounded, more firmly grounded, more at peace, and better attuned to your own intuition, imagination, and inner resourcefulness.
I hope that life of learning for you – so that you will be doing your part to transform the world from the inside out, seeing your first and most sacred task as the work of transforming yourselves — not once and for all, but over and over, greeting with an open mind and a courageous heart the hard questions that life will continue asking of you.
If you do these things faithfully and well, if you make and keep these commitments, then you will contribute to Wellesley’s cycle of empowerment. Having been empowered here, you will find your own creative ways to empower others, wherever you may go, as Wellesley women do, down through the generations.
At our community-wide farewell parties that were so much fun, I especially savored my encounters with students – with you. We took our pictures together – hundreds of pictures, so it seemed — and you wished me well, often with heartfelt words of thanks for what Wellesley has meant to you.
After scores of these encounters, I discovered that what I wanted to be saying in return for your thanks was not just that you are welcome (although you surely are) but that I hope you will take care of our college after I’ve gone.
And I have been so deeply moved as you have said back to me – so many of you – with such sincerity and conviction that you will take care of Wellesley, that I can count on you. And I know I can.
Fourteen months ago I announced my decision to step down from the presidency. It was time for me to heed my heart’s longing for another new beginning, and time for the college to embark on a new cycle of renewal. This year – your senior year — has been a very long and complicated process – for me, for you, for us – a process of letting go.
time has been filled with all sorts of conflicted feelings. For me it’s been a stew of sadness to be leaving people I have held dear; pleasure at what we’ve accomplished together, gratitude for all the help I’ve had, excitement about what may lie ahead – for me and for the college – and, of course, some fear of a future that is, inevitably, unknowable.
This protracted transition has reinforced for me in a visceral way a reality I’ve long grasped intellectually and read about, the idea that “opposites do not negate each other.” Rather, opposites like joy and sorrow, anticipation and dread, hope and despair, as Parker Palmer writes, “they cohere in mysterious unity at the heart of reality.”
If we can learn to accept the paradox of darkness and light, if we can resist the temptation to fall back on polarities as a substitute for serious thinking, if we can hold the polar concepts together in their perplexing tension, then we may come eventually to see that between them lies the irreducible health in all living things — the cycles, and the rhythms, and the seasons that give life its meaning and its zest — the “hidden wholeness” described by the mystic, Thomas Merton.
So my thoughtful seniors, as you and I prepare to uproot ourselves – soon — from this college that has shaped us and that we, in turn, have shaped, I want you to know what I know, surely, about it now. There is a hidden wholeness at the heart of Wellesley College — a deep and organic wisdom rooted in the cycles and seasons of life, its paradoxes and ambiguities, its heartaches and its joys.
And in that hidden wholeness resides the resilient human spirit that goes on caring and striving, and stubbornly surviving, even in the darkest seasons and against the most daunting odds. Wellesley College truly is a place of gratitude, of hope, of love.
In closing, I simply want to say to the class of 2007 (soon to be Wellesley’s newest alumnae class); to the faculty and the staff (who remain the stewards of this college as presidents come and go); to the trustees (who hold the 100-year perspective); to our distinguished commencement speaker (and my friend); and to all the other friends and protectors of this beloved institution …
Please take good care of this college, this precious and magical place. Take good care of my college. It will remain in my heart. Take good care of your college – I commend it back to you now.
And to the graduating seniors – as we take our leap of faith – take good care of each other, and take good care of yourselves. We need the very best of what you have to give. I send you forth – now — with my gratitude, with my hopes, and with my deepest love.