Each year, the Wellesley College Alumnae Association sends the seniors off into the “wide, wide world” with a luncheon before commencement. The program includes well-wishes from deans and faculty, as well as the official induction of the class into the Alumnae Association. This year, seniors chose Associate Professor of American Studies Michael Jeffries as their speaker. His remarks follow:
Let me start with congratulations and thanks. Congratulations to you, graduates. Congratulations to your families, and friends, and everyone who helped you make it to this day. Thank you for giving me the chance to speak with you. It is a great honor. Thank you on behalf of the faculty, for everything you give us. For your ideas and your courage.
I suppose I should say a word or two about my time in college, so here goes: My hair was longer. My patience, shorter. I was mostly a gentleman, but I worshipped at the altar of an unholy and ridiculous masculinity. I got hurt, but I didn’t cry. I had great friends, and some who weren’t so great. I relearned how to read and write, which is to say, I learned to go wherever I please, and live without fear of my mistakes. I loved school, but did not always enjoy it, and I graduated.
I’m reasonably certain of my account of my college years, but sometimes I feel as if I don’t have such a great grip on yours. This spring, in an effort to understand your mysterious social lives, I coolly asked my students, “What time do people go out to parties, like 10 o’clock?” My class responded with gentle laughter and pity. Although you stay out far too late for my taste, you seem like a nice enough bunch. You like Beyoncé, and sometimes Drake. You type very quickly on your phones, because every text needs a picture at the end, and every picture needs text underneath it. I get it, but not really.
Despite the social distance between us, I think I speak for my colleagues when I tell you that we still feel close to you. We feel deeply and truly proud and sad to see you go. Why is this? What makes graduation so meaningful for us, too? Part of it, I suppose, is a sense of satisfaction from watching you measurably improve as students. We also marvel at your accomplishments. Not just the prestigious jobs, internships, and fellowships you have been awarded, but the triumphs that are less formally recognized, like supporting yourself financially through work-study jobs, and returning home during breaks to invest in your families and communities.
But for me, the reason graduation is so meaningful, and the strongest thread of our connection, is your commitment to telling me what you really think. It sounds simple and obvious, but to me, it’s extraordinary. It’s a privilege to share in the magic of intellectual life with you, and hear your truth.
Think about what happens in every class. I consider something that is important to me. I tell you, honestly, without shame, “This matters to me. This thing keeps me up at night. I agonize over it, and study it for decades.” I read dozens of books about this thing to pick out a handful to share with you. I say to you, “This is one of the most important things in my world. What do you think about it?” And you take my admission, and my question, and you treat them with care.
You write papers on that thing I cherish. Those papers shape my idea of who you are. Your written assignments, comments, and presentations don’t always turn out the way you would like, but they are your truth. You don’t just fire off answers, or parrot back what you have read. You make new things, things that only you can make. These are acts of courage. These are acts of faith—the belief that we can understand each other and our world.
During the semester, these exercises can seem routine, but I want you to know how shockingly few and far between they can be after college. What a privilege it is to speak openly for yourself, and to live and grow in a place that asks you to search for the truth. How many times, after Wellesley, will you be faced with questions and expected to give answers that are not our own? How many times are we expected to repeat things we heard somewhere else, because it’s polite, or because it’s expected? How many people are paid to keep quiet and kill their own ideas? How many people are paid to give the wrong answers?
And it’s not just at work. Look at our personal lives. Our most intimate relationships, the people we grew up with, the people we choose as partners, they may never get to share in the sort of intellectual exploration that you practiced here. You tried to get it right. You were wrong, and you tried again. I thank you for this, for the all-nighters you pulled, for the mistakes you made, for the care with which you treated ideas: mine, yours, and those of your classmates.
Wellesley is a special place because it fosters this kind of work, this vulnerable, self-affirming intellectualism. And now you’re leaving. How can you keep that spirit alive now that these 4 years have passed? What power does this magic have in the real world? What are my hopes for you as you fly away? I have many, but I’ll leave you with just three.
First, I hope your friendships are places that allow this sort of intellectualism to grow. I don’t mean that every single relationship you forge from here until forever must be grounded in seriousness. But if there are people you are close to that you cannot trust with your ideas, then you must ask yourself whether you can trust them at all.
My second hope is something I struggle with, given my job and my appreciation for what we professors are paid to do. I hope you are mindful of the difference between ideas, or knowledge, or truth, and action. Some people disagree with me on this point, and think the line between the two is quite blurry. For example, the poet Gil Scott-Heron once famously said, “The revolution will not be televised.” He meant that the social change we see on television: elections, protests, and court cases, those events are the televised results, the effects, of the revolution. The revolution, the real change, Scott-Heron says, happens when we change our mind. When we know the truth.
But now, more than ever, I am convinced that knowing the truth is not living it. I know the truth: A House of Representatives panel on reproductive rights with 5 men and no women is a farce. But in 2012, we lived through it as a legislative hearing.
I know the truth: The new bathroom law in North Carolina is a vicious attack on trans people and human dignity. But lawmakers call it a public safety measure, and we live through apartheid.
I know the truth: 12-year-old Tamir Rice’s life costs us so much more than the $6 million dollars paid out by the state. How dare they put a price on our children? How dare they traffic in such lies? But Rice’s family lives through that payment as a settlement.
We must not settle. Thinking and knowing the truth are not enough. Intellectual courage and vulnerability are not enough. We have to act. And acting is daunting and exhausting. Acting will cost you something. Time, money, and maybe friends. But only acting on your truths will fulfill the promise of your Wellesley education.
Your next act is a jubilant one: Commencement. It will cost you a little time, but won’t cost you any friends or money, beyond the hundreds of thousands of dollars your family has already spent. One of the beautiful things about this act is that it’s so well planned. Tradition is honored, and expectations are met. I don’t exactly remember the sequence of events from my graduation. I have only a vague recollection of the brilliant and humble graduation speaker, who dispensed priceless advice about truth and courage. I do, however, remember being surprised, despite the rehearsal and the meticulously planned Commencement program. I shook the president’s hand, and grasped my diploma, then took two or three steps towards the other end of the stage and looked up. I found my family, sitting half way up the amphitheater, and I raised my diploma to them, spontaneously and completely without self-awareness. I was suddenly shaken by the joy I felt. My third and final hope for you is that you too will be shaken by your joy on Friday, even though you know it’s coming.
Thank you, class of 2016. And congratulations!