Some departments here at the College have a lovely tradition of opening the final lecture that a retiring professor gives in his or her teaching career to the entire Wellesley community. Which is why on a warm May afternoon, a large group of us gathered in Pendleton West 212 to hear Professor of Political Science Rob Paarlberg address his class on international economic policy one last time.
Scanning the faces—seniors in graduation gowns for the last day of classes, faculty colleagues from many departments, staff, and even an alumna who had flown in specially from Washington, D.C.—Paarlberg said, “I haven’t been this nervous since the day I was married.” Pausing, he added, “But that turned out OK.” Gesturing to the back of the room, he introduced his wife of 40-plus years, which brought smiles and applause all around.
The lecture was a sweeping survey of the evolution of international economic policy since Paarlberg began teaching at Wellesley in 1976. He started with Jimmy Carter and the energy crisis, then rolled decade by decade through Latin America, Africa, and Asia. He touched on NAFTA and immigration, evaluated the shockwaves that emanated from Wall Street in 2008, and finally landed in the present day. The depth and breadth of his knowledge, as well as his obvious rapport with his students, may have been part of what prompted a young faculty member to tweet from the classroom that she was listening to “the esteemed Rob Paarlberg.”
Interestingly, before Paarlberg launched in, he took a moment to offer his students a bit of advice: “Mother’s Day is Sunday. Don’t forget to call your mothers.” Heads nodded. Mothers, like globalization and economic sanctions, are important.
For the seniors in the class, it was, perhaps, the opening salvo in a season of advice. In the weeks ahead, there would be messages of counsel from class deans, faculty, and the College president. Anticipation would buzz over what advice Nigerian writer Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie would dole out at Commencement.
The run-up to Commencement got us in the magazine office thinking about what we know now that we wish we had known when we graduated from college. We went in search of some wise women—alumnae who have followed a variety of life paths, all over age 50—to write letters of advice to themselves at the time they received their Wellesley diplomas.
What resulted is a rich tapestry of letters (“Dear Me,”), proffering hard-earned insights. “Use every variegated gift that Wellesley showered on you to help those whom most people do not see or pass by unmoved,” wrote one. Make mistakes, and suffer life’s interruptions and disruptions, another counseled. “You will arrive somewhere you never anticipated.”
I wondered, as Rob Paarlberg finished his final lecture to a prolonged standing ovation, whether he had arrived somewhere he had foreseen in 1976. Did he know then how many thousands of lectures he would give, or the way world conditions would alter during his career? Could he have predicted that alums, when word of the lecture went out by social media, would respond with statements like, “Lovely man and a great professor!” and “POLS 323 was my favorite class at Wellesley”? Probably not—just like the rest of us.
We can’t always see exactly where we’re going. So here’s hoping that along the way we have wise women to offer us advice—and kind, erudite professors to remind us to call our mothers.