May 24, 2009
by President Catharine Bond Hill
Welcome to the 145th Commencement at Vassar College!
We are here to honor the absolutely fabulous Vassar Class of 2009.
Congratulations – you've made it, you've earned it, and I hope that you are not at this point so overwhelmed from the intensity of the papers, exams, exhibitions, performances and events of the past two weeks to sense just how enormously proud of you we are. You are literally surrounded by your greatest admirers.
This is a wonderful ritual of passage, the significance and traditions of which are long-standing and more than evident as I look around at this stunning amphitheater. And you all look terrific – even if we've somewhat diminished your ability to express your well-known individuality by dressing you in today's uniform of Vassar rose and grey hoods accenting basic black gowns and black mortarboards – the tassels of which you will soon simultaneously shift from the right side to the left symbolizing the transition from student to graduate. (If history is any guide, I suspect, some of you will find a way to express that individuality anyway.) The trustees, administration and faculty are only somewhat less uniformly attired, with bewildering variations of color within a quite rigid system that signals educational history – at least if you know what to look for. The family and friends who have come to honor you were given no particular dress code, but this is one of those relatively few public occasions anymore where many come in the clothes that used to be associated with attending religious services or the opera. As would strike even the most causal observer, this is not your average day at Vassar.
At Spring Convocation, in some ways the dress rehearsal for today's event, I talked about how a Vassar education is successfully liberating in the sense of providing its recipient with interesting choices and powerful tools to discover and adapt. You will need those tools under any circumstances, but particularly now, given the recent economic challenges. It is not an entirely welcoming world that awaits you, but it is a world that needs you.
One reason I can be so confident that you will go on to rewarding, fulfilling and interesting lives is that I've seen your futures in the now thousands of Vassar graduates I've met as I've traveled around the country and abroad, introducing myself and hearing the credit they give Vassar for so much in their lives. Invariably there is the story of a particular professor who said just the right thing at just the right moment, a class that led to a lifelong passion, friendships that began at Vassar and endured and even strengthened afterwards, a commitment to a cause or to a life of creativity. The stories I like best are like those of the English major who creates a successful technology business and is then tapped to run a major government agency, or the biology major who becomes an actor – just to not-very-subtly reference two of Vassar's trustees who are here with us this weekend.
Another reason I can be so confident in your futures is that I've seen what you've done already. The talent, dedication, creativity, and care you have demonstrated is phenomenal – be it in the arts, athletics, service in the community and beyond, and in organizing events, programs and even parties. You have made Vassar a wonderful place to call home – both for yourselves and for those of us who have the privilege of working here.
We are rapidly closing in on the milestone two years from now when Vassar will turn 150 years old. One hundred and forty eight years ago, in 1861 as the guns at Fort Sumter were about to fire the first shots of the Civil War, Matthew Vassar took the then bold step of establishing a college that would expand the educational opportunities for a group for whom such opportunities had been limited – women. He was influenced in doing so by his niece, Lydia Booth. She had suggested the idea knowing that her uncle was looking for a way to leave a lasting and positive contribution to society using the considerable fortune he had amassed as a brewer. It would be to over simplify the story to suggest that Lydia Booth deserves more credit than Matthew Vassar, but I tell the story to illustrate a point I want to make this morning about the important ways in which we have been influenced and the ways we are in a position to influence others in turn.
This question of influence has been on my mind recently because a couple of weeks ago I was asked by the Wall Street Journal to be one of a dozen or so college presidents who would write an essay to be published as part of a special article. The assignment was not just to write an essay on whatever I wanted. In recognition that this was the very intense period in the college admissions cycle when acceptance and rejection letters were being sent out, our assignment was to write the kinds of essays that are required as a part of the applications to our respective colleges. In the case of Penn, that assignment was "You have just completed your 300-page autobiography. Please submit page 217." In the case of Barnard, it was to "describe a daily routine or tradition that holds special meaning," and for Reed, to tell about an experience in diversity. The Vassar application, as some of you – even some of the parents – here today may remember, includes the very open-ended "your space" section – submit anything you want that would allow the admission committee to learn something about you that you have not addressed in another section of the application. We get quite an array of submissions, many very creative – some even profoundly moving. But I guess the Wall Street Journal thought that "your space" was a little open-ended for me, so I got what appeared the default assignment: Write about an influential person in your life.
Now this was not a part of the year when college presidents have a lot of free time (actually, I'm still looking for that part of the year) so it was very tempting to use that excuse to decline the offer, but I usually enjoy a good challenge, and this had a strong sense of challenge to it – if you're so smart, college president, you write an essay that would get you into your own school. It also seemed hard to pass up the opportunity to speak with , if not the editors, at least the readers of the Wall Street Journal. Finally there was a bit of the same sense of competition that is a part of the essays in actual college admissions applications – I hoped that my essay would at least stand up against the others. And, if nothing else, Vassar College would be mentioned in the Wall Street Journal.
In the article that did finally come out, several of the presidents were quoted as describing attacks of writers' block, and I was no exception. Part of the problem was that we were not actually given enough information to understand the purpose of the exercise. Were we to think of the essay literally as a part of an admissions application written by a supposed 18-year-old, or simply address the topic on its own terms? Did they expect us to be clever, ironic, even funny, in playing along with their game? The only instructions were not to exceed 500 words and to write it ourselves (no paid consultants!). Friends and family could advise but not rewrite.
So I sat down and wrote a very funny spoof of an admissions essay, the last line of which was "P.S. I promise that neither my mom nor my private admissions counselor helped me with this essay." It was designed to subtly demonstrate the values that we care about at Vassar and the kinds of students we love to have come here. My "friends and family" who saw my first attempt hated it, and told me so in no uncertain terms. It was subtle beyond comprehension and I would definitely get rejected, whatever the strength of the rest of my application. So clearly I had gotten it all wrong. I needed to start over, taking the question seriously, realizing with a bit of regret that my comparative advantage was clearly not with humor.
So the essay that I finally submitted took the question seriously, but even a change in attitude didn't make writing it easier. There were so many people I could choose. I have been influenced in important ways throughout my life, starting, of course with my parents as the most influential. Ultimately unable to choose one, I chose two, both of them economics professors at Williams College when I was a student there, and later my colleagues as a faculty member. I won't review the essay in detail, but the two-sentence version is that the influence of one of the professors, Henry Bruton, who works on ways to improve the economies and well-being of the world's poorest people led to our family spending three years in Zambia where I was an economic advisor to the Zambian government. The other, Gordon Winston, inspired and deepened my interest in issues of access and affordability in higher education, particularly at highly selective colleges like Vassar, where I'm proud of what we've been able to do and the support we've had in doing it.
So how did I do? The online version includes the opportunity for readers' comments. No one has very many. I have one, which I take as high praise (I think): "Straightforward and unpretentious. She gets in."
Let me conclude these remarks with two comments – as straightforward and unpretentious as I can make them.
The first is that I want my comments to be a reminder that we are all where we are through the support and influence of others, and that for each of us there are individuals whose influence we think of as fundamental – individuals who define who we are. Take a few moments today – especially today – and think about who those people are. I expect that for the fabulous Vassar class of 2009 many of those people – maybe even most – are here today. I expect that some of them are sitting behind me. I'm even more sure that many of them are among the people not wearing academic robes.
The second point is to ask that you not only think of the people who have influenced you, but of the people you have influenced. How have you done so? It is perhaps unreasonable to expect that today's graduates will have already been a fundamental influence in someone's life – although I'm sure there are some, perhaps many, especially given the activities you have been engaged in. But is it not unreasonable, in fact it is something of an obligation having had the privilege of a Vassar education, that you make it a goal to compound the benefits of that education to positively influence the lives of others. You might be the college professor who says just the right thing at just the right moment; or the friend who insists that the essay be rewritten; the Henry Bruton and Gordon Winston to someone like me – or even the Lydia Booth to a Matthew Vassar.