All the reunion posts from this year got me to thinking about our own graduation. So I’m posting one of my favorite speeches from one of my favorite people. Our very own Claudia Calhoun.
Student Commencement Address
Claudia Y. Calhoun ’05
Mount Holyoke College – May 22, 2005
Classmates, families, friends: Thank you for allowing me to speak today.
It was important to me that I step on this podium and avoid clichés, aphorisms, and pithy quotes that we’ve all heard a million times. I have already sworn on the bible of ubiquitous and misinterpreted poems that I will not, no matter the circumstances, quote Robert Frost at you. Because, as I look out among my classmates of the year 2005, I see a group of people who have already decided to take the road less traveled: 116 is a popular highway, but not everyone turns off into South Hadley. And of those who do, not everyone makes it to these seats, in these gowns, among these amazing women and their supportive families and friends. I didn’t want to stand up here and quote quotes at you and tell you things you already know. I’ll leave it to the others on this podium – this array of unbelievable women – to give us the real advice. I want to tell you what I’ve been thinking about, as I’ve been wondering how the class of 2005, including myself, will make our impact. I’ve had a lot of time to think about this, and here’s what I’ve concluded: I’m not worried about the world. Not as long as we’re in it. Let me tell you why.
During this year, I’ve thought a lot about my future, about what kind of work I can do – that is, what the marketplace will pay me for – so that I can move out of my parent’s house and into an apartment the size of a cheese grater. (Such is the trade-off for independence, I suppose.) This is difficult because I am an American Studies major. If you don’t know what that means, then you already understand the market value of an American Studies major. At one point, I was talking with my friend Kim, trying really hard to figure out what kind of job will allow me to combine my love for film history with my passion for social justice work. Or: how can I watch old movies all day long and solve the world’s social ills at the same time? This was a challenge. As I grew more frantic, Kim finally cut me off. “Claudia!” she said, “You can’t do it! You can’t make John Wayne fix Guantanamo Bay! Not with your first job out of college!” The specifics of my story are doubtlessly peculiar to me alone, but I see similar conflicts in the eyes of many of my friends in this audience. We ask: How do I reconcile my personal goals and desires with my value of public service? Will the world make me choose? Will I have to compromise myself?
But I’m not worried, because the fact that we ask ourselves these questions is perhaps the most important thing. It means that we are thinking about how we want to live in the world, how we will contribute, how we can use every day to make the next one a little better for somebody else. As long as we continue to interrogate our choices, we will never lose sight of what is truly important. And I have faith that we will make the right choices, because we had to make a million right decisions to be able to wear these gowns today.
These gowns are a symbol of our achievement but are also a reminder of how fortunate we have been. Not everyone gets a chance to go to college, and very few have access to the caliber of education that we have received here. We are immensely privileged. But out of that privilege, a college has been established, and our college has within it the resources to make radical change and to solve that inequality. Most crucially, Mount Holyoke has the power to educate us, its students, to go into the world and make it into the place that we want to live in: a more just place, a more equitable one, a fairer one, a more humane one.
We all have different visions of what the world should look like. But I’m not worried, not as long as we continue to have the courage to remember what we’ve learned here. I don’t just mean the things that we’ve learned from textbooks – though I hope to God that we remember some of that stuff or science majors will have spent $400 a semester on books for nothing. But we’ve learned other things, too. We know how to interact with different people, how to communicate openly with one another, how to set the terms for vigorous yet peaceful debate. We’re going to need those skills. From our first weeks at Mount Holyoke, the reality of violence against this country and beyond this campus has been an ever-present part of our consciousness. But on this campus, as opposed to too many other places in this world, we live out our differences. Let us remember how that’s done so we can show and teach others.
I will admit that I have worried in the past. Sometimes I have worried about the best way to be a woman in a coed world. As I understand it, it’s a different place beyond that iron gate. Out there, there are men, roaming about in record numbers, running corporations and legislatures and making decisions as if they were the only people in the world. Seventy percent of the 1.2 billion persons living in poverty are women. There are 140 million women living in the United States and there are 14 in the Senate. On average, white women in the U.S. earn 75 percent of what white men make; black women earn ten percentage points less than white women, and Latinas earn ten percent less than black women. We know that there’s much to be done.
But I’m not worried today. Look around you and you’ll see some of the smartest and best-educated women in the world. There’s nobody else better, stronger, faster, or more capable than we are. We’re going to have to start small – for example, Kofi Annan seems dead set on keeping his day job, and most of us won’t be allowed to run for president for 15 years or so. But until then, I know that we will make change every day. We will change the world every day that we walk in it and let people know: this is what I think, this is what I know, this is what I have learned, this is what I can do, this is what I will do, this is who I am. Booyakasha.
So I’m not worried. I know how we think, what we know, what we have learned, what we can do, what we will do, and who we are. And it’s pretty damned impressive. Starting tomorrow, we’ll have our chance to let the world know. And it will change to suit us.
I have been a Mount Holyoke student for four years, and there’s one thing I’ve never done. I think it’s appropriate to do it now. I will quote Emily Dickinson: “Finite to fail,” she wrote, “but infinite to venture.” I can’t wait to see what all of us will venture.