Phyllis Wise '67
President Bloom's complete charge.
Whenever one is bestowed an honor like this, one pauses, reflects, and asks, "Why me?" It is hard to stand on this platform, in a beautiful place, so many years after I was in your place, and not wonder, "How did I come to be here? What events and people allowed me to be so fortunate to receive this honorary degree?"
My humble words of advice for you: take note of the people you encounter who inspire you, who energize you, who live the way you aspire to. Watch how they work, learn from them. Never stop observing.
When I attended Swarthmore, our country was in the midst of the tumultuous times of the Vietnam War; it was the time of President John Kennedy and Martin Luther King: leaders who lived and died in the name of public service and the spirit of generosity. I became keenly aware of the honor and privilege of serving the public, and aware of the importance of generosity, and aware of the tremendous impact that an individual could have. To be at a college that was and is so imbued with the Quaker values of consensus, peace, responsibility to work for the greater good, and compassion and generosity only heightened that awareness.
The parallels between then and now are remarkable: a country in an unpopular war, under considerable economic pressure, an extraordinary election process. Again, it is a time when individual leadership is so critical, a time when we must rekindle the honor of public service, a time when the spirit of generosity is of such utmost importance.
I encourage you: observe and learn from people who exemplify what you aspire to be.
Coming back reminds me about some of the people who have inspired me, energized me, lived the way I aspire to; some at Swarthmore and some since who have deeply influenced me, shaped my values, given the contours to my life. What they all share in common is the spirit of generosity.
In particular, I remember two of professors most vividly, maybe because they were so opposite in their approaches and personalities. To learn from both was the essence of the breadth of teaching and learning at Swarthmore. Hedley Rhys, the consummate scholar/performer/teacher, introduced me to Art History. Professor Rhys showed me, a science major, that paintings were not just pretty. He taught me that there was as much rigor in creating art as in scientific discovery: the light of Vermeer, the perspective of depth of Chinese landscape, the ethereal sense of atmosphere in Turner. Every lecture was the essence of artistic analysis. For me it was the first time I experienced ways to look at art, ways to hear it speak, ways to live it, ways to place art in a historical context, ways to understand the artist, ways to understand myself. He taught us how to find meaning from form, find beauty in its myriad forms, find comfort and discomfort in painting, sculpture, architecture from the most classical to the most abstract. He generously communicated the relevance of art to the present, to engage each of us in the classroom, to turn art into an essential part of a larger, richer cultural conversation.
Professor Robert Enders, the most Socratic, enigmatic, unconventional, crusty non-performer "you-have-to-learn-it-yourself" professor introduced me to my lifelong love affair with Biology. It wasn't the classroom that I remember best, but the teas that Dr. and Mrs. Enders hosted at their home virtually every Sunday afternoon. It took me a while to get the courage to go, to listen, to learn about life far beyond biological facts. I saw and participated in learning in a way that was so unique. Maybe it bespeaks of a less rushed time, but I do not think so. I think it reflects the Swarthmore that takes the whole person into consideration. I think it is generosity demonstrated in a different form. Professor Enders generously shared his whole life with us in these informal and intimate settings that were uniquely Swarthmore.
A third person whose influence resonates is someone that I have met only recently: Bill Gates, Sr. He is the father of the Bill Gates of Microsoft and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, whom most of you know from the news. At the age of 82, Bill Sr., the retired co-founder of a highly respected law firm that started in Seattle, is a towering figure with a stentorian voice and a wonderful sense of humor. He has served as a member of the UW Board of Regents for over 10 years. Several years ago, in his mid-70s, when most people are content with a slower pace, Bill agreed to chair the nascent Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and sculpted its activities in global health, global development in ways that truly make a difference. He has been deeply involved in early childhood learning, and in creating scholarships for minority students. In another arena, he led the national campaign to shape federal tax laws to maintain the estate tax of the wealthy. And as if this were not enough generosity, he chaired the University of Washington's $2 billion capital campaign, which will conclude in a month having reached over $2.6 billion. I admire his wisdom in so many social issues, his ability to cut through the superficial to ask the critical questions, his indefatigable energy and dedication, and his limitless generosity. But most of all I respect his uncompromising sense of ethics, and his compassion for those less fortunate, and his generosity.
Finally, my mother: she taught me manners, etiquette, courtesy, compassion, humility. She taught be to strive for the highest goals, but, most importantly, she taught me generosity. She did this through her life story. She came to America as a young adult seeking to further her education. She and my father were scheduled to return to China on December 12, 1941. With the bombing of Pearl Harbor, they remained in the U.S. and created a new life together in this country. My mother sent money to China, when she could, to bring each of her six siblings and her mother, one at a time, to this country. As a nurse educator at Cornell, she developed the first nurse practitioner program. And she and my father raised two children and gave us greater opportunities than they ever had. The sense of family, the sense of community, the sense of giving generously was always an unspoken way of every action.
What do all of these individuals share in common: their generosity and fundamental sense of giving and sharing. So give generously of your time, give generously of your experience and your ideas, give generously of your intellect, give generously of your heart. You will have many opportunities to contribute generously to the solutions of our most complex challenges: the environment, global health, world poverty, education for all regardless of wealth, social justice.
Give generously with dedication, with conviction, with energy, with grace, with panache, with humility.
And save time for yourself so that you continue to develop and learn from the people around you who inspire you, who energize you, who live the way you aspire to. Save time so that you can give generously.
Congratulations, Class of 2008.