Remarks delivered at Agnes Irwin School's Commencement
Delivered Thursday, June 6, 2013, by Rebecca Chopp
Congratulations, 2013 Agnes Irwin women! What an absolutely amazing group of women you are. Look at each other. You are bright, talented, beautiful, strong, courageous, dynamic.
I have been reading about your accomplishments, including where each of you is going to college-and one of you, I understand, is coming to Swarthmore! Raise your hand. Welcome.
You are all amazing. I am so proud of you! This is a truly unique moment in your lives. Relish it.
And what a unique moment for women.
Forbes Magazine this week called 2013 the year of women entrepreneurs. And Warren Buffet, the leading investor, predicted last week that the 21st century would belong to women. And, just a late-breaking piece of news, in 40 percent of American families, women are the primary breadwinners. Women dominate in education right now, as more than 60 percent of college students are women. Women are making their way in, through, and to the top of all sorts of professions. Having been a provost, dean, and president of Colgate University and now Swarthmore College, I know that women are starting to have all possibilities open to them in many professions. Half the presidents of the Ivy League schools and the Little Ivies (Swarthmore, Amherst, Williams, Vassar) are women. There was a time not long ago when that was not even imaginable. As Helen Keller once said, "One can never consent to creep when one feels an impulse to soar." And this is a time when women are soaring. Amazing.
But though this is a unique time, it is not a perfect time for women. It is certainly not where women need to be and where the world needs women to be. Women still bear the brunt of poverty and violence in this country and around the world. It's not a perfect time because women still don't have equal opportunities. Way too many women have no real opportunities or options at all. Glass ceilings may be cracking in some professions, but the sticky floor (by that I mean those who do the lowest paid jobs) are still keeping many women down. Women, I fear, still have to work twice as hard and be twice as good as men,. No statistics here-just my favorite story. A major company has hired a woman as a VP. The President, who was not so happy about having to put a woman on his team, decides to take his team out in a boat to go fishing. After they get off shore, the VP realizes she has left her handbag behind. Pausing to think for a moment, she climbs out of the boat, and, walking on water, goes to retrieve her handbag. The president says, "I told you so. She can't fish!."
This is a unique time for you, and you live in a unique time in history.
It is a bit of a unique moment in my life, too. It's the first time I have ever addressed an all-female high school graduating class. And it is so exciting! This opportunity has made me think long and hard about what to say because to me it is a very precious opportunity to offer a few words of "advice" to you, who are so incredibly accomplished.
I was not you at your age. I lived in Kansas. My parents and my community did not believe in college education for women. Indeed, in high school my parents made me take home economics courses rather than college prep courses since they did not want me to go to college. To this day I can make a white sauce or hem a skirt better than anyone I know! In my world, women of your age got married and raised children. As I looked at the options for my future, they were limited to whether I should marry a carpenter, a sales clerk, a plumber, or a farmer. I decided I would marry a rancher and have nine children. (Clearly, I wanted to preside over a large brood of young people even then!) But life didn't allow those dreams to come true. My high school boyfriend got sent to Vietnam. My father agreed to pay one year of tuition at a state college. Life intervened even further, and I ended up at a wonderful liberal arts college. I was a first-generation college student-the first in my family to go-and I had no clue what college was or how to navigate it.
But I finished college, and I went on to earn a PhD at the University of Chicago, and then to teach and later serve as an administrator at Chicago, Emory, Yale, Colgate, and now Swarthmore. I really don't like talking about myself but today-for you as such unique women in a unique time-I think I can help you by sharing with you how I navigated college, grad school, my profession, and yes, life itself.
Here's what I figured I would do when I went to college. I would study people who seemed really passionate about what they were doing. I figured that if they really loved what they were doing, they knew how to do something right. I studied passionate people. I did then, and I still do. I read about them, I go to movies about them, and I love to talk with them anytime, any place. If you come to my house, you will find biographies galore, all of them about people who are passionate. My "hobby" of studying passionate people is why I serve as a college president-I get to be with incredibly passionate people.
So as someone who has studied them for over forty years, let me share what I have learned about passionate people.
First, you don't find passion. Passion finds you. You will hear time and time and time again: follow your passion. That is good advice, but there is something far more fundamental. Your passion needs to find you, to overtake you, to grab you and not let go. The New York Times often offers advice from academic rock stars for students who are entering college for the first time. My favorite advice came in a rather sophisticated essay titled "My Crush on DNA." Nancy Hopkins, a famous biologist at MIT, began by writing, "Fall in love. Not with that attractive person three rows in front of you in calculus class, but with an intelligent vision of the future you can't imagine at the moment." Hopkins described how, when she was a student, she once heard a lecture on DNA by James D. Watson that put her on her path to finding her intellectual passion. Hopkins wrote, " What I have learned is that passion, along with curiosity, drives science. Passion is the mysterious force behind nearly every scientific breakthrough. Perhaps it's because without it you might never be able to tolerate the huge amount of hard work and frustration that scientific discovery entails. But if you have it, you're in luck. Today, 45 years after Watson's lectures, new discoveries take my breath away."
You never know where passion will find you. Better said, you never know which passion will find you. One of the things I love about higher education is that faculty are people with passion. Yes, even the stereotypical, quiet, nerdy faculty member who is shy and awkward in social situations-ask about what they teach or love, and you will meet someone who has been found by passion.
Next year you will go to college. You will meet all sorts of passionate people. I want you to do something for me-really and truly. I want you to take at least one class outside of what you think you want to study. And, one more thing, I want you to find a way to be an investigative reporter or detective, and go meet 10 faculty and ask them this one simple question: "What do you teach, and why are you passionate about it?" Just imagine I run a detective agency for passionate women who investigate why other people are passionate, and you are my detectives. A year from now, at the end of your first year in college, write me and let me know what the 10 faculty you asked about their passions said. I promise I will respond.
Many, maybe most, of you will go to a college or university and enroll in some type of liberal arts and science undergraduate program. The liberal arts approach to undergraduate education is a unique American invention, though we trace its roots to the Greeks. What is uniquely American is the concept that learning HOW to learn is the key to education. We don't follow the ways of the rest of the world and expect you to know what you want to study by the time you are 17 or 18 or, even worse, tell you what you will study based on some test scores.
Instead, we ask you to study humanities and the arts, social sciences, sciences. We want you to learn to think critically about all different fields and to learn that the ways in which a novelist, an economist, and a chemist think about "love" are very different from one another, but that each adds some combination of truth, goodness and beauty to our lives. We want you to study something deeply-so eventually you will be asked to select a major. But most of the time, what students want to major in-to study deeply-when they enter is different by the time they declare a major. At Swarthmore the first semester is pass/fail-no grades-so that students can experiment and explore and settle in to college life.
Ok, more true confessions from me. I had no idea of what to study when I went to college. I didn't even know what the subjects were, let alone which ones I liked. During my first year I decided to become, in turn, a botanist (might help with my dream to be a rancher's wife), a pre-school teacher (might help with the nine children I wanted to have), a nurse (once I realized I might have to support myself because my boyfriend might not marry me), a teacher (after I realized I didn't like blood that much) and then, finally, a mathematician (my father was beginning to make noises about going to a business school program to become a secretary). That was just one year! But when life intervened and I ended up at a liberal arts college in the middle of my sophomore year, the only course open to me during a January term was one on religion and the environment. And my passion-religion and social change-found me.
Study people's passion, find out how it found them, find out why they love it, and let them talk. By the way, finding out people's passions is a great party conversation topic as well. Or just ask someone if you are stuck next to them on a plane or train or in line. If you find it odd to ask, just pretend you are a reporter and you have to do a report on the passions of ordinary people. Or remember, you are my detectives, and I have authorized you to do this investigation.
Second, I imagine the reason folks love to say "follow your passion" is that there are moments when passion is just the most wonderful high there is. Really. And passion, almost always, gives great meaning.
But passion is really about hard work. It's about discipline, living with focus, and practice, practice, practice. Passion takes practice, discipline, the willingness to fail, the ability to tolerate drudgery, the mastery of details. Athletics is an excellent example of discipline and passion. Athletes have to be in shape (how many crunches, laps, and push ups must I do to run the 5k I want to run this summer?). Artists, too, don't just sail out and perform their passion. One of my favorite movie scenes of discipline in service to passion is from the movie Karate Kid where Roger, the student, filled with the vision of being the karate master, is given the rag and wax, led to Mr. Miyagi's car, and told to "wax on, wax off." Remember: "Wax on right hand. Wax off left hand. Don't forget to breathe." Hours of training-some not so clearly connected-in service of the passion.
Malcolm Gladwell in the book Outliers identifies the 10,000-hour rule: the amount of time it seems to take to make a chess master, a successful hockey player, a violinist, or a dot-com genius. Education is all about learning discipline (as well as wonder!). Passion requires the ability to see-energetically, critically, and attentively. Discipline allows you to see or hear things in new ways; it is the engine of your passion.
Again, as you go do your detective work of becoming students of passion, ask your faculty about the hours they keep, the years spent researching and writing a book or preparing a grant. Or follow a professional dancer or athlete for a day. Discipline and hard work make up passion, and through them creative insights are born.
The third thing I have learned about people and passion is what I will call the moral imagination-the ability to imagine things differently, to see new ways of realizing the good, the art, if you will, of passion.
I told you I grew up in the middle of Kansas. Not many do. Right in the middle of the country, where the slow, rolling limestone formations of the Flint Hills gradually flatten out to the plains, those wide-open spaces with few trees and even fewer people. I told you my world didn't give me many models for opportunity or, in some sense, passion. My resources and future were, in some sense, limited, though I somewhat regret not enjoying the nine children.
But there was one powerful inspiration that stretched my mind and opened my heart, and it stays with me as I live my passion. It was the skies, the incredible open skies. In high school and college, I loved to go the western outskirts of my hometown, Salina, when the plains begin to get squished flat as a pancake. There you can watch the storms come in from far away or just view the vastness and openness of the cosmos.
I loved to get up really early to see the daybreak. I'd arrive in the dark, when no one else was around. I loved to stand in the quiet of those early hours and watch the sunrise. Slowly, the sky would turn, moving out of its own bleak slumber. Light would seep in-red, purple, blue, and orange streaking the sky, bursting forth with new possibilities. It was like watching a new universe unfold. Suddenly, powerfully, the sky would open. Magically, colorfully, the world would be born anew. It was as if, right before my eyes, there appeared a new world. And now, over 40 years later, I think of those dawns as giving me a moral imagination, the ability to imagine new possibilities.
Moral imagination is the most important part of your life with passion. It is the most essential guide on your journey. We often celebrate passionate people such as Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Abraham Lincoln, Martin Luther King Jr. and Agnes Irwin. Their lives define what I mean by passion's moral imagination. But remember that all people of passion must be guided by moral imagination. A new movie, 42, tells the story of Jackie Robinson, the first African-American player to integrate Major League Baseball. What sheer guts, talent, and passion he had. But so did Branch Rickey, owner of the Brooklyn Dodgers, who had the moral imagination to see a world where the best players got to play ball, no matter the color of their skin. I like the story because, like most of us, Branch Rickey wasn't all pure or good. He knew if he had the best team (and they won the World Series that very year), he would make the most money. But in the midst his humanness, he had a moral imagination that the world would change and become a better place.
Imagine the New.
As you head into your bright futures-as you learn to study passion, to practice passion, and to imagine the new-I remind you of my earlier assignment. I mean it: a year from now, I truly hope you will write me to tell me about your detective work with respect to passion. Perhaps some of you will have already discovered that your passion has found you.
Thank you for this opportunity to speak with you. You are a remarkable group of accomplished young women, and I can't wait to see how you shape your-and our-future. Congratulations again.