Skip to main content

Amy Vollmer - Last Collection

Amy Vollmer Cheng speaks at Last Collection

Amy Cheng Vollmer - Last Collection

Audio Player Controls
0:00 / 0:00

Class of 2019, good evening!

Thank you for giving me the honor to speak to you at this, your Last Collection. Think back, if you will, to when you were sitting here at your First Collection – filled with questions, doubts and a mega-dose of Imposter Syndrome. And now, you are here again – because you made it! - complete with your personal toolboxes that are filled with strategies for confronting more doubts, failures, and unknowns that await you.

Right now, there are so many new uncertainties: What will it be like to leave Swarthmore behind? Where will you be living? How soon will you be able to make new friends? What will your job/or more schooling be like? 

So, what thoughts can I share that you might consider memorable and pertinent? I have decided to give you 3 pieces of advice that – I hope – you will find useful. And I want to highlight 2 areas where I think your generation can and must make a difference. While I draw from what I know best (biology), my intent is to speak in a manner that is inclusive – so here goes:

1.     LOOK UP – Put your phone away for a bit. Make eye contact with people while you are walking - you'll be surprised by how much you've been missing. You have been in the midst of a beautiful arboretum for four years, what have you noticed? Close your eyes and imagine the walk from Sharples to Parrish, or the courtyard between Parrish and Kohlberg, or the pollinator garden between Martin Labs and Cornell Library in the Science Center. What do you recall in terms of flowers and trees? Have you gone to walk amongst the lilacs in front of the Meetinghouse? What did you see? and smell? Thirty years ago, I was interviewed on April 24, and former biology faculty member, Scott Gilbert, took me to the lilac grove and interviewed me there. Every year that I am on campus, I make a point of visiting the lilacs on the anniversary of my interview. This year, the blossoms were lavish and the fragrances stronger than I can remember. If you must be on your device, stop, pull over, look down and complete that task. Then, LOOK UP and be ‘present’ in the actual world, rather than existing in a virtual one.

Here at the end of senior week, you are starting to think about the people you will miss – not just your close friends, but those friendly faces, many of whom you have missed seeing because you were looking down instead of up. So please, for the next couple of days, when you are walking, put away your phone – LOOK UP and share a smile - with people you will miss after you disperse on Sunday afternoon! 

2.    SPEAK UP – and in so doing, lift up others. Give a voice to those on the margins, whether they are too frightened to speak, or because people are not actively listening to them. SPEAK UP for those who have no voice. Speak for others: don’t do it to hear yourself. Do it with respect – striving to be compassionate, especially when you are not seeing eye-to-eye. Several years ago, I attended a symposium about Decision Science and how to communicate to the public about controversial areas in science. There I learned that shouting or smothering people with more data are simply not effective strategies; in fact, they backfire. Understand that some people in your audience have had less experience, fewer opportunities to learn, or have not been encouraged to think deeply or critically. Being condescending or impatient indicates that you are not actually interested in communicating; it only amplifies the knowledge gap. The person you are trying to convince might simply be afraid: afraid to learn how much they don’t know, fearful that they don’t have the capacity to comprehend, or that they are somehow not worthy intellectually. If you have listened and you know your audience, instead of ‘pushing their buttons’, meet them where they are. Listen for the sound of their ‘confidence’ - they may be covering up for just how insecure they are feeling. 

When I interact with anxious young parents who seek my advice about vaccinations, I try to meet them where they are: fearful and wanting to make the best decisions for their child’s future. I start by saying that I have 2 kids who are now in their 30s, and that I was once a scared young mother who felt helpless when I could not comfort my baby after he received a shot at the doctor’s office. I then describe some of the severe symptoms of childhood diseases, about which most young parents are unfamiliar. Next, I talk about what is in a vaccine: that it usually contains only pieces of viruses or bacteria, that it functions to tease the immune system into reacting as if there were an actual infection. The immune system has a remarkable memory, so that the next time it encounters the real viruses or bacteria the response will be, by every measure, both faster and better! Finally I summarize thusly: “a vaccine is a rehearsal for the immune system”…kind of like a fire drill. And although the vaccine does hurt for a little while, I would gladly trade that small bit of discomfort for the long-term protection it provides my child against debilitating diseases.

Speaking up does not mean one has to be strident, which I consider a last resort. You have heard the saying: “it’s better to be nice, than right” – I would modify that to say “it’s better to be nice first; then at least you haven’t alienated your audience before you try to get them to see your point”. Being right is hollow if no one is listening….but if you DO speak up: respect, credit and persuade in your own words. Someone will be listening. A sound argument is built on a solid foundation. You will always have to do your homework. Yes, you need to know the subject, but more importantly, you need to know about your audience.

3.    STEP UP – the world is filled with smart people who have brilliant ideas. Spend some time with them, listen and learn from their thoughts. But choose role models who are members of the minority: those who put their words into action. Because – truly – talk is cheap. STEP UP and roll up your sleeves. No task should be beneath your station. A few years ago, our department’s refrigerated walk-in cold room had a breakdown over a long holiday, and since the door has an excellent seal, plenty of mold had a chance to grow inside by the time we discovered the failure. We did our best to clean around everything on the shelves, but once the compressor was repaired, the mold persisted stubbornly. So finally, a number of us agreed that on a certain day, everything would be removed from the cold room and on the next day, we would give the whole room a deep cleaning. We picked a pair of sunny spring days and on the first day, everyone relocated their stuff from the cold room. So imagine my surprise on the next, clean-up day, when only two of us showed up! After waiting for a half hour to see if everyone else was simply late, the two of us put on protective gear, removed the dozens of wire-coated shelves, walked them over to the showers in the basement of the Science Center, scrubbed them with detergent and bleach, rinsed and them set them out in the sun to dry. Then, standing on ladders that we had put in the empty cold room, we scrubbed the walls and dried them before re-installing the wire shelves. I have no regrets about what we did on that day, but I was brutally disappointed by the no-shows. They were the role models who didn’t step up, the ones you don’t want to follow.

One of my favorite Broadway musicals is enjoying a revival season: Lerner’s and Loewe’s My Fair Lady, which is based on the play Pygmalion by George Bernard Shaw. In the musical, there is a song entitled “Show Me!” that starts out with Eliza Doolittle singing the lyrics: “Words, words, words, I’m so sick of words…..” and then demands that if her boyfriend wants to convince her of his undying love, he needs to shut up and show her! The song resonated with me as a youngster because I grew up in Missouri, nicknamed the Show-Me State. Now that I am older, it resonates because I am only impressed with your great idea if you STEP UP and roll up your sleeves. 

So then, what are two areas in which I think your generation can LOOK UP, SPEAK UP and STEP UP in order to make a difference?

A – Mental Health: you need to raise mental health to the same stature for discussion, recognition and treatment as is presently afforded to physical health. 

A person suffering from depression should be given the same priority and urgent attention as a patient with a broken arm. But, you argue, it is so much easier to diagnose a broken arm or a clogged artery! While I would have agreed with you five years ago, it is very clear now that many chemical imbalances in the brain are directly connected to what is happening in your gut, thanks to your microbiome. Don’t believe me? Think about comfort food – why is it comforting? Could it be that your gut microbes convert that food into products that modulate the anxiety in your brain? There are solid data from many studies, not only published in microbiology and physiology journals, but now also in psychiatry journals. Did you catch the New York Times article about the therapist who prescribes oysters to his depressed patients? or hear about the woman in the UK who can smell the beginnings of Parkinson’s Disease? I am convinced that breathalyzers will soon be able to help diagnose, at an early stage, many chemical imbalances that affect the brain and behavior. (Although this may remind you of the Tricorder used by Dr. McCoy on Star Trek, it is not that far-fetched.) Furthermore, I predict that some of you will be involved in research and development, sales and marketing, as well as pioneering use of such an instrument. When that happens, I want to hear from you! Those who suffer from poor mental health need our compassion and action. Now is the time.

B – Climate change: it is real. You can’t argue with the data! 

The Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services just released a stunning report: it predicts mass extinctions if we do not halt habitat destruction as well as other human-induced factors responsible for climate change. Pollinators, and especially insects, are keenly vulnerable. Ninety per cent of flowering plants and seventy-five per cent of all food crops rely on pollination. This is especially pertinent to critical cash crops like almonds, cocoa and coffee. In many areas, important pollinator populations, such as native bees, are severely declining. In your own lives, think about driving at night on the highway – it used to be that the windshield would be covered by the bodies of smashed insect: big juicy grasshoppers, dragonflies – so many that you would have to stop and manually clean them off so as not to be blinded by how they would scatter oncoming headlights. Nowadays, it is rare to see bugs smash into my windshield. And lightening bugs? Thirty years ago when I came to Swarthmore, we could see them everywhere in the summertime, but especially hovering over Parrish Beach. That isn’t the case anymore. The longer we wait to act, the direr the consequences for our planet. 

You don’t have to be a scientist to do something about climate change. 
You don’t have to be in the medical field to raise awareness about mental health. 

So, remember to -
LOOK UP: be ‘present’ and attentive. Look up higher – see those tall trees? Did you know that in Michigan, doctors are prescribing walks in the park for improving mental health? There is nothing that clears my mind like a few deep breaths taken here in the amphitheater. You don’t have to be here: just visualize sitting in the quiet company of these grand trees, breathe into your belly a few times, and at once you will feel more centered.

SPEAK UP: Who speaks for these trees, the ones along Magill Walk, and all of the flora and fauna that are distressed or displaced? When you speak up, lift up others – even those who do not realize that you are advocating for them. The reward is not instantaneous nor is it gratitude; rather, the goal is a gradual and enduring transformation.

STEP UP: This splendid amphitheater was completed 77 years ago (a decade before the deployment of the first polio vaccine and before we knew the structure of DNA). The people who planted these tulip poplars didn’t do it for themselves. But their legacy is both magnificent and enduring. Sometimes what you set into motion will not bear immediate fruit, but the ultimate outcomes will certainly outlive you. We now can appreciate the shade and the splendor of the canopy, attributes that those who painstakingly planted the seedlings could only have imagined.

Recently, I have had the privilege to be honored by my peers as well as by leaders of the College. But to me, the highest honor is being selected by you, the students. So again, I am deeply grateful to you for allowing me to be a part of your special occasion. As I am thanking you, a bonus piece of advice: it is never too late to say ‘thank you’ – take the time to write just 2-3 sentences. Sending it will do wonders for you and the recipient.

This wouldn’t be an authentic Swarthmore lecture, if I didn’t suggest additional reading – and so I vigorously recommend three books:

LOOK UP: Tara Westover’s memoir, Educated
SPEAK UP: Melinda Gates’ book, The Moment of Lift
STEP UP:  Michelle Obama’s narrative, Becoming

By learning how to fail well, these three resilient women, from diverse backgrounds, have achieved the American dream in unique ways. I hope you, too, will draw inspiration from their captivating stories. 

For each of you in Swarthmore College’s Class of 2019, I wish: 
- adventures: grand and exhilarating, in the company of a few loyal friends, and
- lives: fulfilling and blessed, in a healthy world where all feel included.