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Marcia A. Grant '60

Marcia A. Grant '60

Marcia Grant, as a teacher, diplomat, educational administrator and college founder, you have, with extraordinary passion and wisdom, built deeper mutual understanding, wider embrace of fine education and firmer commitment to cooperative endeavor across a global world.
The complete charge from President Alfred H. Bloom is available here.

President Bloom, Members of the Board, Faculty, Honored Guests, Graduating Seniors, Families and Friends.

Salaam Aleikum. Good morning.

I am profoundly moved by this honor you're bestowing on me today. The thought of addressing this graduating class has carried me through some rocky moments in health and my work in Karachi, Pakistan this past winter and spring. So thank you for this remarkable recognition.

As a student at Swarthmore in the late 1950s, I was known for having many international schemes and dreams, for my California enthusiasm, and for what I will describe as a "divine discontent," a passion for cutting edge ideas. As many of my classmates did, I went on to get a Ph.D. Mine was in international relations from the London School of Economics, and I lived for many years in Nigeria, returning to the U.S. to teach political ccience. A career in education and diplomacy took me to Africa, Latin America and Europe, but had a different shape from that of my male colleagues and friends. I had to fight nepotism rules and was the first tenured professor at Oberlin College to have a child when there was no maternity leave. At the age when my friends and colleagues began their retirements, I was asked to start Effat College in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia.

How did I begin a career of creating liberal arts colleges in the Muslim world in my sixties?

It began in the spring of 1999. I was asked to visit Princess Lolwah al Faisal in Jeddah, as part of a team of senior academic administrators, to see how we could help start a liberal arts college for women, the first institution of its kind in Saudi Arabia. After our visit, we submitted a 20-page proposal, with important-sounding recommendations, and a five-year implementation time-line — and it was rejected!

I felt disconsolate, as I knew intuitively that I had the skill-set that the Faisal Family needed to establish Effat College. So I did what my mother had always taught me: I wrote a thank you note. In a single page I drew up my vision of the college. What I learned later was that there was no one in Jeddah qualified to interpret the jargon in our first official proposal, but that my simple thank you note showed my willingness to help the Princess. Within a few days, I was invited to Saudi Arabia. I arrived in Jeddah on August 2 and we opened Effat College on September 8 with 37 students. The college has now been in operation for eight years, with 260 students and 42 professors.

What did I learn so late in my career in moving to a culture completely foreign to what I knew? What insight can I share with you, as you prepare to leave Swarthmore and embark on your new lives? First, that I had archetypes in my head from my Swarthmore days of what an excellent liberal arts education is. The act of creativity in founding Effat College was not coming up with something new, but of taking an idea — in this case, a whole college in my head — and making it real in another culture. In this same way, Swarthmore College has furnished your minds. No matter where you go and what happens to you in life, no one can take this furniture away from you. Your task from now until you are my age is to take your ideas — the furniture in your minds — and to take the risk of making them real.

The second lesson I learned was that as a leader I could not start Effat College by myself. A leader needs help. My helpers were Princess Lolowah, a visionary who did not go to school except for three years in a Swiss finishing school; Dr. Haifa, my cultural translator and guide to Saudi society, who became the Dean; and Kerry Laufer, Swarthmore Class of 1994, who has worked as Dean of Students — and basketball coach — and helped shape Effat College for the past eight years.

And the third is that I heeded my passion for new ideas and intuition — by expressing what I thought was possible in a short thank you note. Passion and intuition — seeing what is not there — is how creative scholarship, entrepreneurship, and innovation begin. It is listening to those critical voices that will lead you to take risks and build for yourselves interesting lives.

In retrospect, I can see that the single most important decision I took in building Effat College was to require physical education. The Saudi women had never had sports in high school. Delegations of students showed me their bruises from volleyball, complaining that they were getting hurt. I was firm: only an excuse from a government hospital would get them out of sports. Within a semester, all but one student had volunteered to take PE. Effat College soon challenged the women's high schools and government universities in basketball, volleyball, and swimming. But more importantly, Effat students started coming to college with exercise clothes and sneakers under their abayas instead of in makeup and designer clothes. Ironically, it was sports that created an atmosphere that allowed the growth of academic excellence.

I am now working in Karachi, Pakistan, planning the Faculty of Arts and Sciences for a new liberal arts college at the Aga Khan University. Karachi is a harder place to live than Jeddah in many ways — although it has a history of education far greater than the Saudi Kingdom's — and the challenges I face on a daily basis are enormous. And yet, I'm still game.

Starting at Swarthmore as a political science major, I have learned to value academic freedom, the thrill of ideas, the challenge of friendships across cultures, finding in the connectedness of this whole global society wonderful people who share enthusiasm and optimism. What I have come to understand about myself, personally, is that I like to keep my learning curve steep.

So what I wish for you — the members of the Swarthmore Class of 2007 — are three things: that you take the risk of making real the ideas and dreams that you have in your heads; that you ask the help of your friends and families in making them happen; and that you, too, keep your learning curves steep! And, as you embark on this next chapter of risk taking, learning, and exploration — don't forget to write your thank you notes.