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Inspiring Words for New Graduates

Vassar conferred Bachelor of Arts degrees to 597 students on Saturday, May 20. On the blazingly sunny day, Geraldine Laybourne ’69, president of the Alumnae and Alumni of Vassar College (AAVC), welcomed the graduates to an alumnae/i body more than 37,000 members strong. “Your time at Vassar is not ending,” she reassured them. “You’re entering another chapter of your relationship with each other and with our college.”

President Catharine Hill spoke about the value of a Vassar diploma. “It represents an education that has provided you with specific skills of analysis and expression,” she said. “It has also challenged you to think in ways that cut across disciplines, that recognize and appreciate complexity and ambiguity, and that enable you to learn from and contribute to the lives of others.”

Commencement speaker Leymah Gbowee, who received a 2011 Nobel Peace Prize for her role in organizing protests that helped to end a bloody civil war in Liberia, delivered an inspiring speech about using such skills to make a difference in the world. She urged members of the Class of 2012 to “blossom” wherever life planted them. “It is a known fact that people who feel a sense of calling in a particular field will bring more enthusiasm to their work than those who are performing 9:00-5:00 get-on-with-it, make my money, and go home,” she said. “There are clear distinctions in the way they perform their duties. The ones who feel a sense of calling blossom, while the ones who feel it’s 9:00-5:00 work, make money. In most instances, they leave trails of dead leaves.”

Passion and commitment, she noted, are especially important in situations where difficult transformations are needed. She spoke of her own growing resolve to stop the violence in her country and of the sacrifices made by thousands of ordinary women who sat for hours in the scorching sun without water in order to protest the war or walked miles to join fellow activists because they had no money for transport.

“No one took a salary, no one was coerced, and everyone came to the action willingly, knowing that they had been planted at that point to make change. Many of the women abandoned their businesses to be involved. Protesting was a way of life for many months. These women were concerned about one thing—securing a future for Liberia.”

Her final wish: “It is my hope and prayer that the dreams of changing the world that many of you had in your head when you left high school and entered college will still be the driving force and passion as you deliver services in whatever field you have been called to impact.”

–Elizabeth Randolph