Commencement Address

Ophelia Dahl's Commencement Address to the Class of 2006

Thank you, President Chapman Walsh, trustees, faculty, staff, parents, family and loved ones.

Thank you, Sophie, for your wise words and for bringing the memory of your mother here for us on this significant day. I would say that it is clear that the qualities you attribute to your mother, namely her confidence, poise and intelligence, have evidently seeped into you in important ways. Allow us to be proud of you on her behalf.

What a magnificent day! Students, Class of 2006: a.k.a. the purple pranksters. Let’s just say you have made your mark, painted the town, left your prints all over this campus, and we’ll leave it at that. I’m not going to bring up any unpleasantness in front of your parents. There’ll be plenty of time for that when they get the bill in July.

Davis Scholars: I am so pleased to be here as one of you. Thank you for giving me this to wear. I am filled with admiration for you and for this college for embracing the notion that education for women is often put on hold for important reasons and that age should not bar you from returning.

It is a real pleasure to be here, and I am honored and delighted to have been invited to address you.

The view from here is lovely—a sea of intelligent faces. I feel enveloped by what I can only describe as a force, a force that is your parents’ and loved ones’ collective pride. If you could only see their expressions, their beams—enough to light up this majestic tent. Take it from me; they are thrilled to be finished with the tuition – I mean, they are thrilled to be part of this important and well-earned rite of passage.

I have a close friend whose mother returned to finish her degree while in her 40s at a similar Davis Scholar type of program at an only slightly inferior well-known women’s college about 63 miles west of here. She had spent 20 years raising a family and earning a living as a cashier in a supermarket before reapplying to finish her degree. She filled in the lengthy questionnaire and when, at the end of the application, it asked her somewhat intimidatingly to list any awards or honors she’d received in her lifetime. She wrote simply the names of her six children: Katy, PJ, Jimmy, Jeffrey, Jennifer and Peggy. You are already all the prizes your parents’ could ask for. In fact, as one famous graduation speaker noted, now would be the most opportune moment to ask for money.

Part of my excitement in addressing you all is that yours has been a class particularly connected to major political events—both here and abroad. I know that you all arrived with the echo of 9/11 still audible. The first anniversary of that defining moment was commemorated while you were still finding your own foothold on this stunning campus. Each year you have witnessed major disasters unfold and you have wrestled with profound political issues, including a presidential election that left many in the world reeling.

And in the midst of all this, Hollywood came here to make a movie about a young white chick going to college in the 50s. We live in a topsy-turvy times indeed. But if you thought Mona Lisa Smile was tough on you—have you heard about the movie sequel they will making here next September? Trading Places 3. The basic storyline is that Larry Summers and Diana Chapman Walsh will exchange jobs for a year. It’s a docudrama—sort of Educating Rita mixed with Lethal Weapon II. They will be holding auditions for science majors to play extras this fall.

But maybe you have seen in some of these events over the last four years the connections between your lives and those in the news: families facing the horrors in Darfur, those broken spirits in Abu Ghraib, or the bodies floating in the rising waters of New Orleans. In 2003, you watched the United States invade Iraq, and I imagine you must have felt deeply troubled at times, knowing that the news reports showing distant flashes on satellite maps represented bombs exploding in cities, cities filled with human beings.

Perhaps you know people who had gone to fight in this war, and you worried about their mission and their safety. I’ll bet you wondered too about the Iraqi families and civilians caught in the midst of the relentless bombing and violence. Some of you must have doubted the sanity of such a war and questioned the connections between Iraq and other countries in which we wage a furious struggle against those we call our enemies. That leaves us thinking about how to resist the persistent call to divide ourselves into us and them. And how might these turbulent times that we live in shape our future? Of course there have been centuries of troubles, wars, violence and terrible battles. You’ll see behind you generations of brave people who waded through a mire of injustice and violence to shape a better future and chose to fight passionately for causes they believe in.

Adam Hochschild writes beautifully about one such cause: the abolitionist movement, in his book, Bury the Chains. He states compellingly that “the abolitionists succeeded where others failed because they mastered one challenge that faces anyone who cares about social and economic justice: drawing connections between the near and the distant.” Linking our own lives and fates with those we can’t see will, I believe, be the key to a decent and shared future.

What will this require? A bit of imagination, some knowledge, and access to the Internet. All things I know you have in abundance. It helps, too, if you have a proclivity for compassion (which will be fueled by your imagination), a good sense of humor (fueled by your imagination), and love (fueled by other things much too complicated to go into without alcohol). As discerning Wellesley graduates you will, I think, find it difficult to travel very far in the world without taking into account the painful fact that some of our own abundant good fortune rests on the misfortune of others.

With so many calamitous events all available for us to witness in vivid color, in both real time and slow motion on TV or the Internet, with so much exposure to the suffering of others and the plethora of ways in which the world is crying out for improvement—it must be overwhelming to look at your life and the span in front of you, with all those choices and wonder how to find your place. Especially while people are telling you, and maybe even you yourself, that somehow it is your obligation to fix the world.

I hope I can offer you a more manageable approach, one that seems to have worked well for me. It is called the “don’t try to plan too far ahead” method. It has a catchy acronym: DttPtFAM. DUPFTAM.

I had no idea what I would do before I went off on my own adventure at roughly your age. Encouraged by my dad to see another side of the world, I traveled from the quiet English countryside to Haiti, a place so unfamiliar to me I had to look up its exact location in an encyclopedia. For the first six months, I lived in an orphanage and joined an ophthalmic organization whose mission, broadly stated, was to take care of patients with glaucoma. I knew that I had nothing much to offer except goodwill—no real skills and yet, though difficult to describe, I was getting a training in something. It was subtle perhaps and had to do with the fact that I was taking everything in, things that leave an indelible mark. I watched as old women, their eyes milky from cataracts, came to the clinics clutching a filthy old rag and inside a few coins to try to pay for their care. I watched carefully as parents tried to talk their way into clinics with sick children, and I didn’t stop watching when they were turned away for their inability to pay.

I spent six months in this way, taking in new sights—and a new level of suffering—for it was my introduction to abject poverty and with it came an unfamiliar feeling: hopelessness. I wanted to do something to help, but I was paralyzed in the face of such profound need. I remember at the end of my first trip I stood on top of the hill in Port au Prince and looked down at the sprawling slums that covered the grimy city. I longed to go home to England and forget this corner of the world. Yet I knew too that it would be impossible, impossible to erase the memory of all I had seen and of all the people who had taken me in. But I remained plagued by a sense of how little I could do for any one person in a country like Haiti.

I turned to my great friend, Paul Farmer (I hope you all find a friend like him), who was 23, and I said that I didn’t think it will be possible to change anything, to make a dent in this sort of problem. And he said, “Why don’t we focus on one thing? Let’s concentrate on one small area, on a community, not the country, certainly not the world.” And so we did without thinking too much about what might lie ahead—in other words without much of a plan, but utilizing the talent, goodwill and generosity of other people, working as a team (some of whom are here today). We had one specific goal: to bring healthcare to a small area of rural Haiti, to a group that had lost their land and their livelihood to a hydroelectric dam.

We didn’t have a strategy or a budget. That is what I want you to know, the lack of planning allowed us to be spontaneous, nimble, we call it, and it allowed us to react very quickly to problems as they arose. We followed our instincts (which you should try to do), took risks (which you should only do sparingly), and learned as went along, often from our mistakes (which you will definitely do). We asked our families and friends for money. We brought on volunteers, funneled resources from Boston to Haiti, carried sinks and microscopes on planes and bought medications on credit at the Brigham and Women’s Hospital and slowly assembled a team of Haitian teachers, doctors and community health workers.

And all the time we tried to draw connections between the near and the distant. The near of Boston teaching hospitals with the distant, rural, dusty clinic in Haiti. The near of people’s hunger with the distant World Bank policies. The near of Haitian boat people arriving on Florida’s shores with the distant economic embargoes.

And as the number of patients and their ailments grew so we expanded the services, raising more money until the clinic became a hospital, the classroom a school and the entity we referred to as “the project” became Partners in Health. One patient became 10, then 100. Before we knew it, there were 10,000 patients seeking treatment—and their ailments started to broaden. They needed not just healthcare, but houses and schools and clean water and jobs. We kept coming back to raise more money from people like you and then last year we saw that four employees had become 4,000 and 10,000 patients had become over a million in Haiti alone and the projects have spread out to several countries. That is a snapshot of how quickly things change. So feel free to start very small, but allow yourself to imagine very expansively.

If a lack of a real plan as we out all those years ago seems like an unorthodox approach for a small group of people, then maybe it had something to do with my unconventional parents. I grew up with a courageous and talented mother, a stepmother who flew from England to be here today, and father who wrote stories for a living—mostly for children, which is good if you were his child.

He pushed up against limits to a delicious degree. For the first 10 years of my life, I had been fed nightly stories of “fleshlumpeating giants” and “snozwangers” and “vermicious knids.” I was convinced that a “fire-breathing bloodsuckling stonecheckling Spitler” lived in the woods outside my bedroom window. Papa Doc Duvalier had nothing to offer me!

My father led me to believe for years that passing a mathematics test had more to do with which dream powder a giant blows into your bedroom window that night than actually studying for an exam. He was convinced that imagination would be the most vital ingredient for a fulfilling life and told me that if, at times, all you have is your imagination, you will rarely feel alone. He died while I was at Wellesley and some of our loveliest and last conversations were about what I was studying here—Faulkner and Joyce and Naipaul. Through his gentle urging I have relied on my imagination enough to make it less of a jump to connect my life with the lives of those I can’t see. I urge you to do the same because a great deal of what you do will be influenced by your ability to imagine an improved outcome, or a better device, or a more efficient system, a new vaccination, or a vastly different Supreme Court.

Imagination will allow you to make the link between the near of your lives with the distant others and will lead us to realize the plethora of connections between us and the rest of the world, between our lives and that of a Haitian peasant, between us and that of a homeless drug addict, between us and those living without access to clean water or vaccinations or education and this will surely lead to ways in which you can influence others and perhaps improve the world along the way.

At roughly your age, I had an experience upon which I have been able to build my life’s work so far. This can happen to you as 12, 31 or 81. Maybe it has already happened. The key is to live with an exquisite openness to the world. To not close any part and to let it all, including the suffering of others, reach you. It doesn’t have to be global health or social justice or the fight against poverty (but it helps). It can be marketing, academics, law, medicine, athletics, but my wish for you is that you find your passion, your abiding interest, and dedicate yourself to achievement in that area. The world will align around you.

Women of Wellesley, I have no doubt you will do extraordinary things. You have well placed to do anything with your lives. Whatever you choose to do with your talents and superb education, employ your imagination broadly, fight hard for the things you believe in, link the near and distant. And wear a helmet whenever possible.

May this time resonate for you. May your lives resonate in others.

Thank you and congratulations.