Commencement

Dorothy H. Wickenden

Dorothy H. Wickenden '76, L.H.D. '14
Commencement Address
May 19, 2019

Thank you, President McGuire and members of the Board of Trustees for asking me to speak today at my alma mater—and my favorite colleges.

Congratulations, Class of 2019!

I think we should pause for just a moment to thank all of the parents, grandparents; faculty, support staff, and coaches; and friends who helped you get to this momentous point. A round of applause, please!

Today is an end and a beginning. The end of eighteen long years of classes and exams, and the beginning of a life you can barely imagine. You came here as kids; you leave as adults.

What a thrill it is to see you out there in your caps and gowns—thinking about all of the lives you will touch and change.

Around this time of year, I often get notes from seniors who are thinking of careers in journalism or communications. Just a few weeks ago, a William Smith student emailed me asking for job advice, and I realized that she could help me at least as much as I could help her. I wanted to know what was on your minds. I expected her to come back with a thought or two. But she did exactly what any a serious William Smith student would do: she went out and researched it like crazy, interviewing every senior she could find. A week later, she presented me with three pages of their suggestions.

But as I went through them, I realized that they all came down to a plea for reassurance. One student asked: “What if I fail?”

I would say that a little self-doubt isn’t a bad thing. Most people who eventually find what they’re looking for in life have found that a failure now and then fuels achievement.

I want to tell you a story—a true story—about one alumna. She suffered rejections that would have driven me to despair—but they goaded her to prove herself. There’s a statue of her over there /// which you’ve probably walked past hundreds of times without a glance. It took me some forty years to fully appreciate her legacy.

In 1847, Elizabeth Blackwell applied to Geneva College, as this school was known back then. Its founder, Bishop John Henry Hobart, loftily described it as an “outpost for civilized and learned behavior.” Blackwell wanted to be a doctor, and the college offered a medical degree—but only for men. It’s hard to convey just how gutsy she was. Her ambition seemed absurd to everyone but her. At age eighteen, women were expected to be raising a family or taking care of their parents. There were only a handful of colleges in the country that admitted women at all, and none that offered degrees in the professions. She was turned down by sixteen schools in New York, Philadelphia, and Boston. (You think you dreaded those thin envelopes from the admissions office.) Blackwell asked a few doctors what they thought she should do. One of them laughed out loud; another suggested she disguise herself as a man and attend medical lectures in Paris, as a Frenchwoman recently had.

When Blackwell applied to Geneva College—this outpost for civilized and learned behavior—the dean asked the students to decide whether Blackwell should be admitted. He of course expected a unanimous rejection. Instead, in what must be the most aberrant acceptance in academic history, the students jeered and hooted, and—treating it as a practical joke, they unanimously voted "Aye."

As soon as Blackwell arrived, the hazing began. Other students threw paper darts at her in class. The professor of anatomy asked her not to attend his lecture on dissection, where he liked to tell dirty jokes. But she argued so effectively for her right to be there, he told the other students that she had rightly rebuked him. Still, doctors’ wives in town refused to speak to her, and most people saw her as a lewd woman or insane, or both. (1)

In 1849, Elizabeth Blackwell graduated at the top of her class, and became the first licensed female physician in the world.

A triumph for her, and the college, right? Actually, no. Blackwell was a pariah. The medical profession was so outraged by the idea of a female colleague that the experiment was not repeated. Women were barred from admittance until the founding of William Smith College, almost sixty years later.

Blackwell was promised recommendation letters, but the registrar never sent them, and no American hospital would hire her, so she went to London and Paris for her residencies—as a woman, not in disguise. When she returned to the U.S., in 1851, she confronted what she described as “a blank wall of social and professional antagonism.” By now, she’d come to see her battle as a “moral crusade,” and she kept at it, eventually opening a private practice with her sister Emily—who’d been rejected here but accepted at Cleveland Medical College. In 1857, the Blackwell sisters founded the New York Infirmary for Indigent Women and Children—now part of New York Presbyterian/Lower Manhattan Hospital—and Blackwell went on to crusade for abolition and women’s rights.

But that was more than a hundred and fifty years ago—what does Blackwell’s story have to do with your fears, here in the 21st century?

Quite a lot, actually. As my mother used to say, “You make your luck.”

Yes, it’s scary out there, with viral tweets and vicious memes, melting polar ice caps, violent white nationalists, and a dating scene that sends you into oblivion with one left swipe. We cover these issues and many more at The New Yorker, and I sometimes roam around the office begging editors for good-news stories. They’re in pretty short supply. I ended last week at the office by reading Elizabeth Kolbert’s piece on the latest forecast about climate change. An international group of scientists predict that within decades we’ll see the extinction of one million species.

But at least we’ve got the cartoons. One shows a graduating senior refusing his diploma: “Uh, no thank you, I’ll stay another four years.”

Every generation has terrors to stare down. My great great grandparents had the Civil War; my grandmother—a single mother of four—the Great Depression; my parents, World War II; the Baby Boomers—my cohort—had Vietnam and Watergate.

You are all incredibly lucky. Think how few people will ever experience anything like the four years you’ve spent here. You are primed to tackle just about anything. I wish I’d known that about myself. I was such a grind, and so risk-averse. I was no Elizabeth Blackwell, that’s for sure—scared of my own shadow. I shied away from the sciences—What if I failed? Now I wished I’d taken a few of those courses, so that I could really understand neuroscience, a field that fascinates me. After graduation, I took the most familiar path to success. My father was an editor, and that’s what I did. Luckily, I ended up loving the work I do, and, just as happily, I stumbled on an unexpected passion—for American history. That was something else I never studied.

Employers—and graduate schools and fellowship committees—are looking for graduates with drive and curiosity. An ability to synthesize complex information, judge the merit of ideas, make a compelling argument, write coherently, and think imaginatively. And don’t forget humor—an under-appreciated quality in these days of rage.

You don’t need to know right now what you want to do with the rest of your life. What you end up pursuing may seem to have nothing with what you’ve studied here. It will, though, be the result of the way you’ve learned to think. In my second job, at The New Republic magazine, I got interested in politics; now I’m obsessed. Stay open to new ideas, and to the other guy’s point of view, even if—especially if—you disagree with him. Embrace serendipity. There’s no shame in heading off in a new direction when unexpected opportunities crop up. As Ralph Waldo Emerson said, “A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds.” You could find yourself in a field twenty years from now that doesn’t exist yet, or you might succeed brilliantly in Hollywood, then decide in your forties that you actually want to be a psychiatrist in Manhattan. A friend of mine did that.

The best way to find yourself is by leaving yourself behind. Move out of your “safe spaces,” beyond “self-care” and selfies. You’ll be surprised, decades from now, to see where your education takes you. In recent years, mine has brought me back to upstate New York, which was a hotbed of radicalism in Elizabeth Blackwell’s time. The three protagonists of the book I’m writing were contemporaries of hers, and they too were abolitionists and advocates of women’s rights—those two great revolutionary movements of the 19th century. They lived just east of here, in Auburn. One of the women was Harriet Tubman, whose Underground Railroad route took her straight across the state—along what is now the NY thruway. Her first biographer lived here in Geneva. Tubman’s friend Frances Seward—the wife of William H. Seward, Lincoln’s secretary of state—sold her a house in Auburn while Tubman was still a fugitive slave—an even more radical act than Blackwell breaking in to medicine. Women did not buy and sell houses to each other, and not many of them formed close friendships across racial lines. Their other co-conspirator, Martha Coffin Wright, was an organizer of the Seneca Falls Convention—the first women’s rights convention in the United States. I first visited Seneca Falls, which is between Geneva and Auburn, with my religious studies professor Mary Gerhart—who became one of my lifelong friends.

Whenever I get discouraged—about hate speech, tribalism, and viral tweets—I look to my protagonists for inspiration. Harriet Tubman, after a dozen trips escorting seventy people out of slavery in Maryland, after buying that house from Frances Seward, volunteered to serve in the Union Army during the Civil War. She went to Port Royal, South Carolina, and organized a band of scouts to help her spy on the nearby Rebels. She made herself invaluable to the Union generals, who asked her to join an ambitious army raid, with the nation’s second regiment of black soldiers, on three warships up the Combahee River. They liberated seven hundred and fifty people enslaved on rice plantations along the river.

The world you’re about to enter sometimes seems beyond repair. How can any one person change anything? But times of fear, bigotry, and injustice bring opportunity. As Elizabeth Blackwell said, “I see continually how the highest good is eclipsed by the violent or disagreeable forms which contain it.” [7]

There are many ways to seek the highest good. Look at the students at Marjory Stoneman High School, in Parkland, Florida. On Valentine’s Day 2018, they saw fourteen friends and three staff members shot to death during a normal school day. A group of them started an organization, Never Again. They held March for Our Lives rallies in Washington, DC, and around the country, and began educating and registering voters. Last year, they got sixty-seven new gun control laws enacted in Republican and Democratic legislatures in twenty-six states and the District of Columbia. They say that their goal is to change how politics works in America. Never Again is the most inspiring act of sustained resistance I’ve seen in decades. Lorenzo Prado, a sixteen-year-old[ch] survivor of the shooting, said, “What we must do now is enact change because that it what we do to things that fail: We change them.”

There is no better message to take with you: “We enact change because that it what we do to things that fail: We change them.” Don’t shrug and say it can’t be done—shake off apathy and inertia. Seek the highest good. Until these kids came along, their lawmakers didn’t dare do anything to threaten their standing with the NRA. Reject the greed and cynicism of my generation, and millennials’ whining about burnout at thirty. In 2018, voters elected to Congress more women, more people of color, more nonpoliticians than ever before. And guess what? Gun safety groups outspent the NRA.

Your minds aren’t narrow and foolish. Your hearts aren’t hardened. You are graduating from colleges that have the best record in the country of public service. You’ve already changed lives with your volunteering at the Boys and Girls Club and at Geneva Reads—working with the public library, schools in Geneva, and Head Start to donate books, organize talks, and tutor students. Those are just a few of the ways you’ve been erasing the town/gown division other campuses see as an embarrassment, but an unfortunate fact of life. You can thank President Gearan, who led these colleges for eighteen years, for what you’ve learned here about the importance of global awareness and lifelong civic engagement. Take it with you and “pay it forward.”

I’m humbled when I hear about your dreams. Six of you are heading off on Fulbright Scholarships to Bulgaria, Malaysia, the Czech Republic, Kenya, and Germany. Two Peace Corps volunteers will be serving in Ukraine. An AmeriCorps volunteer will be working in the Department of Family and Community Medicine at the University of Arizona. One student so far has enlisted in the Marine Corps. One will be teaching English in the Seneca Falls public schools, and another, in Vietnam. One will be program coordinator at the Boys and Girls Club here. Another will be working with Shining Hope for Communities, which combats urban poverty and gender inequity in the slums of Nairobi. One will Teach for America in Meridian, Iowa.

During the recessional, look at these gorgeous flags of all the nations represented by graduates of Hobart and William Smith—one hundred and four of them. We need to open doors, not shut them, and recall what all Americans have in common.

Take a leap of faith. That is how this great, flawed country came into being. Abraham Lincoln, pleading with North and South in his First Inaugural Address to step back from the brink of war, talked about “the better angels of our nature, and pleaded, “We are not enemies, but friends. We must not be enemies.”

Thank you very much. And now, my friends—Go celebrate!


(1) Eric v. d. Luft, "Celebrating 150 Years of Women in Medicine: The Legacy of Elizabeth Blackwell," State University of New York Upstate Medical University Alumni Journal. https://www.hws.edu/about/blackwell/articles/syracuse.aspx

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Commencement 2019

Preparing Students to Lead Lives of Consequence.