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Remarks to the Senior Class at Baccalaureate

Kathleen McCartney, President

May 15, 2014

This year, my first year as president, has been a year of firsts. Your year, as seniors, has been a year of lasts — your last Convocation, your last Mountain Day, your last spring break, your last term paper (at least at Smith).

For all of us, I suspect, it’s been a year of reflection that always accompanies change. Your change is about to happen, while my change began in the fall when you returned to campus. Fall has always been my favorite season, perhaps because it signals the beginning of a new year for students and academics. Fall is rich with possibility. In mid-October, I remember having breakfast in a room that overlooks Paradise Pond; the President’s House was just starting to feel like home. It was a stunningly beautiful, crisp autumn day. The leaves had mostly turned, and their bright colors were reflected in the water along with a few passing clouds. I wondered how many times others had enjoyed this same view, especially my sister presidents: Jill Ker Conway, Mary Maples Dunn, Ruth Simmons, and Carol Christ. I emailed Jill that morning and told her that I found myself contemplating how many meals she had enjoyed while gazing at the very same view I had savored that morning. Jill wrote back that there is a strong sense of place at Smith College.

I have discovered this strong sense of place again and again. I suppose the first time was Mountain Day, a tradition that began early in Smith’s history, 1877. The purpose of this break from classes is for all of us to spend time outdoors – apple picking, hiking, or in my case doing yoga, led by students, on Chapin Lawn. Many alumnae have confided in me that they miss Smith most on Mountain Day. Next fall, you will receive an email when it’s Mountain Day, just like all 48,000 alumnae do. You will remember the ringing of the bells at 7 a.m., the shouts of glee from your housemates, and your own outdoor experiences here in the Pioneer Valley. You may reminisce with your co-workers about Mountain Day. You may call a Smithie to ask her whether she knows it is Mountain Day. You may even feel a little bit homesick for Smith, as other alumnae do.

Whenever I meet with students and alumnae, I always ask, “What made you apply to Smith?” Often the answer revolves around place: “I visited, and I fell in love with the campus”; “I wanted to live amid a botanical garden”; or “I wandered the paths, and it felt like home.”

This campus will always be your home. Place is always about the present as well as memory, I think. Perhaps you have read T. S. Eliot’s poem, Little Gidding, on your own or in a class. There are a few lines from the last section of the poem that evoke the importance of place in life’s journey.

What we call the beginning is often the end
And to make an end is to make a beginning.
The end is where we start from...
We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.

As an educator, I love what Eliot has to say about exploration — we shall not cease from exploration. Although you will soon be college graduates, through your explorations, you will be lifelong learners. The educated mind craves exploration, craves development, craves problems to solve. Eliot offers up a bit of a problem or puzzle for us in a contradiction of sorts when he equates beginnings with ending; he tells us that we will know a place for the first time at the end of our journey. These lines capture our attention, as all good poems do. They remind me of a Zen Buddhist koan, which is a paradoxical statement for one to ponder in an effort to free the intellect and open the mind. Essentially, Eliot asks us what we ever really know, because knowledge changes with each new reflection and re-examination. Meaning-making is a journey. Interestingly, the exploration of knowledge, for Eliot, is about knowing a place.

One of the best parts of my new position this year has been the honor of visiting Smith alumnae throughout the world. I love hearing their stories about Smith. Without a doubt, the first thing they tell me is what house they lived in. I suspect you will do the same. Then they tell me about their Smith friends; some they have known since they were students, and others are new friends they may have met at a Smith club event, at work, or on vacation. “A Smithie can always spot another Smithie,” they tell me. The third theme that crosses alumnae stories is place, perhaps because Eliot’s metaphor is archetypal. Place represents more than physical experience; it encompasses intellectual, relational, and spiritual experience as well. Here are three examples of alumnae stories from this year, different in their sentiment to be sure, but similar in their reflection of Smith as place.

Shortly after a Smith event in Minneapolis, an alumna named Deborah wrote me a note about her 50th birthday party. One of her Smith friends had come from a great distance to be with her. At the dinner in her honor, her husband got up to give a toast. He traced her life, but her college years received special attention. “As you may have heard,” he teased, “Deborah left California and went to Smith College. Have you heard her mention that a few million times? Well, she went there, this place that is, as I understand it, a combination of Shangri-la, Nirvana, and Heaven.” For Deborah, place is evoked through names for paradise. Well, we do live by Paradise Pond.

Anne-Marie, an Ada Comstock graduate, now residing in England, believes that Smith College is situated in an energy vortex. Water and air vortexes are observed in the natural world, whenever there is spiraling around a center of rotation. An energy vortex, she explained, cannot be observed, but some people believe they experience them in places like Sedona, Arizona, a pilgrimage site that is believed to promote a connection between the energy and the authentic self. I love listening to Anne-Marie speak with conviction about the uplifting properties of the entire Pioneer Valley. Perhaps this is why she returns to Smith so often. For Anne-Marie, place is evoked by a strong feeling of spiritual connection.

I was quite moved by a story from an alumna from San Francisco, who told me and other alumnae about the grief she experienced following the loss of her son. Nothing comforted her as she struggled to make sense of a life taken too soon. Several years after her son’s death, she wondered whether she should attend her Smith reunion. She wasn’t sure she was up to it, but a friend encouraged her to attend. She walked the campus by herself the first day and she experienced something – she described it as feeling grounded in a new way. She was quick to point out that the grief will always be with her, but she now experiences it differently. For her, place is evoked by a sense of healing as she walked the familiar paths of the campus.

When my mother died nearly four years ago, my family escaped to Truro, Massachusetts, the day after the funeral. We vacation in outer Cape Cod every summer, so it is a place we associate with precious family time. As I walked the beaches of the National Seashore, I experienced the same kind of grounding when my feet touched the sand and I listened to the surf. I once heard a lecture by E. O. Wilson in which I first learned about his biophilia hypothesis, that humans have a deep affiliation with nature that is rooted in our biology. Being at the Cape didn’t erase my grief either, especially given how recent the loss was. But there is something spiritual and healing about the special places in our lives.

As some of you know, I have been tweeting this year. Even though a tweet may only have a maximum of 140 characters, students and alumnae manage to communicate the importance of place through Twitter. On May 3, Samantha tweeted: “Realized when I see pics of @smithcollege my #breathing slows & deepens. If that’s not the definition of an #oasis I don’t know what is.”

Smith is a journey that you will continue throughout your Smith afterlife, a phrase I have stolen from an alumna who told me that the Smith afterlife was better than Smith itself. When I asked her to explain what she meant, she said that Smith was but a four-year experience, while the Smith afterlife lasts a lifetime. When you return to Smith — for reunions, to speak with students, or just to visit — you will be flooded with memories of this place: of your experiences in the classroom, in your house, and along the pathways. There are levels of knowing; of that I am certain. So, your knowledge of Smith will deepen with every re-examination.

Knowing this place for the first time is waiting for you.