In 1969, Hillary Rodham delivered the first-ever Wellesley college student commencement speech. Now 48 years later, the former Secretary of State returned to her alma mater to give the commencement address.
Read a full transcript of her speech below:
Thank you so much for that warm welcome. I am happy to be back here at Wellesley, especially for President Johnson’s first commencement and to thank her, the trustees, families and friends, faculty, staff, and guests for understanding and perpetuating the importance of this college. What it stands for, what it has meant and what it will do in the years ahead. And most importantly, it’s wonderful to be here with another green class to say congratulations to the class of 2017.
Now, I have some of my dear friends here from my class. A green class of 1969. And I assume or at least you can tell me later unlike us, you actually have a class cheer. 1969 Wellesley. Yet another year with no class cheer. But it is such an honor to join with the college and all who have come to celebrate this day with you and to recognize the amazing futures that await you. You know, four years ago maybe a little more or less for some of you.
Just a minute. I’ve got to get a lozenge. Thank you. I told the trustees I was sitting with after hearing Paula’s speech I didn’t think I could get through it. So we’ll blame allergy instead of emotion.
But you know, you arrived at this campus, you arrived from all over. You joined students from 49 states and 58 countries. Now, maybe you felt like you belonged right away. I doubt it. But maybe some of you did and you’ve never wavered. But maybe you changed your major three times and your hair style twice as many as that. Or maybe after your first month of classes you made a frantic collect call—ask your parents what that was—back to Illinois to tell your mother and father you weren’t smart enough to be here.
My father said okay, come home. My mother said you have to stick it out. That’s what happened to me. But whatever your path, you dream big. You probably in true Wellesley fashion planned your academic and extracurricular schedule right down to the minute. So this day that you’re been waiting for and maybe dreading a little is finally here. As President Johnson said, I spoke at my commencement 48 years ago. I came back 25 years ago to speak at another commencement. I couldn’t think of any place I’d rather be this year than right here.
You may have heard that things didn’t exactly go the way I planned. But you know what? I’m doing okay. I’ve gotten to spend time with my family, especially my amazing grandchildren. I was going to give the entire commencement speech about them but was talked out of it.
Long walks in the woods. Organizing my closets, right? I won’t lie. Chardonnay helped a little too. Here’s what helped most of all. Remembering who I am, where I come from, and what I believe. And that is what Wellesley means to me. This college gave me so much. It launched me on a life of service and provided friends that I still treasure. So wherever your life takes you, I hope that Wellesley serves as that kind of touchstone for you.
Now, if any of you are nervous about what you’ll be walking into when you leave the campus, I know that feeling. I do remember my commencement. I’ve been asked by my classmates to speak. I stayed up all night with my friends, the third floor of Davis. Writing and editing the speech. By the time we gathered in the academic quad, I was exhausted. My hair was a wreck. The mortar board made it even worse. But I was pretty oblivious to all of that, because what my friend his asked me to do was to talk about our worries and about our ability and responsibility to do something about them. We didn’t trust government, authority figures, or really anyone over 30.
In large part, thanks to years of heavy casualties and statements about Vietnam and deep differences over civil rights and poverty here at home. We were asking urgent questions about whether women, people of color, religious minorities, immigrants would ever be treated with dignity and respect. And by the way, we were furious about the past presidential election of a man whose presidency would eventually end in disgrace with his impeachment for obstruction of justice. After firing the person running the investigation into him at the department of justice.
But here’s what I want you to know. We got through that tumultuous time and once again we began to thrive as our society changed laws and opened the circle of opportunity and rights wider and wider for more Americans. We revved up the engines of imagination. We turned back a tide of intolerance and embraced inclusion. The we who did those things were more than those in power who wanted to change course. It was millions of ordinary citizens, especially young people who voted, marched and organized. Now, of course today has some important differences.
The advance of technology, the impact of the Internet, our fragmented media landscape, make it easier than ever to splinter ourselves into echo chambers. We can shut out contrary voices, avoid ever questioning our basic assumptions. Extreme views are given powerful microphones. Leaders willing to exploit fear and skepticism have tools at their disposal that were unimaginable when I graduated.
And here’s what that means to you, the class of 2017. You are graduating at a time when there is a full-fledged assault on truth and reason. Just log on to social media for ten seconds. It will hit you right in the face. People denying science, concocting elaborate, hurtful conspiracies theories about child abuse rings operating out of pizza parlors. Drumming up rampant fear about undocumented immigrants, Muslims, minorities, the poor. Turning neighbor against neighbor and sowing division at a time when we desperately need unity. Some are even denying things we see with our own eyes. Like the size of crowds.
And then defending themselves by talking about “alternative facts.” But this is serious business. Look at the budget that was just proposed in Washington. It is an attack of unimaginable cruelty on the most vulnerable among us, the youngest, the oldest, the poorest, and hardworking people who need a little help to gain or hang on to a decent middle-class life. It grossly underfunds public education, mental health, and efforts even to combat the opioid epidemic. And in reversing our commitment to fight climate change, it puts the future of our nation and our world at risk.
And to top it off, it is shrouded in a trillion-dollar mathematical lie. Let’s call it what it is. It’s a con. They don’t even try to hide it. Why does all this matter? It matters because if our leaders lie about the problems we face, we’ll never solve them. It matters because it undermines confidence in government as a whole which in turn breeds more cynicism and anger. But it also matters because our country, like this college, was founded on the principles of the enlightenment. In particular, the belief that people, you and I, possess the capacity for reason and critical thinking. And that free and open debate is the life blood of a democracy.
Not only Wellesley, but the entire American university system, the envy of the world, was founded on those fundamental ideals. We should not abandon them. We should revere them. We should aspire to them every single day in everything we do.
And there’s something else. As the history majors among you here today know all too well, when people in power invent their own facts and attack those who question them, it can mark the beginning of the end of a free society.
That is not hyperbole. It is what authoritarian regimes throughout history have done. They attempt to control reality. Not just our laws and our rights and our budgets, but our thoughts and beliefs. Right now some of you might wonder well, why am I telling you all this? You don’t own a cable news network. You don’t control the Facebook algorithm. You aren’t a member of congress. Yet.
Because I believe with all my heart that the future of America, indeed the future of the world, depends on brave, thoughtful people like you insisting on truth and integrity right now every day. You didn’t create these circumstances but you have the power to change them.
Vaclav Havel, the playwright, the first president of the Czech Republic, wrote an essay called “The Power of the Powerless.” And in it he said, the moment someone breaks through in one place, when one person cries out, the emperor is naked. When a single person breaks the rules of the game thus exposing it as a game, everything suddenly appears in another light.
What he’s telling us is if you feel powerless, don’t. Don’t let anyone tell you your voice doesn’t matter. In the years to come, there will be trolls galore online and in person. Eager to tell you that you don’t have anything worthwhile to say or anything meaningful to contribute. They may even call you a nasty woman. Some may take a slightly more sophisticated approach and say your elite education means you are out of teach with real people. In other words, sit down and shut up. Now, in my experience, that’s the last thing you should ever tell a Wellesley graduate.
And here’s the good news. What you’ve learned these four years is precisely what you need to face the challenges of this moment. First, you learned critical thinking. I can still remember the professors who challenged me to make decisions with good information, rigorous reasoning, real deliberation. I know we didn’t have much of that in this past election, but we have to get back to it.
After all, in the words of my predecessor in the Senate, Daniel Patrick Moynihan, everyone is entitled to his own opinion but not his own facts. And your education gives you more than knowledge. It gives you the power to keep learning and apply what you know to improve your life and the lives of others. Because you are beginning your careers with one of the best educations in the world, I think you do have a special responsibility to give others the chance to learn and think for themselves and to learn from them so that we can have the kind of open fact-based debate necessary for our democracy to survive and flourish. And along the way, you may be convinced to change your mind from time to time. You know what? That’s okay. Take it from me, the former president of the Wellesley College Young Republicans.
Second, you learn the value of an open mind and an open society. At their best, our colleges and universities are free marketplaces of ideas. Embracing a diversity of perspectives and backgrounds. That’s our country at our best, too. An open, inclusive, diverse society is the opposite of an anecdote to a closed society where there is only one right way to think, believe, and act.
Here at Wellesley you’ve worked hard to turn this ideal into a reality. You’ve spoken out against racism and sexism and discrimination of all kinds and you’ve shared your own stories and at times that’s taken courage. But the only way our society will ever become a place where everyone truly belongs is if all of us speak openly and honestly about who we are, what we’re going through. So keep doing that. And let me add that your learning, listening and serving should include people who don’t agree with you politically. A lot of our fellow Americans have lost faith in the existing economic, social, political, and cultural conditions of our country. Many feel left behind, left out, looked down on.
Their anger and alienation has proved a fertile ground for false promises and information. It must be addressed or they will continue to sign up to be foot soldiers in the ongoing conflict between us and them. The opportunity is here. Millions of people will be hurt by the policies, including this budget that is being considered. And many of those same people don’t want dreamers deported or health care taken away. Many don’t want to retreat on civil rights, women’s rights and LGBT rights. So if your outreach is rebuffed, keep trying. Do the right thing anyway. We’re going to share this future. Better do so with open hearts and outstretched hands than closed minds and clenched fists.
Here at Wellesley you learned the power of service. Because while free and fierce conversations in classrooms, dorm rooms, dining halls are vital. They only get us so far. You have to turn those ideas and those values into action. This college has always understood that. The motto which you’ve heard twice already not to be ministered unto but to minister is as true today as it ever was. You think about it, it’s kind of an old-fashioned rendering of President Kennedy’s great statement. Ask not what your country can do for you. Ask what you can do for your country.
Not long ago I got a note from a group of Wellesley alums and students who had supported me in the campaign. They worked their hearts out and like a lot of people they’re wondering what do we do now? Well, I think there’s only one answer. Keep going. Don’t be afraid of your ambition, of your dreams, or even your anger. Those are powerful forces. But harness them to make a difference in the world. Stand up for truth and reason. Do it in private, in conversations with your family, your friends, your workplace, your neighborhoods, and do it in public. In media posts, on social media, or grab a sign and head to a protest. Make defending truth and a free society a core value of your life every single day.
So wherever you wind up next, the minute you get there, register to vote. And while you’re at it, encourage others to do so. And then vote in every election. Not just the presidential ones. Bring others to vote. Fight every effort to restrict the right of law abiding citizens to be able to vote as well.
Get involved in a cause that matters to you. Pick one. Start somewhere. You don’t have to do everything. But don’t sit on the sidelines. And you know what? Get to know your elected officials. If you disagree with them, ask questions. Challenge them. Better yet, run for office yourself someday.
Now, that’s not for everybody. I know. And it’s certainly not for the faint of heart, but it’s worth it. As they say in one of my favorite movies, A League of Their Own, it’s supposed to be hard. The hard is what makes it great.
As Paula said, the day after the election, I did want to speak, particularly to women and girls everywhere, especially young women. Because you are valuable. And powerful. And deserving of every chance and opportunity in the world. Not just your future, but our future depends on you believing that. We need your smarts, of course. But we also need your compassion. Your curiosity. Your stubbornness. And remember, you are even more powerful because you have so many people supporting you, cheering you on, standing with you through good times and bad.
You know, our culture often celebrates people who appear to go it alone. But the truth is that’s not how life works. Anything worth doing takes a village. And you build that village by investing love and time into your relationships. And in those moments, for whatever reason, when it might feel bleak, think back to this place where women have the freedom to take risks, make mistakes, even fail in front of each other. Channel the strength of your Wellesley classmates and experiences. I guarantee you it will help you stand up a little straighter, feel a little braver, knowing that the things you joked about and even took for granted can be your secret weapons for your future. One of the things that gave me the most hope and joy after the election, when I really needed it, was meeting so many young people who told me that my defeat had not defeated them.
And I’m going to devote a lot of my future to helping you make your mark in the world. I created a new organization called onward together to help recruit and train future leaders, organize for real and lasting change. The work never ends. When I graduated and made that speech, I did say, and some of you might have pictures from that day with this on it, the challenge now is to practice politics as the art of making what appears to be impossible possible. That was true then. It’s truer today.
I never could have imagined where I would have been 48 years later. Certainly never that I would have run for the presidency of the United States or seen progress for women in all walks of life over the course of my lifetime. And yes, put millions of more cracks in that highest and hardest glass ceiling. Because just in those years, doors that once seemed sealed to women are now open. They’re ready for you to walk through or charge through. To advance the struggle for equality, justice, and freedom. So whatever your dreams today, dream even bigger. Wherever you have set your sights, raise them even higher. And above all, keep going. Don’t do it because I asked you to. Do it for yourselves. Do it for truth and reason. Do it because the history of Wellesley and this country tells us it’s often during the darkest times when you can do the most good.
Double down on your passions. Be bold. Try. Fail. Try again and lean on each other. Hold on to your values. Never give up on those dreams. I’m have been optimistic about the future. Because I think after we’ve tried a lot of other things, we get back to the business of America. I believe in you with all my heart. I want you to believe in yourselves. So go forth. Be great. But first graduate. Congratulations!
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