Student Commencement Address 2015

Carrying the Call to Welcome: Remarks on Leaving and Coming Home

Remarks by Olivia Janet Papp ’15

Welcome. Welcome friends. Welcome families. Welcome faculty, administrators, and staff. Welcome. We’re so glad you’re here.

The first time the majority of us gathered in this amphitheater and heard Mount Holyoke say welcome was nearly four years ago. Crowded alongside strangers who would become classmates, classmates who would become friends, we were welcomed to a space many of us would come to call home.

Home is a strange thing. Whether in leaving to come to Mount Holyoke, leaving Mount Holyoke to go abroad, or taking leave, many of us know what it is like to not feel at home. Perhaps the only thing that can be said to unite our myriad relationships with “home” in the past two, three, four years is that we have all negotiated its meaning.

In Giovanni’s Room, James Baldwin offers a musing that has reverberated in my recent thoughts on home and leaving:

“Perhaps home is not a place but simply an irrevocable condition.”

To understand home as a state of being might, in part, explain the many ways we experience home. Sometimes it takes the form of people, sometimes of a place, even of a time in our lives. We come home, we move away from it; but most importantly, we carry home.

This is why, reflecting on the time and love we’ve given to Mount Holyoke, our concern should not simply be for this place as a school, home, or anything else. Of course there is much to be said for the place itself: the library atrium and Chihuly sculpture, the ever-moving Blanchard Great Room, Lower Lake marked by Jorge’s demands to be heard. There are our traditions: convocation, Pangy Day, elfing, Disorientation, the list goes on.

But none of this scratches the surface of the things that really matter as we look back on our time spent here. Yes, our nostalgia will be packed into pictures of this place. We’ll stack bricks of memories in patterns that resemble Skinner and the Clapp tower. But the things that give Mount Holyoke meaning are mental images more likely to fade, moments that blur together if only for their normalcy.

Living and learning at Mount Holyoke happens largely outside our classrooms. It happens during conversations at M&Cs, after a couple too many beers in the common rooms, and occupies the floors of our dorms. Classes take a back seat to hugs from friends in solidarity on hard nights, when the project of living seems insurmountable. We take time to celebrate days of accomplishment, of contentment, whether because or in spite of the grind that constitutes an undergraduate education.

The moments we think back to in these times of transition are as diverse as our experiences in this place. The dorms we lived in, the classes we took. Chapin parties we went to; Chapin parties we avoided going to. The number of Chef Jeff cookies we ate. We spent days in the library, days on the green, days lost in the sprint between classes and clubs and practices and meetings and God knows where else the time went.

And it is perhaps easier to count catalogs of content than it is to account for what we take with us as we walk across this stage this afternoon. Many of us have spent the past year trying to figure out how the so-called real world enters into all we have accomplished at this school—trying to bring the real world into our home.

Yet in a time when the value of a liberal arts education is as contested as it is today; in a time when the future of women’s colleges remains debated both on and off our campuses; the question must not be how to retroactively piece together the mosaic of our time spent learning and loving—our time given to coursework and friendship, organizations and conversations—into bullet-pointed, margin-adjusted résumé form.

The question is not how we mold ourselves to fit this so-called real world that seems, at times, far less welcoming than the space we are now leaving. Rather, the question is how we bring our learning, our loving, our time spent at Mount Holyoke College into this real world.

Drawing on another reflection of home, I turn to Maya Angelou:

“The ache for home lives in all of us. The safe place where we can go as we are and not be questioned.”

Where is this place—to be as we are and not be questioned—if not a place to which we are welcomed? The project of home, of welcome, is one Mount Holyoke has equipped us to carry when we leave this campus behind. This class, our class, is familiar with welcome.

We are the class who cried "MoHonest"—who said welcome to fellow students made to feel un-at-home here. We are the class who cried "Open Gates"—who said welcome to future students yet to arrive here. We walked out with our hands up. We welcomed each other to taboo dialogues. We welcomed difficult conversations. We welcomed student activism. We cried, out of love, we cried welcome.

If there is anything this liberal arts education has surely given all of us, something many of us knew long before we arrived here, it is the knowledge that the world outside of South Hadley is a world marred with conflict and discontent. A world many of us came here hoping to change. A world this institution’s mission statement espouses, a commitment to preparing us for “lives of thoughtful, effective, and purposeful engagement” in the world.

And though this message, just as this school, means something different to each of us, I would like to posit this: that as we go off into careers and universities and new communities, perhaps the most important lesson we carry out with us is the project of welcome. A project we’ve constructed our own blueprints for. A project toward inclusion, toward helping one another map the way home.

Thus my final words of congratulations, class of 2015—my sisters, my brothers, my siblings—are simply to say welcome as you are; I’m so glad we’re here.