Amber Douglas, Assistant Professor of Psychology and Education
President Pasquerella, Members of the Board of Trustees, distinguished colleagues, honored guests, family, friends, and most importantly, the class of 2012. Good evening.
I want to talk with you tonight about memory. In psychology, we think a lot about memory. I am particularly interested in how our memories of past experiences shape our expectations about the present and future.
I remember very clearly my first visit to the Pioneer Valley. I came with my mother as part of a college tour. Perhaps you can recall a similar trip. For me, these trips were a nice mixture of excitement, anxiety, and some time with my mom. My visit to the pioneer valley focused on a co-ed institution up the road. I remember being excited by the “college-ness” of it all—the views of the mountains, the brick buildings, and the quaint town. My mother said that she had always wanted to go to a school like that—I thought I needed something bigger. So we compromised. I ended up in a small college for women...in New York City.
My undergraduate experience was transformative. It was so good in fact that after graduating I began to scheme how to replicate the experience. I knew that if I were to teach, it would have to be at a liberal arts institution where students were taught to think critically, to be versed in quantitative reasoning, scientific experimentation, social theory, classic and contemporary texts from around the globe, and the cultures of the world.
I found myself in such a place (and I’m skipping some of the boring parts here) when I arrived at Mount Holyoke College seven years ago this July. I was on the other side of the desk (so to speak) and excited to reproduce what had been so influential in my life.
I thought I knew a lot about this place before I got here. In many ways, this place was and is like my own alma mater: Four years, Seven Sister, historic mission to educate women from diverse walks of life, graduating women who change the world. All were familiar to me.
And then I got here. And while there was much that looked the same at first glance—this place was very different. What BLEW ME AWAY though was you, all of you, you students and the way that you love this place. The way that within a month of arrival, you came to own this place, to be committed to this institution and invested in making this college simultaneously the best of what it has been and the best of what it could be.
And then there are the traditions. The traditions that become part of the fiber of your identity as a student here: The M & Cs, Mountain Day, the fierceness in which you fought for the right to retain your colored one card, convocation, the laurel parade, and your relationship to Jorge to name a few. These rituals are so dear to you and quintessentially Mount Holyoke. The desire to throw yourself in fully and completely into each of these MHC experiences is part of what makes this place special.
In the past couple of weeks, I’ve been speaking with some of you about graduation. You’ve had a lot to say. In these conversations I heard about how anxious you are about the future. Nervous about what is next, whether you will like the job that you have, if you will find a job that you like, if you will get into graduate school, whether you really want to study what you applied to study, and if you can really can go home again. And in listening to you all, I’ve heard something else. A fear that what you have at Mount Holyoke is special and that it might be slipping away. In the last couple of weeks, this place and this time has gone from being good to being perfect—irreplaceable. The fear that you will never be 22, 37 or 58 again. And, unfortunately, I am here to tell you, you’re right. It will never be like this again. This particular moment—this night, this weekend surrounded by people whom you love and who love, care, and believe in you and are celebrating you—this is probably it. So what do you do? How do you go into the future—which is uncertain—leaving behind what may not have always been perfect, but came pretty close. Now what?
I’m going to ask you to participate in a psychological exercise with me. In front of you (as some of you might have noticed) are bags of cookies. Take one out. Close your eyes.
Is it possible that you could take it with you—this moment and these memories? These rituals and traditions? Would it be possible for you to take these things and internalize them—to take these experiences that have shaped you and that yes, you have shaped, and move forward? To others, what you are holding may seem to be a cookie—when in fact, you are holding is a memory. To you, class of 2012, you know that this is more than just a cookie. You know that when you eat a cookie, you can be transported back to this place and this time in your life. That for others a cookie is just a cookie but for you a cookie could never be just a cookie. You are thinking about M & Cs, and then mountain day, the a cappella concerts, field hockey or basketball games, you are thinking about this wonderful time in your life and this wonderful place. You are thinking about all the things that Mary Lyon said and how often you were told them. And you will know that despite the uncertainties of the future or the present—that what you have from the past, from this place will always be with you, and can be accessed at will.
You will go forward taking with you all that you have gained from all of your past experiences. You will do what Mount Holyoke graduates do. You will share your memories (and your cookies) to transform the present and the your future.
Congratulations. We are very proud of you.