Jenna Ruddock '13 Gives Student Address

Good morning President Pasquerella, our distinguished guests and faculty, returning alums, family, friends - and good morning class of 2013.

Today is great. It is a great day and a day for being great. Not to mention looking great. Today we're surrounded by friends, family, professors, alumnae, and guest speakers who will spend the day reminding us that we're here because we've done great things. Made great choices. And we have. We've made our best friends. We're about to walk across a stage and graduate with a degree from a remarkable institution. We're all about to head off to great jobs or great graduate schools, whether it's in a few weeks or a few months. Everyone up here is about to remind us that we are great, that we have bright futures, an unparalleled education, and opportunities now limited only by our work ethic and drive, both of which our distinguished faculty have made sure were finely honed by many late, late nights and 80-plus-page reading assignments.

And all of these things are true. Those of you who know me know already that I stand here in awe of you all. Of the people you are. Of what you've done here in just a few short years. Of your ambitions, and the ideas and passions you're about to carry out into the world. Today I don't need to remind you that you're great because today, you know.

Instead, I’d rather take a moment to remind you about weirdness. About how weird this all has been. About how weird Mount Holyoke is. As a transfer student, I'm in a unique position to do this, because while most of you came here together and shared your confusion and questions with one another along the way, when I showed up halfway through it all, my friends were stuck with the unfortunate task of trying to explain what, for them and most of you, no longer required any explanation.

Among the things everyone had stopped thinking were weird by the time I got here was the fact that each night, in the kitchen of each dorm, food appears. Some nights there are apples and some nights there are cupcakes, but free snacks are free snacks, and at Mount Holyoke they somehow show up every night within a 200-foot radius of every dorm room. 

The morning after a friend realized that transfer students don’t get Elfed, I woke up -- with no explanation -- to a door covered in construction paper and immediately stepped on a few dozen Hershey's kisses because I was distracted by a snorting purple pig scooching towards me along the hall. And then came Pangy Day, which I still don’t fully understand, and then my first fall semester, which meant Dis-Orientation, which somehow sounds exactly like what it is, and Mountain Day, when I was told if I got out of bed on a day when I didn't have to get up for class and hiked up a mountain, I would get a free hat, free ice cream, and a coveted photo-op with our President, and that it’d be worth it.

The library closes here at 10 pm on the weekends to make sure that students don't stay in the library past 10 pm on the weekends. At this small college in western Massachusetts, there are enough students eager to wake up in the middle of the night to watch a cricket match that the Campus Center's Great Room is packed at 3 am.

Yesterday we marched in white dresses past Mary Lyon’s grave in the morning, and sang as our classmates and college president rowed around in canoes at night. And look at us now. As Neil Degrasse Tyson apparently tweeted during last year's commencement, heavy black robes were a great idea for dank British boarding schools, but not so much for outdoor summer graduation ceremonies.  Yet here we are.

And here's why remembering and noticing all of the weird is important: because unlike today, there will be many not-great days. There will be days, too many, when we forget how truly great we all are. How great are our ambitions, how great is our capacity to pursue them. Days when we let our bosses down, let people we love down, let ourselves down. Here at Mount Holyoke, we've all had some of those days already. Days when there actually weren't enough hours to get done all the work we had to get done. When we ended up in our friend's room crying. When we ended up in our friend's bed, snuggled up with a laptop and someone else’s Netflix password.

I mention this because I've come to learn that Mount Holyoke students like to get things right. Like to do things well. And, for most part, we do. Because as College Prowler recently discovered, we've got the smartest college women in the country right here in South Hadley. But as - my favorite - Aaron Sorkin pointed out to newly minted Syracuse graduates last year, getting this degree from an impressive educational establishment simply means we're now a large group of extremely well-educated dumb people. We’ve accomplished remarkable things as members of this campus community. But now we’re about to walk out through those gates. And we're going to make poor choices and mistakes. Plenty of them. We'll move to the wrong city, take the wrong job, fall in love with the wrong person. And some of us will stick with these choices longer than others before realizing that none of our choices are so serious that we shouldn't be afraid of making new ones. Hopefully it won’t take any of us too long to reach that conclusion, but let me make it a bit easier.

We're about to graduate from a school where students can, and did, form a Lunar Howling Society. Where we’ve taken classes on Sherlock Holmes and forgery and still get to graduate. Where no one is surprised if someone whips out knitting needles in class.

Where not everyone knows all of the words to the Alma Mater -- and apparently no one knows the words to Bread and Roses -- but everyone knows all of the words to either the Anti Alma Mater or to the Mount Holyoke drinking song.

So we can't take ourselves or our decisions so seriously. Life's just weird, unexpected. All of it. And watching many of you spend these last few months of one of the most unique and enriching times of our lives worrying about what’s to come -- where will you work, where will you live, who will be there with you along the way -- the message I want to leave you all with today is this:

It’s never too late to make new decisions or fix past mistakes, or even to change the course of your life entirely. It’s true that nothing in life is permanent. If I hadn’t realized this two and a half short years ago, I wouldn’t be here today. I wouldn’t be standing here in this hat or these robes, able to proudly call myself a member of this exceptionally weird, remarkable, inspiring group of people called Mount Holyoke College graduates.

Being constantly aware of all the strangeness in life will help you to take it less seriously, take yourself less seriously. That isn't to say that there won’t be times when we need to be serious. During our time here at Mount Holyoke, the world has reminded us time and again of the serious challenges that await us. So be serious sometimes. Take your passions seriously, pursue your dreams seriously.

But today, look around you and soak it all in. Take a bit of all this weirdness and bring it with you. And on those not-great days when life just isn’t working out the way you hoped it would, when you look around you at the world and don’t like what you see, take a step back and pull out that bit of weirdness. Take a random fall day off work and hike up a mountain, or buy yourself an ice cream. Dress up and run around your house banging on pots. If you have to work late, give yourself a break around nine and grab a cupcake or a cookie... or four.

And know that life won’t always be great. As much as we might like to, we simply can’t always get it right. Fortunately, if there’s any one, most important truth that Mount Holyoke proves -- that we all prove -- it’s that there is no one standard for life, no one standard for people, no one standard for greatness. And because although we all are about to walk across this stage and graduate with a great degree from a great institution, what we have to offer the world isn’t spelled out by what’s written on our diplomas. Life doesn’t happen on paper. It’s not written out in degrees or transcripts or job or grad school acceptance or rejection letters. To quote Al Pacino, life’s right here. It’s the six inches in front of your face.

Our time here has been spent trying to figure out just who we are, and just what it is that we love to do. And that’s a never-ending process. We all still have plenty of time to change our minds, and to change them again. Don’t be afraid to change course. Do it mindfully and with compassion and conviction, and you will end up where you need to be. So as author and civil rights leader Howard Thurman advised, “Don’t ask what the world needs. Ask what makes you come alive, and go do it. Because what the world needs is people who have come alive.”

And if you can do that, it won’t only be you and your life that’s the better for it, the world will be too. So just do your thing, Class of 2013. Embrace what’s about to come our way and all the strangeness it brings with it. Because we are all great. And I can’t wait to see what we manage to do next.