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As Prepared for Delivery

Secretary of State Madeleine K. Albright Commencement Address

Mount Holyoke College
May 25, 1997

Thank you, President Creighton, and good morning, Mount Holyoke!

To the entire Mount Holyoke community, I say thank you for the invitation to be here and thank you very much for the Honorary Degree.

To the parents of the class of '97, I know how you feel. I have had three daughters graduate from college and always the emotions are mixed. You feel one part sad, one part relieved, one part broke and every part proud.

To the graduates, I offer my heartfelt congratulations. This is the payoff for all the late nights in the library and the long hours studying. In the years ahead, you will look back upon this ceremony and realize that today--May 25, 1997--was the very day you began to forget everything you learned in college.

You will find slipping from your mind the carefully memorized names of 18th century composers, European monarchs and the various body parts of dissected frogs. But as your hopes for hitting the jackpot on Jeopardy fade, you will find the more profound aspects of a Mount Holyoke education endure.

According to the brochure, "Mount Holyoke is a universe where the life of the mind is intensely lived, a space apart where women may imagine themselves and go forward--pioneers still--to transform the world."

To the extent that description is true--and I can see from your faces that it is--you will be thankful all your lives.

In school, grades and test results measure accomplishment. You know what is expected and where you stand.

But once you leave school, you will have to rely upon an inner compass. Whether you are an aspiring scientist or CEO, poet or President--or all of the above--each day you will face decisions that test your courage, values and sense of self. To this dilemma, there is no sure remedy. Not even Rosie O'Donnell can draw for you a road map to a life of fulfillment and accomplishment.

But Mount Holyoke has given you the tools you need to draw your own.

This year, you celebrate at this storied college the bicentennial of Mary Lyon, your founder, who almost single-handedly brought women's education into the 19th century from where it had previously been--which is roughly the 12th.

Your campus here is beautiful; your reputation is the best; your leadership is strong; and each of your students is brilliant, creative, open-minded and blessed with good posture.

If ever an institution might be tempted by complacency, yours is it.

Instead, through "Mount Holyoke 2003", you are drafting a blueprint for the future. You are debating--rather vigorously, I understand--the proper direction for your college, recognizing that excellence is never a state of being, but always of becoming.

Your individual choices and challenges, and those of this college, have their parallel in options now facing the United States.

America has arrived at the threshold of a new century strong, respected, prosperous and with no single powerful enemy against whom we must lock our gates.

Hitler is dead. Stalin is dead. Lenin is dead. And the only Marx that still matters is on late night television shooting elephants in their pajamas.

The temptation is to coast. To sit back, avert our eyes and assume that what does not affect us immediately will not affect us ever.

But then we have to ask, what if half a century ago, Secretary of State George Marshall had decided that America had done enough in helping to win the second world war; and that we could let a Europe in ruins fend for itself?

What if President Truman had decided that the surrounded city of Berlin was too remote, and that Americans were too weary of conflict and too wary of new commitments to mount an airlift on its behalf?

What if Eleanor Roosevelt had decided that it was enough for Americans to worry about the rights of our own citizens and that we did not need to lead in forging the Universal Declaration of Human Rights?

As individuals, each of us must choose whether to live our lives narrowly, selfishly and complacently, or to act with courage and faith.

As a nation, America must choose whether to turn inward and betray the lessons of history, or to seize the opportunity before us to shape history. Today, under the leadership of President Clinton, America is making the right choice.

The Berlin Wall is now a memory. We could be satisfied with that. Instead, we are enlarging and adapting NATO and striving to create a future for Europe in which every democracy--including Russia--is our partner and every partner is a builder of peace.

Largely because of U.S. leadership, nuclear weapons no longer target our homes. We could relax. Instead, we are working to reduce nuclear arsenals further, eliminate chemical weapons, end the child-maiming scourge of land mines and ratify a treaty that would ban nuclear explosions forever.

The fighting in Bosnia has stopped. We could turn our backs now and risk renewed war. Instead, we are renewing our commitment, and insisting that the parties meet theirs, to implement the Dayton Accords. And we are backing the War Crimes Tribunal, because we believe that those responsible for ethnic cleansing should be held accountable and those who consider rape just another tactic of war should answer for their crimes.

We have built a growing world economy in which those with modern skills and available capital have done very well. We could stop there. Instead, we are pursuing a broader prosperity, in which those entrapped by poverty and discrimination are empowered to share, and in which every democracy on every continent will be included.

In our lifetimes, we have seen enormous advances in the status of women. We could now lower our voices and--as some suggest--sit sedately down. Instead, women everywhere--whether bumping against a glass ceiling or rising from a dirt floor--are standing up, spreading the word that we are ready to claim our rightful place as full citizens and full participants in every society on Earth.

Mount Holyoke is the home, to borrow Wendy Wasserstein's phrase, of "uncommon women." But we know that there are uncommon women in all corners of the globe.

In recent years, I have met in Sarajevo with women weighted down by personal grief reaching out across ethnic lines to rebuild their shattered society.

In Burundi, I have seen women taking the lead in efforts to avoid the fate of neighboring Rwanda, where violence left three-quarters of the population female, and one-half of the women widows.

In Guatemala, I have talked to women striving to ensure that their new peace endures and is accompanied by justice and an end to discrimination and abuse.

And in Burma, I have met with a remarkable woman named Aung San Suu Kyi, who risks her life every day to keep alive the hope for democracy in her country.

These women have in common a determination to chart their own path, and by so doing, to alter for the better the course of their country or community.

Each has suffered blows, but each has proceeded with courage. Each has persevered.

As you go along your own road in life, you will, if you aim high enough, also meet resistance, for as Robert Kennedy once said, "if there's nobody in your way, it's because you're not going anywhere." But no matter how tough the opposition may seem, have courage still--and persevere.

There is no doubt, if you aim high enough, that you will be confronted by those who say that your efforts to change the world or improve the lot of those around you do not mean much in the grand scheme of things. But no matter how impotent you may sometimes feel, have courage still--and persevere.

It is certain, if you aim high enough, that you will find your strongest beliefs ridiculed and challenged; principles that you cherish may be derisively dismissed by those claiming to be more practical or realistic than you. But no matter how weary you may become in persuading others to see the value in what you value, have courage still--and persevere.

Inevitably, if you aim high enough, you will be buffeted by demands of family, friends and employment that will conspire to distract you from your course. But no matter how difficult it may be to meet the commitments you have made, have courage still--and persevere.

It has been said that all work that is worth anything is done in faith.

This morning, in these beautiful surroundings, at this celebration of warm memory and high expectation, I summon you in the name of this historic college and of all who have passed through its halls, to embrace the faith that your courage and your perseverance will make a difference; and that every life enriched by your giving, every friend touched by your affection, every soul inspired by your passion and every barrier to justice brought down by your determination, will ennoble your own life, inspire others, serve your country, and explode outward the boundaries of what is achievable on this earth.

So congratulations, good luck, and remember always to sit up straight.

Thank you very much.


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Copyright © 1997 Mount Holyoke College. This page created by Office of Communications and maintained by Rick Flashman. Last modified on May 29, 1997.