Commencement Address by Maggie Williams ’77
May 17, 2009
Maggie Williams ’77, White House Chief of Staff to former First Lady Hillary Clinton, was introduced by her classmate, Peggy Lewis ’77. What follows is prepared version of Ms. Williams’ speech, which may vary slightly from the audio recording found at the bottom of the speech.
Thank you Peggy.
President Patricia McGuire, Provost Kaye Gapen, chair of the Board of Trustees Laura Phillips, Deans, Trustees, and the on-the-ground-leaders of learning, the faculty. Thank you all for your commitment to building the future of this country and the future of this world —day-by-day, student-by-student.
To the parents, partners, friends and honored guests of all assembled for the common purpose of celebrating the accomplishments of the Class of 2009, I thank you for your generosity in letting me share this historic moment of pride and pleasure with you.
And to the Class of 2009, I demand that you bask and wallow in our complete admiration of you. Today we don’t even need the sun because you are the sunshine of our lives.
Of course, we honor your academic achievements but we also appreciate your faithfulness in just finishing what you started. I hope your journey through this learning process has given you a foundation of knowledge moving you closer to what you choose to do in the world – moving you closer to your dreams.
I trust in tandem with your academic achievements you have gained an appreciation for honest criticism, a desire for collaboration and the recognition that adversity and – yes, even failure, are often the gateways to success.
Teachers, students…if your time together has been well spent, the measure of your success will be palpable. The class of 2009 will leave here creative in their thinking, curious about the world and passionate about living their dreams.
Class of 2009, this is your day. This is your commencement. I am glad to be a part of this dear and timeless ritual. I look at your faces, my heart full of hope and anticipation – joining the poet Mary Oliver in asking you, ”What is it that you plan to do with your one, wild precious life?”
But now it is time for a confession. As much as you might think this day is about you—and I admit the circumstances make it look that way. (Those you love are here beaming with pride. You’ve got caps and gowns. The program has your names listed). But I have to tell you; I am thinking this day is really about me.
What’s more, I have a sneaking suspicion that all across this country there are people of my age and generation standing behind podiums like this one—men and women who, as T.S. Elliot might say, have “wept and fasted, wept and prayed,” to get to say their piece on a commencement stage. But why? Why this great eagerness to address graduates as they step onto their launching pad?
You may be thinking “whoa”, this woman must have a huge ego, an inflated sense of her self. Or maybe she is one of those people who loves to hear the sound of her own voice. I rush to assure you my desire to be here is not self-indulgent.
But I wanted to speak, had to speak today. You must understand there is a yearning lying deep in the soul of every generation, an urgent need to “spill the beans” before our time is finished. To say to you, who will set our path and negotiate this century’s future, “I know something now that I didn’t know then,” –that I didn’t know on that day that seems ten minutes gone but was a dozen worlds ago, when I sat in the seats where you are sitting and received my degree from Trinity College.
That’s the whole theme of that movie “17 Again” and many movies like it, isn’t it? The wondering what it would be like to go back in time and to do it over again, with the benefit of wisdom and experience. But since our generation has not yet invented time travel, we do the next best thing, we give commencement speeches.
So what do I know now that I didn’t know then? First, a story and then a layman’s description of the ancient method of harvesting wheat.
Not long ago, a client of mine approached me, a young woman who is doing brilliantly in the job she now holds. I look at her and everything about her reads “success.” In our brief conversation, she told me how she had gotten to where she was –several cities later, several jobs later– and then, in New York leading her own team at a big corporation.
What she says next surprises me. She says her real dream is to find some way to help the women in the country where she spent a part of her childhood. She says, “I want to help elevate those women and give them opportunities so they can live up to their potential.”
“Tell me” she asks, “how do I stay connected to my dreams?”
To get to the ripe seed or the grain of wheat, you have to separate it from its husk, the chaff. The husk is a shell or a dry casing surrounding the grain. For many centuries this separation process or threshing as it is called was done by hand. The grain would be thrown up in the air and the wind would blow the chaff away. The grain would fall into the basket. And so the wheat, which had the real value, endured.
So let us consider today the following questions:
How to stay connected to your dreams?
And what endures?
To stay connected to your dreams, first acknowledge that your dreams are real. They are not ethereal! They are not long shots! They are not stabs in the dark! You are not on a fool’s errand! To stay connected to your dreams, you must unapologetically and confidently claim your legitimate right to pursue your dreams. No matter how far- fetched they may seem to others.
To stay connected to your dreams you must take them seriously, because if you don’t, I assure you no one else will. Taking them seriously means investing time and effort into designing a life, which puts your dreams in sight.
If you want to be a heart surgeon, you can’t sit and wait for the heart surgeon fairy to come by and sprinkle fairy dust on your hands. You have to study. You have to learn. You have to commit. You must map a path and resolutely try to walk it. You have to do something.
There is, of course, an evolutionary quality to life. Ideas change, new opportunities are born every second. We are not static. Living, by definition is the shedding of one experience only to move on to many more. We are serial dreamers, jugglers of multiple aspirations. But to make a dream stick, you have got to act.
Second, dreams need oxygen to stay alive. By this I mean you must continuously work on your dreams, even in small ways, no matter what other demands you have on your life.
Several years ago, in New York, I met a young man, Yaz, playing jazz saxophone in the subway, playing beautifully.
Yaz learned to love music by listening to his father’s jazz albums in his native Japan. He earned a degree in education and became a social worker in Japan. But at night he studied the saxophone.
In pursuit of his dream, he decided to take a big step. He left Japan and moved to New York. He found a night job in a restaurant as a dishwasher. But during the day he would practice his saxophone. He kept breathing life into his dream. Over time he organized a band. They started to play in the subway. People like me, on their way to somewhere in a hurry, stopped in the subway to listen Yaz and his incredible music. And we told everybody we knew about him.
I have followed Yaz by way of the Internet. The last time I checked his site, he had recorded three CDs, played at Lincoln Center Out Doors Festival and was scheduled to perform at jazz clubs in Harlem throughout the month of May. He may not be a household name but he has become what he had hoped he would be — a jazz saxophonist.
But look around; there are so many stories sitting next to you, people who have kept the oxygen flowing to their dreams for many years. I note particularly, those who are being honored today from Trinity’s School of Professional Studies, those in the Continuing Education programs and older students who dedicate themselves to learning, striving and self-fulfillment.
So many of these men and women, already have big lives, filled with responsibility and challenge: families, parenting, jobs, health concerns, community issues. I know they sometimes grow weary, but they persevere, undaunted and committed to their dreams.
Believe me, their achievements not only animate their own dreams, but breathe life every day into the American dream.
To stay connected to your dreams, you must be in a constant state of watchfulness — scanning the environment for information and opportunities.
To achieve this state of watchfulness, you must see beyond your normal field of vision. You must see even beyond your peripheral vision. Explore foreign territory. Go outside your safety zone. This is the good kind of “risky behavior.” You have to develop eyes in the back of your head.
My mother introduced me to this concept. As children, my brothers and I rode in the back seat, my mother in the driver’s seat up front. I would hit one of my brothers. One of them would shove me. Instantly, my mother would call out, “I saw that!” To explain this all-seeing power, she told us, “I’ve got eyes in the back of my head.”
In time, we learned that her magic resided in the rear view mirror. Nevertheless, through the years, I have always been aware of my Mother’s constant watchfulness. And her willingness to seek and search beyond the boundaries of her own life and what she knew to identify opportunities that might fuel her dreams for her children.
Like so many parents here today, my parents dreamed for me before I had dreams of my own. My mother attended to her responsibilities as a driver, yet she knew that the world in which she lived encompassed much more than the road she saw directly ahead.
It is true, however, that in my Mother’s world, as in mine, there was more time to think about what watchfulness revealed. More time to weigh which doors to open. More time to process information.
You have a lot less time than your parents had to ponder things. Twenty-first century life is not contemplative. The instant transfer of information has transformed the way we use time and how time uses us. We are pressed on every side for quick assessments, quick responses, quick decisions, quick fixes and we are enticed by quick routes to our dreams.
The currents of your rivers run very fast.
How do you hold yourself steady?
How do you locate your internal center of gravity – a place against which to evaluate choices, guide behavior and anchor a life?
What has meaning?
What has value?
Carefully considering these questions is one of the most important, but I believe most overlooked tasks of living. It is your harvesting job, the proverbial separating the chaff from the wheat.
After more than a half century on earth, my own list of “what endures” turns out to be rather short and commonplace. But the things on it did not rise to the top quickly. They had to break through my stubbornness, self-absorption and compete with popular and sexier definitions of success.
What endures? Friendship endures. And thank God for that. I took away many treasures from my time here at Trinity College, but the richest, far and away, is my friendship with Peggy Lewis, who introduced me today. Find real friendship and cling to it. Show your true self to your friends and if you do they will discover your considerable weaknesses, your deepest secrets and your greatest strengths. And even knowing what they know they will provide unconditional love and support.
They will laugh with you. They will cry with you. They will scheme with you. They will be hard on you. They will tell you the truth. They will keep pushing you to be the best person you can be.
But the most important thing to understand about friendship is that it is a reciprocal art – to get from it you must also give to it.
What endures? Kindness endures. You might expect that someone who’s spent many years in political life would conclude otherwise. Quite the contrary. We trumpet the bruising battles; the fierce debates, the war rooms, the bitter defeats—but a politics devoid of kindness can never serve its people well. For it has no humanity, empathy or real understanding of what the needs actually are.
Politics is community and community is built with bricks of compassion and consideration.
Look, it is very easy to be unkind —not just in politics but in our modern culture—where baseless rumors and mean gossip are part of our daily diet; where falsehoods masquerading as truth can circle the globe in a second. We bless it all and we call it entertainment. I am no saint and I lean into rumors too, at times, unable to forego harsh judgments of people I don’t know and situations I don’t really understand.
But always, we must fight our way back to kindness. Whether in person, in private, hiding behind our screen names or avatars the simple truth is: what we say matters. How we treat others matters.
“To do unto others as you would have them do unto to you” is not just a biblical admonition for a bygone era; it is a dynamic contemporary strategy for this our times.
If our recent economic travails have taught us anything they have taught us that our global connectedness and dependence on one another is real. Our kindness to those we need as partners in the world and those in need around the world counts for something. Especially in these times, when our globe is fraught with danger and uncertainty, when we as a country must make more friends and fewer enemies.
And finally, what endures? Curiosity endures. Nothing is more persistent in all of human history than the desire to know; the urge to discover; the pure joy of wondering why?
Curiosity is the engine for so much of what makes this country great: creativity, invention, innovation. Curiosity generates the questions ultimately leading to the answers that improve our health; let’s us travel to the stars and even build a better mousetrap. One of the most inquisitive people in American history was George Washington Carver. He asked the question, “ I wonder what you can do with a peanut?” He answered his own question about three hundred times — from ink to soap to grease to make our hair lay flat. He was incurably curious. How wonderful.
I shine the light on curiosity because as we get a little bit of knowledge, we sometimes think we know enough. Or more dangerous still, we think we know it all. I believe these tendencies threaten intellectual exploration and knowledge building. These tendencies are the enemies of imagination. These tendencies seed impediments to change and progress.
These tendencies must be shunned at all costs.
Curiosity keeps the mind fertile, alive and fearless. Stay curious and you will never, ever be afraid of the future. Curiosity endures.
I am from Kansas City, Missouri and attended Notre Dame de Sion, an all girls catholic school. When it came time for me to make a decision about college, my counselor and vice principal of the school, Glenna Hughes, suggested Trinity might be right for me. On the strength her recommendation, I chose Trinity, hoped to be accepted and Trinity chose me. That was in 1973.
It was an honor to be chosen by Trinity again to speak on this day. My deepest gratitude to all of you, the class of 2009, for your kind attention.
God bless you and God bless our country.
Download the audio version of the speech.