Princeton University

As commencement exercises are being conducted at institutions of higher education across the country, women’s voices are taking a prominent place in offering congratulations, advice and inspiration to the graduating classes of 2011. In a series of posts, Women’s Voices for Change is sharing excerpts from selected commencement addresses.





Vanderbilt University

Wangari Maathai
2004 recipient of Nobel Peace Prize and founder of Green Belt Movement
Vanderbilt University
Nashville, Tenn.
May 12, 2011

One of the worst outcomes of bad governance is poverty. It robs human beings of their dignity. When people are reduced to beggars, they feel weak, humiliated, disrespected, undignified. They hide alone in the corners and trenches, not daring to raise their voices. They are unable to organize and often suffer in isolation and in desperation.

These are the people who need us. There is a lot of poverty where I come from. But as we all know Africa is not a poor country or a poor region. We know that poverty is a symptom of gross political, social and economic injustices. The poor are sick, hungry, naked and without shelter because they have largely been denied their political, social and economic rights.

Yet all human beings deserve respect and dignity. It should be unacceptable to push human beings to levels of dehumanizing poverty.

To fight such injustices the Green Belt Movement addresses governance, institutions and systems that allow such injustices in our communities and beyond. While doing the Green Belt work we came to recognize the linkage between inability of the poor people to meet basic needs and the fact that the environment was degraded and unable to sustain them. As they eked a life out of degraded environments they find themselves deeper into poverty and into fatalism, tending to blame God.

The realization of this linkage between the environmental degradation, governance and conflicts, led the Green Belt Movement to concern itself not only with the causes of environmental degradation but also systems of governance. It therefore joined other organizations that formed the pro-democracy movement in the ’90s in Kenya, which eventually restored democracy.



Grinnell College

Anna Quindlen
Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and best-selling author
Grinnell College
Grinnell, Iowa
May 23, 2011

You stand in the place of others past and present, as do I. I stand here today in place of — in tribute to — generations of women denied the right to the pen and the podium. Some of you are here in lieu of parents or grandparents who couldn’t afford college, much less a college like this one.

Being the lucky one confers great responsibility and even moral obligation. But it’s not simply the obligation to live an examined life — to embrace each moment like it might be the last. It’s also to live each moment as though it might be the first — to throw your arms wide to the new, the unexplored, even to that of which you may be afraid.

Don’t cave to the status quo. Don’t trade happiness for deferred gratification. Don’t give up adventure for safety and security.

The safe is the enemy of the satisfying. Deferred gratification has a way of being deferred forever. And the status quo — business as usual, the way things have always been done — has completely failed us. The last few years have made that eminently clear.

How will your audacious and authentic new world work? I don’t know. Helpful, right? Except that I don’t know is one of the most exciting sentences in the English language, because in the right hands it suggests not ignorance, but discovery. It’s the beginning of news reporting, medical research, stage preparation, business creation, legislation. I don’t know.

I don’t know the answer to so many questions. Can Twitter ever be more than dopey haiku? Can the government ever really see beyond the bombastic fog that hangs over Washington? Can family life ever really be egalitarian? And prejudice ever become a distant artifact? Can we ever value the wealth of our spirit more than the size of our salaries? You can help answer those questions if you dare.

Be brave, for your own sake and the sake of the rest of us. I know that sounds hard but I can offer you some simple guidance from Henry James, the most complex and cerebral of men, who once wrote: “Three things in human life are important. The first is to be kind. The second is to be kind. And the third is to be kind.”



Princeton University

Brooke Shields
Princeton University
Princeton, N.J.
May 30, 2011

Today you have proven yourself. You will need to continue to prove yourself. Once you graduate, there will be no guarantees. Even if you work your butt off, you will rarely get what you think you want or deserve. Things will rarely go as you direct. You will, however, get what you are meant to. And because you now have much of what it takes to succeed, you will soar. But you must choose to do so.

And success, I believe, comes in a myriad of packages and with various types of wrapping.

Please continue to aim high and strive for your best, but learn to embrace, and revel in, your unique successes. Compare not to others. This will be difficult but valuable, I promise.

I want you to acknowledge what you have been given and what you gave to this university and what you will be called upon to do with it outside these walls. Your diploma is a passport into the next phase of your lives.

Many of you know exactly what you expect and what you want when you leave, and many of you are not clear at all.

One path is not necessarily better than the other. It’s OK to not know exactly what you want. Knowing that you are now equipped to choose wisely should ease the anxiety. But, a bit of anxiety isn’t necessarily a bad thing. It keeps us on our toes. Use it to motivate, not inhibit.

There are a multitude of options and paths in your future. Please choose because of undeniable desire. Don’t make choices because of what you should do, but what you could do. Choose because of enthusiasm and passion.

Ask yourself: What will your example be? What do you want your life to look like? How will you choose to carry yourself? Please don’t be lazy. Or act entitled. Please continue to work hard. But please take breaks to be with those you love, and enjoy the simple things of life as well.

In a poem “Dash” by Linda Ellis — stop me if you’ve heard this — a man at a memorial of a close friend comments on the fact that when somebody dies, the two dates that always get highlighted are that of birth and that of death. But he was struck by the importance of the dash in between those two dates.

The dash is what holds our worth. The poem reminds us that what matters is how we spend that dash.

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