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Convocation Remarks by Eleanor Chong, President of the Bryn Mawr Class of  2012

Friday, May 11, 2012

Welcome families and friends. I’m happy and honored to be speaking on behalf of my class and the undergraduate college.  Before I begin I want to thank my entire class, and President McAuliffe for giving me this opportunity to speak, and of course, my family, who has supported me tirelessly throughout my Bryn Mawr career.

Over the course of my four years at Bryn Mawr, I have, as I imagine most of us have, been asked many times what it’s like to go to a women's college. I think I have a different answer every time. But as I’ve approached the close my undergraduate career, I’ve wondered more and more--what has it been like to go here? I’d like to say a few words about the Bryn Mawr I’ve experienced and what I hope our connection to that Bryn Mawr will be as we move on from here.

This past October I, along with a few of my classmates, was lucky to be part of a panel on diversity at Bryn Mawr, for an alumnae event. The goal of this panel was to demonstrate to alumnae the great breadth of diversity that has relatively recently become such an important element of the college. The great Vanessa Christman moderated, and we answered her questions about affinity groups, culture shows, intersecting identities, and so forth. It was fun! I was sure that the audience was favorably impressed with our descriptions of the kosher and halal kitchens harmoniously living side by side, the opportunity for several affinity groups for students of color to meet and be centered in Perry House, and the pride we took in showcasing our various cultures and experiences to one another throughout the year. After the moderated questions were finished, we took questions from the audience, the most memorable of which went something like this:

“I am happy to hear about all of these groups on campus, but I’m not sure if it’s an unequivocally good thing for everyone to be focused on their siloed communities. When I was at Bryn Mawr, we were loyal to Bryn Mawr!”

My classmate and fellow panelist cogently replied that affinity groups actually strengthen our sense of community because they allow us to connect with our cultural backgrounds in safe spaces while also sharing our cultures with others. This is true, was well-received by the audience, and the discussion moved on, but the alumna’s remark has stayed with me and raised certain questions for me. What does it mean to be loyal to Bryn Mawr? To what exactly, are we being loyal? Who has created the dominant culture here and what does it mean to take part in that culture?

We don’t have to look too far back in history for the answers to these questions. Many of us followed with great interest and dismay when, in February, a now infamous letter to the president of our fellow Seven sister, Smith College was published in that institution’s college newspaper, a letter that bemoaned the alleged end of a legacy of elitism on which the school was built. As would be expected, there was a huge, angry backlash from the community against this letter and the assumptions therein. But that letter did contain a grain of truth. The women’s education movement did not start out as a movement for all women’s education, and the exclusionary practices that dominated the early history of that movement have only begun to be repaired.

Furthermore, we have to ask ourselves, what does it mean to be a women’s college whose student body is diverse in gender identity? How will we represent ourselves to other schools and the world at large when our borders are not always clearly defined? That Judith Butler neatly dodged this question when it was raised at one of her lectures this fall speaks to the overwhelming complexity of the answer. This answer is not at all obvious, but I believe (as my liberal arts education has taught me so well) that it starts with overturning our assumptions about who belongs in this community.

I am unspeakably grateful to those who built Bryn Mawr, its fine reputation, and its high standards, and I will always be grateful for the opportunities I’ve had here. But these merits do not justify striving to preserve a dominant culture that solely reflects one narrow demographic.

And the college has surely done an admirable job of aggressively recruiting highly talented, intelligent, motivated students from a wide range of backgrounds, abilities, and identities. But simply bringing together a lot of different people isn’t necessarily enough to overcome years of institutionalized and informal exclusion, and placing people in the same dorm and on the same meal plan isn’t enough to eradicate the differences in our experiences or the learned prejudices we hold onto.

I have seen tensions arise from these situations, I personally have been insensitive (sometimes publicly) to the diverse identities and abilities contained in our class and in this whole school. I’ve also chosen and seen my friends choose to ignore the tensions that do exist between our bryn mawr selves and ourselves from our hometowns, to avoid difficult conversations because there wasn’t a partner for conversation, because the perspective someone was bringing didn’t have a pre-set place in the Bryn Mawr order.

There is no doubt that we have been a part of the most diverse community Bryn Mawr has seen to date. We are lucky to be working with an administration that values our voices so strongly, and struggles with many of the same questions we do. We are lucky to have many structures and resources to navigate these conversations, to help people approach them in constructive ways.

But the question remains, what now does it mean to be loyal to Bryn Mawr? For many of us, one of the defining characteristics of our Bryn Mawr experience was tradition. As a freshman class, we were welcomed through parade night, we shared the honor of receiving our lanterns, we rose to the challenges of hell week, and we reveled in the beauty of our first May Day. In subsequent years as we took on new roles in these four major traditions their meaning in our hearts only grew.

Furthermore, we upheld superstition to an extent that might cause the academic community some dismay--never splitting the poles lest we lose important friendships, waiting our turn to walk on the senior steps and walk the full length of senior row. We rang the bell triumphantly when we were done.

There are other kinds of traditions that define our school as well, those of academic excellence, strong support from faculty and administration, social and academic honor codes, active engagement in the community around us, and empowered student governance, to name a few.

These physical spaces have united us too--the dining hall, libraries dorms, academic and administrative buildings where we collected our first-self-scheduled exams four years ago, stayed up all night studying, held our first work-study jobs, met new friends, and worked hard to earn the degrees that we will soon officially receive.

Our student body inherits and observes traditions the origins of which are distant from us both in historical memory and cultural background. Yet, what is remarkable about Bryn Mawr is that we have a space for ourselves that is created by these traditions, a community bounded by this nebulous title “women’s college,” that allows us to have conversations that challenge our assumptions, to exercise different aspects of our identities, to take risks with how we express ourselves, and to do all of this in a safe, supportive environment. This, to me, has been the essence of going to a women’s college. To enjoy and recreate the space for ourselves and for the generations of  Mawrtyrs to follow. To be given opportunities and resources to open difficult questions and begin to deal with the answers to these questions. This is what it's like to go to a women's college, and to this spirit of courage in a complex fight for justice we should all be loyal.

The questions of diversity I brought up are only a few of the many that the college will have to answer in the near future. I bring them up today not purely for the sake of catharsis or nostalgia, but rather because I believe that, even as graduates (or almost graduates), we are partially responsible for answering these questions. If we enjoyed our time here, if we made meaningful friendships, if we found magic in the traditions, how can we ensure not only that these experiences are available to those who come after us, but also that those who come after us represent people from many different backgrounds? If we struggled to find our place, if we felt no ownership over this community, if we lacked access to resources other students enjoyed, how can we support future Mawrtyrs in their dealing with these challenges? Let us all recognize the elements that have made our experience here so special and beautiful, and commit to supporting these elements in their fullest. But let’s also recognize what was difficult and painful, and commit to changing these elements in whatever way we can.

This could mean anything from working for the college to encouraging your underclassmen friends to get more involved, but in any case, whether we like it or not, we are the ones who will continue to build Bryn Mawr's legacy, and it’s up to us to take on this responsibility and decide how this new legacy will look. The choices we make about how we lead our lives, how we represent ourselves and express ourselves to others will set the example for the Mawrtyrs that come after us and reflect back onto our alma mater. To be loyal to Bryn Mawr today means to be active participants in the conversation about what this community is, rooted in and respectful of the rich history of the college, but with an eye toward creating a space that is truly progressive, supportive, and radical.