Wednesday, October 30, 2013

A Women's College Education: Valuing Independence Founder’s Day Essay

I gave a speech at Simmons College Founder's Day today. There were multiple requests for a copy of the speech. I don't see why I shouldn't post it here. So I will.

When John Simmons died in 1870 and left money in his will for the Simmons Female College to be created the world was a very different place. Even in 1899 when the first students came to this institution the world was nothing like we imagine it today. People in history were not simply humans exactly like us, but in different clothes. No. John Simmons and his contemporaries thought in different ways, taught in different ways, and practiced a very different kind of study and scholarship from what we experience. John Simmons wanted to create a haven that would focus on, “educating women for an independent livelihood,” and in many ways Simmons still maintains his vision. We are still an all-women’s institute at the undergraduate level and we still mostly major in, “medicine, music, drawing, designing, telegraphy, and other branches of art, science, and industry best calculated to enable the scholars to acquire an independent livelihood," but women aren’t satisfied as easily today as they were in 1899 because we’ve had options opened up to us by our mothers, grandmothers, and great-grandmothers that those nineteenth century students couldn’t have imagined. We can do more than simply go for “independent livelihoods.” We can aim higher. We can be better. We can take John Simmons’ goal and make this an institution that includes all people from all social locations and gives them more than just an independent livelihood, but provides instead a launching pad to an individual happiness and an everlasting success.
The modern Simmons student isn’t likely to accept a life of subsistence. The modern Simmons student expects this college experience to be more than entry-level job training. The value in a Simmons education is not just the job skills we learn, but also the life skills we inherit to help us meet each sunrise as another day in which to excel. We want to learn to think, grow, evolve, and pursue a greater happiness here. As Provost Katie Conboy said during her Convocation speech about the college, "we pin dreams and aspirations to it, personal ones and collective ones.” Our education here is valued by the people we become and the people we meet; it’s not just the science and math we learn and the modes we complete.
The people we become are based on the professors we have and the administration that supports them. From first year writing to senior seminar we are encouraged to think a certain way, act a certain way, and be a certain kind of person that John Simmons might not have totally accepted. It might have been unfitting that a group of people who are female-bodied (“laidies”) are encouraged to be precocious, questioning, and unyielding. I know my friends at Simmons don’t back down. They don’t give up. They don’t settle for just independence. They want more. They want CEO positions as well as secretary jobs. They want to be nurses, but they expect the respect given to the doctors in that field. They want to be elementary school teachers as often as they want to be superintendents. They don’t want to be overlooked. They don’t want to be underestimated. They want to be powerhouses and politicians that revolutionize the world more than John Simmons and his ready-made clothes. The Simmons students I know are as adaptable to different positions as standard-sized clothing, but as varied as the cloths and patterns John Simmons, the tailor, used in his factories.
Our challenge for the future as a college is to take this quilt of individuals and make sure that they each have an opportunity to reach beyond the independent livelihood of the past to the greater goals our advisers encourage us to seek. It’s a complicated thing to be a women’s college these days. I wouldn’t give it up. I wouldn’t throw away the unique opportunity and success we’ve gained as one of the US News and World Report “Best Colleges” or as the Number 1 MBA program in the U.S. with the Greatest Opportunity for Women by The Princeton Review. Being a women’s College gives us a community and reputation that I hope we never sacrifice. It’s one of the reasons our students are so strong and our learners are so passionate. We must remember, though, that although everyone here was cultured a female we are striving to be diverse and inclusive in our language and action. In the same way we are reaching beyond “independent livelihoods” to independent success we must also be reaching past our identity as a place that is solely designed for “educating women” to a place that is educating all the marginalized and underrepresented groups who need a place to prosper. I believe we can do this because I believe it the extension of John Simmons goal to help all people.

Simmons is an American school funded by an American entrepreneur. It has always been a place for the underprivileged, who used to be women, to rise up, support themselves and be strong. Emma Lazarus is a woman whose poem  “The New Colossus” became famous when it was was engraved on a bronze plaque and mounted inside the lower level of the pedestal of the Statue of Liberty. This poem was written around the time of John Simmons’ death and read, “"Give me your tired, your poor/ Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free/ The wretched refuse of your teeming shore./ Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,/ I lift my lamp beside the golden door!" Simmons is like the Statue of Liberty. It’s a woman-centered place reaching out to people across the country and the world and offering them a better life. It relishes in its history, but always stands tall holding the torch of progress. I love this school because it memorializes the past without idealizing it. We recognize that women didn’t always have it great. They had to fight tooth and claw for their “independent livelihoods.” They had to use their male allies like John Simmons to just subsist. Now, though, my friends and I live out his legacy by exceeding him. We aspire to be better than the women John Simmons knew. We’ll be more industrious. We’ll be smarter. We’ll be more clever. We’ll be braver. We’ll fight battles and overcome struggles those nineteenth century women couldn’t have imagined. But most importantly, we’ll be the most independent group of alumna ever. That we can do. We are Simmons students after all.