September 2015 Features

From the President

 

Presidents_ColumnDear Friends:

The 2015 Commencement speaker—former U.S. Poet Laureate Billy Collins—gave perhaps the best commencement address I have ever heard (and as you might imagine, I have heard many). His remarks were funny in a wonderfully understated way, and the serious messages through which he wove this humor resonated across the generations represented in the audience. Most memorably for me, he invited graduating students to think about how meaningful work can become a source of joy, and likewise about the value of the activities and hobbies that we pursue simply for pleasure.

Collins reminded those gathered that “the winners are the ones who kept their head down, immersed in their work to the point where their work became their joy.” With these words Collins captured one of my highest hopes for the outcomes of a Bryn Mawr education. For work to bring joy means finding something that inspires passion; dedicating time and effort to that passion, and thus gaining the pleasures of both learning and mastery; and sharing that passion, learning, and pleasure with others—whether at the dinner table, in a late-night conversation in a dorm room, or in a classroom, an office, or a public presentation. Like Collins, I think that increased and real pressures to succeed and to achieve have dulled our awareness of joy as one of the important aspirational outcomes of work.

For those who were still recovering from theses and exams, or who have not yet found a post-graduation path, Collins asked on their behalf, “How do I find work in this world that will be a source of joy rather than a demanding, draining task?” His suggestion that students pay attention to their “unofficial interests”—hobbies, those things we do as “amateurs”—again delighted me. All of us recognized that we often give up things we do for pleasure in the face of pressures of “real” work. In my own case, I no longer spend lunch hours playing pick-up basketball with faculty and staff, and I struggle to find time to read for pleasure. Certainly enjoying those things we do outside of work is critical to the freshness of mind we bring to that work, to our physical well-being, and to the quality of our lives in college and beyond. But as Collins suggested, those other interests might also point to the kind of work that brings joy. I couldn’t help but think, for example, of the joy of Khadijah Seay and Danielle Cadet, two leaders of the Relaunching Perry House Committee, when we realized our ambitions of opening the new Enid Cook Center. I thought, too, of one of our graduating students—Ekaterina Vlasova—who brought together her work (as a premed biology major) with one of her “unofficial interests” (mindfulness and meditation) in a successful Watson Fellowship proposal to study mind-body practices in various contemplative communities in Germany, Thailand, Japan, India, Bhutan, and Peru.

Members of the campus community have heard me talk on many occasions about the importance of adding more joy to our lives. Although I was gratified by Collins’ commencement address in part because we share a commitment to finding and creating opportunities for joy, I was also grateful for his reminder of why students and faculty come to a place like Bryn Mawr—to join a community of those who find happiness in the work of the mind. I hope that those who graduated in May each had experiences of that happiness while they were on campus and that their education here contributes to their capacity to experience such pleasure in all their pursuits—professional and amateur.

Sincerely,

Kim Cassidy

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