Wendy Wasserstein’s 1990 Commencement Speech

Wendy Wasserstein ’71 delivering the 1990 Commencement address

Wendy Wasserstein ’71

One’s worst nightmare is having a paper due for your own college nineteen years after graduation. A friend of mine advised me to take off my robe and sit down in front of the stage and say, “Let’s just keep this informal. I’ll take questions.” My other thought was to invite Mrs. Vaclev Havel to join me since I heard Mrs. Gorbachev will be at Wellesley, and I didn’t want my own college to be deprived. …

 [At my graduation] I remember thinking as each of my classmates paraded by, “Oh, she’s done everything right with her education. And I’ve done everything wrong. She’s going to medical school and memorized the Golden Bowl. She learned to ski, ride, and canoe… and I went to Milk ‘n Cracker. …” I had no idea what my college education was for. …

There is something to be said for uncharted periods, something to be said for exploration in any field. If after almost twenty years I’ve been invited to speak here, it can certainly happen to you. I know there are those of you who dissected a squid in freshman zoology and immediately knew, “This is bliss.” But my guess is that the majority of us aren’t that fortunate or that fond of squid. Most of us find our roads in a more circuitous way. … When I look back, what really scares me is how very much I was frightened of pursuing what I really liked to do. I didn’t think I would become a playwright. I wanted to make a more reasonable choice… to fall in line. And I was certain there was a formula, an accepted and pretested pattern. …

In drama school [two years later] we began reading a great deal of Jacobean drama. … It seemed to me that the plots were roughly about men who kissed the lips of women and then dropped dead from poison. … This was not familiar to me or any of my friends from Mount Holyoke. And it was then that I decided I wanted to see an all-women’s curtain call in the basement of Yale School of Drama. … So I began writing “Uncommon Women and Others” about my friends and my times at this college. And it was at that time that I understood the extraordinary value of a liberal arts education at a women’s college. I believe I had the confidence to become a playwright because I learned at Mount Holyoke the value of an individual woman’s voice. There was a higher purpose to what I enjoyed the most here: talking to my friends and taking the time to really know them. In other words, what may well resonate in your later life is… the sense of self that you formed here. The real challenge is to recognize that self and retain that core in creating your own life. … There is no one plan that is workable. There isn’t one way of doing it that is best. But there is something to be said for caring deeply. …

I, as one who was terrified, promise you something inordinately valuable has begun here today. Today you begin to make choices. Today the curtain goes up and the action begins. Take all the goodness, honesty, intelligence, toughness, and wit that you learned here and don’t compromise them. So much has been written about the women of the nineties. My response is the women of the nineties have yet to make their mark. Go out there and do something remarkable. Don’t live down to expectations. The women of the nineties are you.

These highlights from Wendy Wasserstein’s 1990 commencement speech first appeared in the summer 1990 issue of the Alumnae Quarterly.

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