2011 Keynote Address:  Maisha C. Leek ’03

“Be the candle or the mirror that reflects”

Maisha C. Leek '03

Good evening! Class of 2012, welcome to your Cap and Gown ceremony. If my memory serves me well Cap and Gown and Freshman Medal are probably the most well attended traditions we have at Trinity. The latter because you’re so new you feel obligated to go to everything and the former because you can’t be reminded often enough about graduating.

I bring you greetings from the glorious Gold Class of 2003 and since I remember this ceremony well I’m happy to help you all take this moment in. Despite my lengthy remarks this moment will pass quickly.

It’s an honor and a privilege to share this moment with you and your families. This tradition marks the beginning of your final days at Trinity and foreshadows a promising future of life with a college degree.

I want to talk to you about this world we plan to unleash you upon, your great Trinity inheritance, and the responsibility that comes with it all. All of you when you leave this school will do well, as Trinity alumnae this future is set. Your timing couldn’t be better – the world is uniquely poised to receive you.

This week was a big week for women around the world. Brazil’s first female president, Dilma Rousseff, became the first woman to give the opening address at the United Nations. The photos from this event, images of colorful pants suits and dresses interrupting a landscape of men in dark suits, reflect the new world order of global leadership.

There are twenty women heads of states today and four of them come from the Americas. At a time of an international monetary crisis the eyes of the world focus on one woman, German Chancellor Angela Merkel, whose decisions will determine the economic fate, of arguably, the entire Western world.

In her remarks at the U.N., Rousseff declared this the “Century of the Woman”; by my estimation she is not far off.

STEM education, a term that describes education in science, technology, engineering and math, is the focus of countries engaged in a global competition to develop the brightest minds that will sustain their economies. Our government’s investment in these programs, billions of your tax dollars, has encouraged incredible graduation rates in STEM related degrees. In the last year, as a nation, we’ve graduated more individuals than ever before with Ph.D.s in science and technology – the entire increase in these degrees is attributed to women.

Not only are we earning degrees that contribute to American exceptionalism, we’re the majority on college campuses. In fact, the question of access to higher education is “where are the men?”

Feminine influence is everywhere, we lead blue-chip companies, colleges, governments, political parties, non-profits – the college basketball coach with the most wins ever, is a woman.

Three Obama Administration officials, all women, are credited with the United States’ use of force in Libya – Dr. Susan Rice, Ambassador to the United Nations, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, and Samantha Power of the National Security Council.

In President Rousseff’s speech she spent a significant portion of her remarks emphasizing her perspective as a woman in power. She talked about women being the key in overcoming social inequalities in her country and described mothers as the central force behind income distribution programs. As the “B” in the term “BRIC nations,” her economy is booming. Yet, despite having high employment numbers she spent time in her remarks reflecting on the harsh reality of unemployment in other nations and its direct impact on the world’s families and their “husbands.”

Why focus on Rousseff? She is evidence that in this new Century of Women we are redefining what it means to be a woman in leadership. We no longer have to be twice as tough as the boys to succeed – we need just to be women. Gone are the days of leveraging faux masculinity in our leadership style – we need just to be women.

In fact, for the first time in history, women are not only equal in many areas, in some we are superior. We’re capable of all of this without being dismissive of our roles or potential roles as caregivers, mothers, and nurturers – all human and not exclusively feminine traits. The world seems to recognize that we have a dual competency.

Now, I’d be remiss not to acknowledge that there are many that leap at the opportunity to impose a double standard upon women and the world is far from fair for our sisters around the globe that are suppressed in the name of cultural tradition.

My point is that there is nothing coincidental about the prominent arrival of our gender, nothing circumstantial about our dominance in leadership. A woman rolled away the stone giving birth to the mystery of Christianity and that’s not a coincidence – it takes strength and faith to change the world. It takes reason and passion to govern. It always takes a woman.

When our great school was founded the Sisters of Notre Dame suspected that they were embarking on something important. Absent any evidence and acting on faith, they built Trinity for this very moment in human history; an institution committed to preparing all of us to own this moment.

“Education for Global Leadership,” Trinity’s academic raison d’être, is our intention to ensure that you have a large view of the world and your leadership roles within it. In your time at Trinity, through this liberal arts education, you were trained to push the world forward – not bring up the rear.

And you couldn’t be better prepared. The most favorable conditions have developed; the stage is set, in walks Trinity – stage right.

In late summer of this year, Washington Monthly magazine ran a fantastic article about our school entitled, “The Trinity Sisters.” The lengthy article went through our history of challenge and triumph; who we were then, who we have become, and the road ahead.

My favorite quote, and the status update I promptly used on Facebook, is the one about Forbes magazine. It says that “when Forbes magazine recently published its list of the 100 most powerful women in the world, only Princeton undergraduate alumnae outnumbered that of tiny, little-known Trinity College.” It was an awesome affirmation of what we already know about the character of a Trinity student.

Yet, there was another paragraph that I knew I had to underline and recognize. It’s the story about the women who founded our institution, the Sisters of Notre Dame de Namur. The author described the temperament of the Sisters as one with a spirit of ambitious enterprise and fierce autonomy. The writer goes on to describe the Sisters as focused on running schools for women and girls and that they refused to take no for an answer in the face of institutional authority. Two hundred years after their founding and 114 years after they opened this school these women sound very much like the people in this room.

A unique group of students is drawn to this campus. You’re fighters who have a sense of responsibility to your families and communities. In your college essays you wrote phrases like, “[my daughter] is my inspiration; she motivates me to go to college because I want to move her to a better environment.”

You are committed to achievement, even if only by sheer will. Another student wrote, “I am confident that someday I will become a woman of distinction. I am prepared mentally, physically, socially and intellectually for this moment in my life.”

I came to this campus the daughter of a woman from Philadelphia public housing who never earned the benefit of a college degree. Sound familiar? I left Trinity prepared to excel in politics and at an Ivy League institution.

President McGuire, a fellow Philadelphian, was pushed toward Trinity by her working class parents as they insisted that their children commit themselves to education. Sound familiar? She left Trinity prepared not only to earn a law degree from Georgetown University but to return to our great school and lead it.

At Cap and Gown we ask you to don your regalia and consider what lies ahead for you, you chosen few. When handed that diploma, how will you keep your promise to yourselves and meet the promise of your inheritance?

Consider this:  There are two ways you can spread light – either be the candle or the mirror that reflects.
President Rousseff realized when she took the stage at the U.N. as the first woman that it wasn’t enough for her to just be first. Now that she had the microphone it was important to reflect the lives and challenges of the women around the world.

As college educated women, and more importantly as a Trinity community, it is our moral obligation to use our education and influence to protect and defend our families and communities. Not everyone we know is fortunate enough to enjoy the luxury of a college education. I’m willing to bet that every Trinity student knows at least two women who are just like her but for one reason or the other will never make it to this level of achievement. We all know an individual who will never experience the benefit of discovering the world and themselves through an academic experience. For a number of reasons we made it to college and those that were left behind should not be forgotten.

As I conclude, I charge you to write your own story just as our founders did – never taking “no” for an answer. I charge you to commit yourselves to the broader community with the confidence that you have a unique Trinity heritage which empowers you to do so. Change the world, in your everyday interactions and in your once in a lifetime opportunities.

Women’s rights advocate Carrie Chapman Catt said, “To the wrong that needs resistance, to the right that needs assistance, to the future in the distance – give yourselves.” At the time she was talking about women’s suffrage but the point is appropriate here.

The world needs you.

We’ve gathered here together to celebrate because we need you. We know we cannot get the world we want or that we deserve without you. Arming you with a Trinity education is an investment in the future of our nation and we intend to collect.

“To the wrong that needs resistance…” With your talent and the education you’ve earned, standing on the shoulders of the people in this room and in your lives, you will have a moral obligation to tear down every barrier, real or perceived, that stood in your way.

“To the right that needs assistance…” We need your help to spread this same commitment of community, established by this audience that is here supporting you, the great Trinity community that educated you, and the hundreds of alumnae who gave their treasure and time because they believe in you despite never having met you. Join us and our cause for community.

And finally, “to the future in the distance…” The way forward is murky and it will be challenging. In all that you do continue to work hard. Commit, with resolve, to leave our community better than you found it.

Give yourselves, give yourselves, give yourselves. We have and we’re waiting for you.