Once, when I was in high school, I entered a public speaking contest. I think there were four entries, and I came in third, after two people who spoke about the 1969 lunar landing. At one point in my speech, I looked out at the room of teenagers and a few adults and asked a question. In a voice squeaking with stage fright, I posed to the audience “in about thirty years, someone will be sworn in as president of the United States of America. I ask you today; why shouldn’t it be one of us?”
In case you have not noticed, neither I nor any of the teenagers in that room that day are being sworn in next week as president of the U.S. I caught the political bug, but soon found teachers in college who saw something else in me; a scholar and teacher. I now look back on my teenage ambitions and laugh at the idea of me as a politician, but I do so with a sense of gratefulness to the professors who helped me find my true calling. I believe that this is one aspect of our job as professors that is particularly important. For, somewhere, someplace, there must have been teachers and professors who saw something special in a student named Barack Obama, and encouraged him to pursue a unique path in life. And our country will forever be changed for the encouragement they gave him.
We are a college dedicated to the education of women, and we are therefore always fighting stereotypes of what it is that women can and can’t do with their lives. We fight this as we encourage our young women to major or minor in math, to pursue internships at NASA or to apply to graduate school, in spite of (or sometimes because of) family obligations.
It is particularly exhilarating to encourage students to pursue paths in life that are not what they would be expected to pursue. We have students who have gone on to medical school after becoming parents as young teenagers, students who overcame life-threatening health problems to attend graduate school and students who earned master’s degrees (with honors) after growing up in the poorest sections of our city, We can’t take responsibility for all of their accomplishments, but it is very rewarding to know that we had a small role to play in shaping the amazing lives that pass through our college. I find that the role of mentor draws upon many of the characteristics that I use as a mother, as I help my own child grow into the best person she can be. Indeed, some of my students who have been parents longer than I have often find themselves in the role of mentor to me, as I ask them for advice about raising a child.
I remember how excited I was about politics in high school, but I admit that I did not have all the details down exactly right. When it came time to write a few random words about ourselves in our yearbook, I wrote “future home, 1500 Pennsylvania Avenue.” I don’t know if the editors of the yearbook really missed it, or if they were just so tired of my grandiose dreams that they decided to leave it in, as they knew I would be mortified at the mistake. Either way, I will forever be remembered in my high school as the girl who wanted to grow up to live NEXT DOOR to the White House, which is at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. It is a good thing that the professors in my life helped me to find another profession!
To the Obamas, who will soon move INTO (and not next door to) the White House: Good luck!