Honorary Degree Recipients Speak at Commencement

Olivia DrakeMay 24, 200911min

Jennifer Alexander ’88, Mark Masselli and Azim Premji ’99 were awarded Doctor of Humane Letters honorary degrees during the 177th Commencement. Remarks from the ceremony are below:

Remarks by Jennifer Alexander ’88
Has anyone here ever read Charlotte’s Web? You remember the story of Wilbur the pig and Charlotte the spider who became best friends – But spiders don’t live very long: we all cried when Charlotte died and left Wilbur behind to care for her egg sac full of tiny baby spiders.

When I was at Wesleyan, Professor Anne Greene would sometimes read children’s books out loud to us in class. In that spirit, I’d like to read this passage from the end of Charlotte’s Web, after Charlottte is gone and her egg sac has hatched. To Wilbur’s great surprise, the hundreds of baby spiders each take their first steps and float away on a little balloon of silk web. One of them finally stops to explain:

“We’re leaving here on the warm updraft. This is our moment for setting forth. We are aeronauts and we are going out into the world to make webs for ourselves”.
“But where?” asked Wilbur.
“Wherever the wind takes us……We take to the breeze, we go as we please.”
…The air was now so full of balloonists that the barn cellar looked almost as though a mist had gathered. Balloons by the dozen were rising, circling, and drifting away through the door, sailing off on the gentle wind. Cries of “Goodbye, goodbye, goodbye!” came weakly to Wilbur’s ears. He couldn’t bear to watch anymore. In sorrow he sank to the ground and closed his eyes… [and] cried himself to sleep.
When he woke it was late afternoon… He walked drearily to the doorway where Charlotte’s web used to be… [then] he heard a small voice.
“Salutations!” it said. “I’m up here.”
“So am I” said another tiny voice.
“So am I,” said a third voice. “Three of us are staying. We like this place, and we like you!” (EB White, p. 180, Charlotte’s Web)

Now, it was a Sunday morning, 21 years ago, when I was sitting where you are now, graduating with my class from Wesleyan. That very afternoon the exodus began. San Francisco, Seattle, Brooklyn. Like Charlotte’s babies hatching from the egg sac, my friends floated away to wonderful futures. But I had fallen in love – with Middletown and with my partner – and so I stayed. At the time, it felt like a failure to dream big enough, but it later turned out that the simple act of staying brought more joy and accomplishment to my life than I could have imagined.

And so as you go in every direction this afternoon – with our blessing – I hope you find something in your life that makes you want to stay – in a place, in a discipline, in a friendship. The lesson I want you to take from Charlotte’s Web is this: When some of the spiders decided to stay, it didn’t just matter for Wilbur and it didn’t just matter for the barnyard: it mattered for the spiders.

Remarks by Mark Masselli
Mr. President – members of the Wesleyan Community – thank you for this distinguished honor – it comes to a grateful son of a Wesleyan alum/class of 42 . Jennifer and I know that this recognition today reaches beyond us and belongs to all who care about building communities.

To the class of 2009 – let me add my voice to the chorus of congratulations – today is a special milestone, one that makes you and your families rightfully proud.

From my very narrow perch – here in Middletown, Connecticut – working at the Community Health Center – let me add some words that aren’t being used a lot at graduation ceremonies today in America. “We are hiring” – let me say that again for the parents – “we are hiring.”

We are not looking just to fill positions but rather looking for people who care deeply about principles. Ours is that “health care is a right, not a privilege.”

It’s what Wesleyan students in the class of 1972 cared about when they joined with Middletown activists to start a small free clinic on College Street. They believed in a cause and they challenged a system not as a protest but because they stood by their principles–

We are not looking just to fill positions – but rather we are looking for people who are driven by a passion to relieve injustice. Our passion drives us to build a system of world-class health care that values the poor, those who speak other languages, and those who are new to America.

It’s passion that motivates the Wesleyan students from this class – the class of 2009 – and we’ve seen it in your work in the Middletown community in the last 4 years. You volunteer because you believe in the values of inclusion and diversity, values that are fundamental to building a fair and just society and values that are worth spending a lifetime fighting for.

We are not just looking to fill positions. We are looking for you .

But I understand that you might have other plans – and I know that young people leave because they are restless for change.

But wherever you find that change, you will find that there are people like myself all over the world who are enriched by the fresh breeze of ideas, insights and idealism that comes from working with Wesleyan graduates – and you will change the contours of communities like Middletown for the better – because you learned how to bring together your principles, passion and purpose to a cause.

At Wesleyan, you stepped out of the shadows of self-interest into the sunlight of civic engagement.

So as you go forth into that sunlight – continue to stand up for what you believe and help others to reach up and lift their sky.

Peace and health.

Remarks by Azim Premji P’99
Over the years I have come to know Wesleyan, because my son graduated from here in 1999.

Interestingly, 1999 is also the year that I graduated. It certainly is a slightly odd and unusual phenomenon…father and son graduating in the same year…nevertheless it did happen in my case.

I joined Stanford in 1964. In 1966, in my last year at Stanford, I had to leave without graduating as my father passed away suddenly and I had to go back to India to take charge of Wipro. As the years flew past and became decades, Wipro grew from a small vegetable oil making company to a $5 B Global IT Enterprise.

Through these years of growth of Wipro, I had the privilege of interacting with thousands of ordinary people who did extraordinary things and overcame insurmountable odds. The more I got to know these people, who came from every walk of life, every kind of economic and social back ground imaginable, I grew deeply convinced about the singular power of Education especially in the developing world, where not all have equal access to a quality Education..

I am convinced that Education indeed has the unique power to enable not only personal success but also to drive social transformation, and therefore the power to create a more equitable, humane and sustainable society.

Convinced as I am about the critical importance of Education, it was only natural that I direct all my personal philanthropy towards this end. Our efforts in trying to catalyze systemic Education reform in India, now reaches out to over 3.3 million children across more than 25,000 schools. I am acutely conscious that these numbers are still small drops in a very large ocean; we have a long way to go.

Along this exciting, multi decade long journey of Wipro and my own journey of realization of the transformational power of Education, my own education had remained an unfinished agenda. I set out to complete this agenda in 1998, and finally completed my Electrical Engineering degree in 1999 from Stanford, along with the singular pleasure of graduating in the same year as my son.

From this brief narration it would be clear, that for me, Education is indeed special. And when committed, genuine and respected people like you from the world of Education have chosen to bestow an honor like this on me, it is indeed very, very special – I sincerely and with humility thank you.


More information on Alexander, Masselli and Premji is online here.