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Commencement Archive

2006 Student Address: Esi Cleland

Esi Cleland, a member of the Class of 2006, delivered the student speech at Smith College’s Ivy Day celebration on Saturday, May 20.

Good morning. My name is Esi Cleland, and I am a member of the Class of 2006. I am honored to share my story and to express gratitude on my own behalf and on behalf of others whose lives and educations have been enriched through the contributions that Smith alumnae make to this college. I’m thrilled to be here this morning.

I felt the influence of Smith alumnae soon after I was accepted awarded a Coulter scholarship, which covered the comprehensive cost of a Smith education. Through Susan Racher, Class of 1975, the Coulter Foundation made it possible for me to be the first in my family to graduate from college. I come from Ghana, West Africa, and my parents make a combined annual income of less than $13,000. Clearly, without the generous financial aid award, I would not be here now. I did not know at the time who was offering me such a tremendous opportunity. Today, I understand that such assistance hinges critically on the support of Smith alumnae. Thank you.

When I first arrived here, I immediately faced two problems -- challenging academics and cold weather. I had been warned about both, but nothing could have prepared a Ghanaian girl -- whose only experience with cold weather is limited to temperatures around 70 degrees -- for the shock of my first New England winter. That problem was readily solved when the Smith Student Aid Society gave me funds to buy a winter coat. The rigor of academics, however, became like a persistent fly that refused to go away no matter how hard I swatted at it.

While I had been one of the best students in my high school class, I realized that my math preparation was not adequate for my science classes. It was a difficult time. Had I left everything that was familiar only to flounder in this new place? With my family thousands of miles away, who was there to hold my hand? Fortunately, there was Anna LaRue, a senior physics major and now alumna class of 2004. Watching Anna succeed in the sciences and having her believe in me made all the difference. If she were here today, I would say thank you to her. Upon her suggestion, I took all the math classes offered by the physics department and consequently fell in love with physics. Thanks in part to her, and in part to the excellent professors, I became a physicist. In so doing, I found a home here. And as dorky as this may sound, some of my favorite memories of Smith happened while doing physics homework with my colleagues. I could not have made it without this amazing community of scholars.

During the summer of my sophomore year, financial aid from Smith enabled me to travel to Germany to conduct biophysics research in the laboratory of a physicist who later became a wonderful friend and mentor. My interaction with him sparked an interest in the applications of physics to medicine. To pursue this interest, I applied for and received Praxis funds. Praxis allowed me to create my own internship with one of the leading physicists in this field. Based on our work, I co-authored a paper and was invited to present at the premiere medical imaging conference in San Diego this past February. Because I was not technically a member of the team from Duke, I was not funded by them. Thanks to a Smith College conference fund, I was able to attend and to be one of the few, if not the only, undergraduate student who gave an oral presentation.

The gift that Smith gave me has borne fruit in unexpected ways. My association with this professor was instrumental in my acceptance to pursue a Ph.D. in medical physics at Duke. As if that were not enough, “Beyond Smith,” a fund administered by the Smith Student Aid Society, also covered part of my graduate school application costs.

As I leave Smith, the skills I value most are the quantitative and communication skills I have gained. My reasoning, logic, and writing have been transformed because Smith made it possible (even as a science student) for me to pursue my love for literature and philosophy. Four years ago, the thought of speaking to an audience of this size would have given me weak knees. This morning, the woman who stands before you has too much to say. As a fellow Smithie said to me recently, Smith has made us audacious. In the time that I have been here, my confidence has multiplied exponentially. Today, I feel that I can do anything. My Smith experience has been rich and rewarding indeed, and I am overwhelmed and humbled.

I know that as I recount my story, some of you are thinking, surely she must be grateful. Who wouldn’t be? She has been given so much. Others are wondering why I am taking the trouble to delineate all the fabulous things I have done in my time here. I do not narrate my story to impress you. Rather, I tell it because it is neither singular nor unique. I wouldn’t be standing here if I didn’t think that my achievements illustrate to a large degree what many of us have learned and accomplished because of the generosity of Smith alumnae. In this crowd, I can count many individuals known personally to me, who have received substantial aid from Smith, and who have traveled to explore new cultures, done amazing research, tested their leadership capabilities, and truly bloomed in their time here to become phenomenal women.

There’s only one way to look at it; we have been lucky. Vince Lombardi once said that luck is a matter of preparation meeting opportunity. It seems to me that every time we have been prepared, Smith has met us halfway by providing us opportunities. Distinguished Alumnae, if you remember nothing of my speech tomorrow or a year from now, please remember that when you make a gift, you touch a student's life. Fellow graduates, parents, friends, please join me in saying thank you to Smith's generous alumnae.