Graduation includes one of the most memorable parts of the ceremony: the commencement address. On April 9, Wellesley College announced that the award-winning writer Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie would be the commencement speaker for the class of 2015.
Adichie grew up in Nigeria and came to the United States at the age of 19 to attend college. She is the author of the novels “Half a Yellow Sun,” “Americanah,” “The Thing Around Your Neck” and “Purple Hibiscus.” She has also made two appearances on TED Talks. TIME magazine recently named her one of the top 100 most influential people of the year.
In interviews, and in her novels, Adichie addresses what it is like to be identified by the color of her skin, her feelings of displacement and the importance of feminism. She praises the liberal arts education that she received because she was able to expand her education into areas like philosophy and political science.
Sahitya Raja ’15, the class president, was one of the students who chose Adichie to come to Wellesley to speak.
“Chimamanda was personally my top choice because she is an incredibly compelling speaker whose voice resonates very well with women of our age. I’m a big fan of ‘Americanah’ — as a diasporic kid, the themes of migration, displacement and home she touches upon are hugely important to me,” Raja said, “I had seen both of her TED Talks — ‘We Should All Be Feminists’ and ‘The Danger of a Single Story’ and thought she was a powerful and engaging speaker.”
In Adichie’s TED Talk “The Danger of a Single Story,” Adichie relates stories of others forming preconceptions of her because they had only learned one perspective of the country Adichie is from, while also acknowledging that internalized stereotypes had affected her perception of others.
The message of Adichie’s talk resonated with Julie Rhie ’15, and she was excited that Adichie was delivering the commencement speech. Rhie had read “Purple Hibiscus” in high school, so when Adichie was announced, she was familiar with the name.
“I really like how she herself experienced being categorized [by stereotypes] but she also had experiences herself of misjudging people. I think it was really powerful how [Adichie] recognizes how she could make mistakes. It is really something people don’t acknowledge or talk about,” Rhie explained.
Because of Adichie’s literary background and life experiences, students believe that Adichie will be able to address issues that are important to them and that her message will reach across to all students.
Ally Pyers ’15 looks forward to Adichie’s speech after attending last year’s graduation and watching other commencement addresses online.
“I think it will be really awesome to have such an important author and feminist speaker. I think that it’s a really big contrast from the speaker last year who was a trustee who was in business,” Pyers said. “My hope is that instead of a speech that is particularly directed at one field, because Adichie has a hand in a lot of different areas, it might be a lot more universal. I’m very excited.”
Ahilya Chawla ’15, co-vice president of her class, explained that the class council was conscious of the need for speakers from different professions. The last fiction author to speak at the Wellesley graduation was Toni Morrison in 2004.
“We were conscious of our responsibility to pick a commencement speaker from a diverse discipline than that of years past and are thrilled to hear Ms. Adichie’s speech. I personally am really hoping that she speaks about her post-college years, and specific experiences during her early 20s,” Chawla said.
Student responses have been positive, according to Raja.
“It’s been so gratifying to see people so excited about this. People have been stopping members of the class council and thanking them, which is really exciting,” said Raja. “I think, to quite a few students, having Adichie as a speaker is having not only an inspiring figure, but a role model at one of the most important events in their lives.”
Photo courtesy of Wellesley College