A First Lady Comes in Second

WHAT would Miss Manners say? When Wellesley College invited Barbara Bush to be its commencement speaker on June 1, the First Lady graciously accepted. But when news of her selection spread across the campus, students objected, arguing that Mrs. Bush does not reflect their goals and ambitions. A group of 150 - one-quarter of the class of 600 - even signed a petition of protest and presented it to Nannerl Keohane, president of the college. ``To honor Barbara Bush as a commencement speaker is to honor a woman who has gained recognition through the achievements of her husband, which contradicts what we have been taught over the last four years at Wellesley,'' the petition stated.

Students noted that the First Lady dropped out of Smith College after her sophomore year to marry George Bush. Susie Cardenas, a senior who helped to organize the petition drive, also complained that Mrs. Bush is ``not representative and does not embody the Wellesley experience - what we're trying to go after in life.''

Apart from the seeming rudeness of the snub, the incident raises commencement-season questions that go beyond the red brick walls of Wellesley: Just what is it that graduates of the Class of 1990 - both men and women - are ``trying to go after in life''? And what, finally, constitutes success and achievement?

By Wellesley standards, Mrs. Bush's official r'esum'e may seem thin: no prestigious degree, and no fast-track career of her own. At a time when women dream of becoming President rather than the President's wife, her role as First Lady, however demanding it may be, is definitely regarded as a second-fiddle job.

But the unofficial Bush r'esum'e - the one that would fill many pages in chronicling the achievements of a 64-year lifetime - is impressive. This is a woman who came to the White House with a solidly established ``career'' as a committed volunteer, including efforts to help women and children who are homeless.

This is also a woman who has stated publicly, ``I have a very simple aim - to wipe out illiteracy.'' To that end, she has established the Barbara Bush Foundation for Family Literacy, emphasizing ``intergenerational activities'' and the importance of the family as the key to achieving literacy. She calls literacy ``a universal value in the nation.''

As members of the Class of 1990 - at Wellesley and everywhere else - prepare to collect their diplomas and begin their careers, it is people like Mrs. Bush, with her emphasis on ``universal values,'' who serve as important examples that achievement takes many forms. They are reminders that not all successful careers - or successful commencement speakers - come with a corner office and a six-figure salary.

Even those whose careers bring such rewards are becoming increasingly aware that success carries obligations. The same week that Wellesley students were protesting Mrs. Bush's appearance, students at Harvard Law School were voting to add mandatory pro bono work to their curriculum. Supporters of the referendum say the requirement would show students the importance of making time to help the poor.

It is a message Mrs. Bush would undoubtedly applaud.

Literacy, caring for the poor who don't get to attend prestigious colleges - surely this is part of what education should be about.

Education is also thinking for oneself - avoiding the stereotypes of one's era, seeing excellence wherever it exists. Throughout the '80s, articles on careers and success emphasized the value of role models - successful mentors and leaders who could teach and inspire others. In this sense, Barbara Bush may serve to educate Wellesley graduates to roles beyond the current conventional model of the fast track.

The outstanding characteristic of this First Lady is her forthrightness. She does not affect. She does not pretend. She tries to be who she is and nothing more. In this respect, her presence alone ought to serve as an example to young women, whatever their ambitions. A quiet lesson in ``be yourself'' - could any commencement speaker offer more?

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