For Those Not in Cap and Gown

At this time of year, it's the high school and college graduates who are on the receiving end of advice for life. But what about their family and friends who are watching? Has anyone thought they might need some wisdom from the podium for the years ahead?

In what might be characterized as a commencement address for mid-lifers, former Smith College President Jill Ker Conway stoked the Smith class of 1980 when she spoke informally with them at their 25th reunion this month. As the first female president of the largest women's college in America, Ms. Conway climbed her learning curve with that class.

To her audience of stay-at-home moms, kids-and-job jugglers, and career-only women, she posed this question: Did you choose the life you're living - or just fall into it?

A graduation speech usually stems from personal experience. The speaker's path vouches for the message, and Conway's life ratifies her message of conscious choosing.

She chose to leave an "intellectual dead-end" in her native Australia for graduate studies at Harvard, and then marriage. After Smith, she chose a life of writing (including "The Road from Coorain") and corporate and nonprofit board work. And after traveling the globe to improve factory conditions for women, she's now decided to stay near home, devoting herself to local land issues and her church.

And yet, life's not just a menu of selections. Children come along (or don't), loved ones pass, jobs disappear. But Conway seemed to be saying that even in the middle of life's unpredictable currents, it's never too late to pick up an oar and row toward "your calling" - a term she used often with students in her Smith years. That implies not only pulling on the oar, but better listening for where to go.

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