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Transcending Boundaries and Transforming Lives

A Speech Honoring 125th Anniversary of Isabella Thoburn College, Lucknow, India

By Harriett Jane Olson

Thank you so much for the introduction and for the work for planning this event. I particularly want to thank the committee who planned the event. I think it’s already been a significant time for us, as we have spent time together and have watched and participated in the celebration of this 125 years of commitment to higher education. I’m very grateful for the invitation to open up the session, and I would like to say at the onset of what I’d like to accomplish this morning.

First, I will not be trying to address the technical aspect of global education or education that’s particular to women. I leave that for experts who focus primarily on the field of education, and you will hear from them during the conference. But I do want to speak directly to the theme of this morning: “Transcending Boundaries and Transforming Lives,” and I would like to speak about transcending boundaries and transforming lives then, as we’ve been reflecting on Isabella Thoburn and the development of the school, and of now, as we think about what our task might be as students, as alumnae, as faculty, as leaders in the church and in the world. All of it called to transcend boundaries and transform lives.


I would like to think first about what makes boundaries. How do we experience boundaries? How do we see boundaries? It’s a combination of instituted boundaries by laws or by decree, by status, by situations that are caused by some official declaration, and internalized boundaries—things that we perceive because of culture or gender or race or nationality or experience. We have multiple ways in which we experience boundaries. And just because the boundaries are not instituted by someone else doesn’t mean they aren’t real. Both kinds of boundaries can be very real for us.

I think one of the things we learned from Ms. Thoburn and the experience of Isabella Thoburn College is that boundaries, as real as they are, do not have to have the final word. The boundary is not the end of the conversation. All of the boundaries that we have experienced, both instituted and internalized, can be challenged. I thought about boundaries acting like a hydroelectric dam. The dam itself is a physical presence—it has some force, some definition. But what makes the dam generate electricity is the water that builds up behind it. In the same way, boundaries have impact; they are real. But what gives them force is all of the cultural and religious and institutional things that build up behind them to reinforce them.

So we have some very real limits, and what we are trying to do is avoid being a part of the pressure that actually holds the dam in place. We would rather be a part of the pressure that goes around the dam or underneath the dam or through the dam to create something new. So we’re always in a place where we need to challenge the perception of the boundaries and the force that we ourselves are adding to it if we don’t challenge it.

Boundaries can be much more in our minds than they are on the ground. In the United States, one of the things we do as children is put pieces of a puzzle together to create an image. I remember very well a wooden puzzle that I had as a very young child that was a map of the United States. So Maine goes here and Texas goes here California goes here and all the pieces were different colors and they fit together in only one way and it was a way of teaching the geography of the country.

Imagine my surprise my first time on an airplane and the landscape didn’t look like my puzzle. There were no state lines that you could see from the air. There were some rivers, there were some lakes, but there were no boundaries that were set in place. In my child’s mind those puzzle pieces were independent and separate because it required me to assemble them together. But that’s not actually how boundaries work most of the time in the natural world. We’re separated by inferred boundaries. We’re separated by oceans and natural boundaries, but we are mostly separated by boundaries we have drawn, that we’ve agreed on. And then they become so big that we can’t cross over.

The boundary may be a security point, such as the boundary between the United States and Mexico. The boundary may be the demilitarized zone, like the one between North and South Korea. Or the boundary might be like the partition in Germany, the Berlin Wall that stood so strong for many years but now has been taken apart, piece by piece, as Germany has reunited and has changed assumptions and taken a different place in global leadership.

Challenging Boundaries

The ability to challenge the boundary and to see what might be possible, not just what had been agreed on previously, is one of those skills the faculty of the colleges that are represented here, the students that are here, that all of us need to learn. To think about the boundaries that could be taken apart for the benefit of the whole world. We know that the history of women’s education is a history of boundaries breaking—all kinds of boundaries. Whether it is purdah or early marriage or the economic boundaries that require the income of young girls as part of the family sustaining income, all kinds of boundaries exist that make a barrier between women and education. Many of those boundaries have been transcended in India but still remain strong in other parts of the world.

One of the things that we can do together—because we know something of the experience of transcending boundaries in this country—is bring back vision to other places. One of the things that we bring is our experience. We don’t know everything, but we know what we know. We’ve done some of this work together, and together we can do some of this work in the whole world. So that women in Vietnam and in Laos, in Mogadishu, in Kyrgyzstan don’t have to repeat the same learning but can stand on your shoulders and our shoulders and move ahead in leadership.

One of the responsibilities of getting to the other side of any boundary is saying who else needs to come, who else needs to transcend that boundary. It isn’t a limit for me alone, it isn’t a limit for American women alone, it isn’t a limit, a barrier, for Indian women alone—it’s a very deep boundary that we can cross together. And we may help by others who don’t see the boundary the same way. We have a colleague with us from China, and I hope that we’ll hear from her, but I’ve heard some studies that say that the boundaries for women are quite different in China. And there may be some things that we can learn from her because she hasn’t had to struggle with the same boundaries that we have. It’s one of the reasons we are here today together, to see what we can learn from one another.

Principles of Boundaries

I want to suggest that several of these principles of boundaries that I’ve been describing exist. One of the principles is that many boundaries are artificial. Like the boundaries of the United States’ states, like some of our geopolitical boundaries, and like our perception of our own abilities. Some of our own boundaries are artificial. Some of them are physical and real, like the oceans, like the rivers, like the limits of our own physical capacity. But that doesn’t mean that they have to determine the outcome. The rivers, the oceans, they’re simply not barriers in the same way they were. Persons who are physically challenged can triumph over all kinds of limitations and live fulfilled lives that challenge us. Limits don’t have to affect the result.

Boundaries have to be acknowledged and overcome, but they don’t have to define the outcome. That’s why we’re talking about transcending boundaries, overcoming boundaries, and not letting the boundaries define us. They may define our work, but they don’t define who we are. Who we are is something deeper, something given by God, something that we have to allow to flourish. To prove somehow, to school somehow, to train, to tackle, to develop, but it’s something deeper than just the boundary.

This why this conflict is so important, to think about the empowerment of who we are as persons, called by God to engage in the world so that lives can be transformed. Not just to overcome boundaries, because boundaries also are not our objective. Our objective is the transformation of lives. The boundaries direct our work, they shape some of where our energy goes, but our focus is still on that transformation. Our focus is beyond the boundary. It’s on the people with whom we work, and it’s on the person we want to become because we can see the hand of God working in our lives. The transformed life is part of what pulls us forward, that image of the transformed life.

Isabella Thoburn as a Model

The transformed life of Ms. Thoburn can be a model for us today. She didn’t waste a lot of time or spend a lot of time breaking boundaries. It wasn’t an aggressive work. Sometimes she had to be aggressive, no doubt. Sometimes she had to be forceful, no doubt. But she actually transcended the boundary. She went over it instead of taking it apart from the limited side. She transcended the boundary in part because she was not concerned about her marriageability, or the marriageability of children. She transcended the boundary because it didn’t have the same claim on her that it had on a wife or on a mother. She transcended the boundary because she chose it because of status as a single woman missionary. That’s not a tool that all of us can choose, that’s not something that all of us do, but it is part of what helped her to challenge the norm in her day.

She also transcended boundaries because she had support from her family of origin. Her brother, Bishop Thoburn, one of the people serving here in India, invited her to come. She transcended the boundary that many of us experience—family questions about our calling—because her family was part of her launching pad, part of her energy. And she used those things to call other young women out, to enable those six girls to meet in the small room, to move the school, to seek accreditation. She used all those things that helped her to transcend to help others to break a boundary. One of the strategies we can see her using is to use everything that she had, everything that she brought, her status as an American, her family background, the calling and identity of her family in the Methodist Church, and her willingness to disempower some of the cultural norms of her day on behalf of the women who would follow.

I want to say another word about the women who would follow. Like many of the faculty here, both faculty at Isabella Thoburn College and faculty who are part of this celebration, Ms. Thoburn was very invested in the people who would follow her. She was not only working for her own status, or the stature of the school while she was leading it, she was trying to build the school for the people who would come later. She invested herself in equipping faculty members, training young people, looking for the gifts and graces to be engaged in the work and seeing that people had the preparation that they needed to take the college to the next step.

Lilavati Singh

It is in that context that I want to mention Lilavati Singh. She was the first principal elect following Ms. Thoburn at Isabella Thoburn College. She was someone that Ms. Thoburn had identified as a person with many gifts, a strong academic person, a teacher, and a person who would be bold to go into places that were unfamiliar.

Just an illustration of this, in 1909 she, among other things, journeyed from India to the United States and was engaged in telling a story about Isabella Thoburn College to the women and men, the members of the church, to seek additional funds to grow the school to what it could be. Unfortunately while she was traveling in Chicago, she became sick and died and she was not able to take up her role as principal of the school.

Recently, I was in in Elgin, Ill., and I came to learn that the women of the Elgin church honored Ms. Singh by performing a memorial service there and by burying her body in the local cemetery, complete with a stone marker. And so the president and the vice president of the Illinois organization of United Methodist Women and I went to the cemetery remembering her, thinking about Ms. Thoburn’s investment in her and her commitment for the next generation, and we brought back a photo that you can keep in your archives (in case you don’t have one already).

In addition to her name and her date of death, on the stone it says: “The peace of God was on her face.” I love this sentiment. I can’t imagine that Ms. Singh was able to write it herself because of how ill she had been, so it must have been the perception of the Methodist women who could see the work of God in her life. They could see the person that God had helped her to become. And they recorded it in stone for us to know as well. So the work of transcending boundaries led to transformation not just of life but of many lives.

Transforming Lives

God certainly transformed Ms. Thoburn’s life. As a 26-year-old woman she came to India, took ship, came without really knowing if she could found a school. There wasn’t a school for her to come and take charge of; she had to come and build an institution. Transcending these boundaries definitely transformed her life. It probably transformed her brother’s life—not all brothers like to have their sisters arrive on their doorstep.

You can imagine that there might have been some plusses and some minuses for the Thoburn family as they came together in that way as adults. But they supported each other’s ministries and transformed their lives. It transformed the lives of the early students and Ms. Singh, to answer the call of God and to find a place, to express a place and to know their abilities in a different way.

It also transformed the lives of the American women who had received her so warmly. It transformed them because they were in relationship with Ms. Thoburn, with the women participating in the college, and with the emerging leaders of whom they were so proud. It transformed their lives because they could see that the boundaries that existed in their everyday work did not limit their results. They had a profoundness, that standing together with the women in India, and the women in China, and the women in Liberia, and the women in the Philippines, the women in Pakistan, it’s part of our call, it’s part of what makes us who we are. It’s why we’re here both as college leaders, as students, Ubuntu journeyers. Because we really know that we are who we are because you are who you are.

So I want to say particularly to the students, that the more truly you can be your complete self—transcending barriers, transforming lives, your own, your families’, your nation’s—the more you can do that, the more truly we will also be ourselves. We need you to work on being yourself, being complete, not seeing the boundary as a destination but simply as work along the journey. And the more you do that, the more we will see ourselves as your partners, as partners with other leaders around the world, and we will be equipped to do the next thing.

When I was here a couple of years ago I had a chance to talk with a group of NCI leaders who pointed out to me that India had a female prime minister and since then a female president, something the United States has not been able to achieve. It looks like this will still be true in 2012 and 2013.

India is not defined only by the colonial rule. You know, just two weeks ago the British government changed the rules of succession to the throne to allow daughters of the royal family equal access to the throne as sons. Britain is catching up to India in a way. We must all help one another claim our space in the world and work together: India working with the United States, the United States working with the U.K., the U.K. working with Brazil, all of us working with one another to learn what can be learned by the people who are out ahead of us, by the innovators that we were talking about during our time together and saying let’s create the world we want to live in.

Let’s transform the lives of the persons who can lead us into that next phase of our development as a community of nations. Let’s not accept those boundaries as definitions, but let’s go ahead a transform lives so that we can do the next thing, so that the next leader doesn’t have to focus on what’s appropriate to her gender but can focus on what is needed in the world.

Let’s transform the assumption that we bring power to the boundaries and make decisions that take away the power of the limits. Let us be about asking what kind of world we want to live in. Let us work to make it be true. Because we know God has called us. God has placed that ability in us and that yearning within us to be useful, to be fruitful, to transcend boundaries, to transform lives, and to make the world the sort of place that God calls for it to be, that God created it to be.

I’m so grateful to be here, to be engaged in the fore and to be partners with you, because you are who you are, I am who I am. I give thanks to God.

Harriett Olson is the deputy general secretary for the Women's Division, the policy-making body of United Methodist Women.

Last Updated: 04/10/2014

© 2014 United Methodist Women