Raindrops to Rivers (as prepared for delivery)
Director, Peace Corps
Thank you, Matt, for that wonderful introduction. And thank you, on behalf of the Peace Corps, for your service. President Thomas; members of the Board of Trustees; faculty and staff; parents, family, and friends; and most importantly, Class of 2015: Congratulations! You made it!
Thank you so very much for having me on this special day. You know, I wasn’t sure if today might be a little anticlimactic after you all came together just a few weeks ago to celebrate another monumental achievement… but selfishly, it looks like setting the Guinness World Record for the world’s longest hopscotch course didn’t steal any thunder away from Graduation Day. Whew!
World’s longest hopscotch course. That’s incredible! Of course, in my day, we played hopscotch barefoot… in the snow… hopping uphill both ways… Isn’t that right, parents? I bet you didn’t know those tuition bills included a line item for sidewalk chalk, did you?
In all seriousness, UPS is an extraordinary place – really, it’s like this campus was made for Instagram (#nofilter) – and I am thrilled and honored to be receiving this degree, and to be sharing this day with you.
Of course, I suspect that just like any other picture-perfect scene, reality may be a little more… complicated. So, a quick word to those of you who are currently grappling with not just the philosophical questions provoked by commencement… but also the practical ones… involving lists that look something like:
Let me offer, in my capacity as Director of the Peace Corps, a few words that I hope will brighten your outlook: We’re hiring. That’s right. While some job markets may not have taken notice – yet – that you’re graduating! And available! And looking! We at the Peace Corps certainly have. And we are eager to help you take your talents anywhere from Albania to Zambia... and dozens more countries in between.
Like UPS, Peace Corps draws men and women who are interested in not just imagining a better world… but rolling up their sleeves anddoing something about it. I am not surprised to see such a strong – and growing! – Peace Corps community at the University of Puget Sound, which has inspired such dedication to social justice, democratic citizenship, and global impact.
From the nearly 300 UPS alumni who have gone on to serve as Volunteers… to your top placing year after year in Peace Corps’ national college rankings… and the many Returned Volunteers among your faculty and staff… we are proud to be part of the UPS legacy of service and global engagement – past and present.
Four years ago, Aaron Pomerantz came to UPS with aspirations of premed studies. It wasn’t biochem or his first MCAT practice exam that changed his mind, though – it was the semester he spent traveling across South Africa and Southeast Asia through a study abroad program that opened his eyes to the urgency of issues in global health… and sparked his interest in the developing world.
Six months from now, Aaron will depart for his service as a Health Volunteer in The Gambia, where he will work with community members and local organizations to implement community-based public health initiatives. It’s a bit scary, he says, to think that he’ll soon be thousands of miles away from Tacoma, living in a hut with no electricity or running water.
But even then, he says, he knows he can count on the support of family, friends, and faculty here at UPS, who have taught him so much about collaboration, about being present, about what it means to truly pursue your passion.
Welcome, Aaron, to the Peace Corps family. We’re so glad to have you, and we can’t wait to hear about the difference that you will make… the relationships that you will build… the lives that you will touch.
Of course, you don’t have to become a Peace Corps Volunteer in order to change lives. I wouldn’t be doing my job, though, if I didn’t come right out and say: I hope that you will consider it. I hope you will consider the Peace Corps because there is no experience in the world that is more life-changing – or life-defining.
But whichever path you choose… wherever you go from here… I hope that you will find a way to serve others. Not just for the sake of people in communities where the need is great. And not just for the sake of our country’s future, which depends so much on your generation rising to meet the challenges of our time.
I hope that you will pursue a life of service because it will teach you lessons that you cannot learn any other way. It will change the way you see the world – and the way you see yourself. It will shed light on problems you probably never even thought to unravel, and challenge you in ways you might have never imagined.
And that is what I have to offer to you today, graduates – not easy answers… not the one-size-fits-all clichés that UPS grads would reject in a heartbeat anyway… but questions to ponder, and challenges to consider.
My first challenge to you has to do with inspiration. That is, how you might just find sources of inspiration in some of the most seemingly unlikely places – if you only open your eyes, and your heart. When I departed for my Peace Corps service in Western Samoa, along with my husband Steve, I didn’t know yet that Peace Corps would change my life, in ways I could not have predicted.
Steve and I served as secondary school teachers in an all-girls high school in our small village. Steve taught Math, and I taught English. The students we taught were incredibly motivated, but the odds were stacked against them. Few of them had the language skills to pass the national graduation exam. Even fewer had the resources or family support to go on to university.
We were constantly inspired by how hard our students worked. They found such joy in learning, even knowing, as they must have known, that their schooling was not likely to continue much longer. But Steve and I despaired that our girls had so few opportunities. We felt that we held their future in our hands, and no matter how hard we tried, the outcome seemed invariable.
And then, about a year after we left Samoa, Steve and I received a letter from Palepa, one of our students. She wrote to tell us about how our English and math classes had helped her get a job at the bank in town – and now her wages were helping her younger sisters pay their school fees.
“But more importantly,” she said, “you helped me see that girls can have a future of their own. That they have the right to choose the person they want to marry; the number of children they want to have and the kind of career they want to pursue. “You helped me believe that I can start a business if I want to, or seek a leadership position in my village. Maybe even one day I’ll be a matai – a village chief!”
Many years have gone by, and I’ve lost touch with Palepa. I don’t know if she ever started the business she dreamed of. Or if she is indeed, today, a matai. But what I do know is how much I learned from her – and her fellow students: patience, perseverance, a willingness to power through… and why you never, ever give up, no matter how tough the odds.
Earlier this year, Peace Corps was proud to partner with First Lady Michelle Obama in launching a powerful new collaboration to leverage the unique grassroots network of Peace Corps Volunteers in expanding access to education for girls and young women. It’s called “Let Girls Learn,” and it’s an initiative that we hope will open doors of opportunity for girls across the globe – and in time, their families, their communities, and their countries.
It’s an initiative inspired by girls like Palepa, who dream big dreams… and can be catalysts for so much good in their communities, and indeed, their nations and our world… if only given a chance. For all the challenges that we face in our time, there is no shortage of inspiration in this wide, wide world of ours.
Wherever you go next – wherever you land – I hope that you will find opportunities to teach, but also be taught…To lead, but also look to the example that others set. To be inspired by people’s extraordinary resilience and capacity for hope – even in the face of some of the toughest barriers in some of the most forgotten corners of our world.
My next challenge to you is about the power of one. And why you should never, ever doubt the difference that one individual can make. You need not look far for proof points, here at UPS. Whether it is Peace Corps Volunteers leaving friends and family behind to live and work in a community thousands of miles from home. Or a graduating senior whose childhood love of hopscotch inspired not only a world record but a campus- and community-wide event that brought people together. Or a doctor who started a movement that spread from this very stadium across the country, and around the world.
If you have wondered whether one person can truly make a difference in this world, I’m here to tell you that you can. Many of you know the story of honorary UPS alum Dr. Gordon Klatt, whose life and legacy was honored here just a few weeks ago. Twenty years ago, Dr. Klatt – a Tacoma-based colorectal surgeon – decided that he wanted to do something to help his local American Cancer Society chapter raise funds.
This being Tacoma, he decided to do something a little offbeat, a little off-the-wall. Dr. Klatt was a marathoner, and in honor of his patients and all who were fighting cancer, he decided to start running. And running. And running. For 24 hours, Dr. Klatt circled this very track, covering more than 83 miles. Friends pledged $25 to walk or run 30 minutes with him. By the end, he had raised $27,000 to fight cancer – and inspired the several hundred friends, family, and patients who had come out to watch to join in the fight.
The next year, 220 people joined him in this “Relay for Life.” Within a few years, Relays were being held across the nation. Today, Relay For Life is held in 23 countries and has raised nearly $5 billion to fight cancer. And of course, as Loggers know, Relay for Life is going strong as ever at UPS, right here in Baker Stadium, where it all started.
Dr. Klatt once predicted that his grandchildren would see a day free from cancer. Sadly, he didn’t live to see that day. He passed away last August after his own battle with stomach cancer. His legacy lives on in the patients, survivors, and supporters who gathered this spring, and will continue to gather for seasons to come, to walk in his footsteps.
When you leave here today, what struggles and what frustrations you may confront, I hope you remember that the change we seek in our world can begin with just one person. And that no matter which path you pursue, there is nothing naïve about believing in your capacity to make a difference.
My third and final challenge to you is about empathy. That is, its profound power to transform the way we see the world… and the way we see ourselves.
A few years ago, a couple named Robert and Kerry left their home in Chicago to serve as Peace Corps Volunteers, working to improve education and community economic development in the eastern highlands of Papua New Guinea. In their small community, there were no cars, electricity, or telephones. The villagers lived in simple grass huts. They lived on the crops they planted in their gardens, and the profits they earned from selling coffee, totaling some $200 a year.
They welcomed Robert and Kerry with open arms. The men built them a beautiful thatched-roof hut. The women helped them plant a garden filled with corn, potatoes, beans, and pineapples. Giggling children followed them everywhere they went. In the evenings, Kerry and Robert would join the villagers in their favorite pastime – sitting in a circle on the ground, telling stories under the stars.
One night, Robert pulled out a few photographs of Chicago to share with his new family. One particular photo caught the villagers’ attention: a snapshot of the glittering skyscrapers on Michigan Avenue… showing, in the shadows… two homeless men sitting on the pavement, propping up a crumpled sign.
The villagers were perplexed. What are these two men doing? they asked. Robert attempted to explain. The mood grew solemn as the villagers struggled to understand how it was that these men should be dressed in rags and begging for food in one of America’s great cities.
The next day, several villagers approached Robert and Kerry. “We have just held a meeting of the village council,” they said, “and we have a proposal for you. Please contact the two men in the photograph, and your government, too. Please ask your government to send them to our village, just as they sent you. We have set aside two plots of land for them. Our men will build them houses. Our women will plant gardens to feed them. We will welcome them into our community, just as we welcomed you.”
Wherever you go from here, however you choose to make a difference, I hope you will remember that there is no gift more powerful than the gift of empathy: The willingness to listen, with patience and compassion… to step into someone’s shoes, and see the world as they do… to honor the possibility that in trying to help someone, you are just as likely to be a receiver as a giver of help.
Like so many other Peace Corps Volunteers, I have been awed and humbled by the kindness, generosity, and unshakable optimism of the people I have met through service. In some of the world’s poorest, most daunting places, you inevitably find proof of humanity’s incredible resilience. You find people who love, and laugh, and live, no matter how little they have, or how much they have to overcome. You find people who stand tall and hold strong, even when it seems they’ve had every reason to break. You find people who inspire hope and optimism, simply by the power of their example.
Service changes lives – including your own. You might think that when you volunteer, it’s just a drop in the bucket. No bigger than a single raindrop. But raindrops can become rivers. Rivers swell into the sea. And in time, the rise and fall of the tides can literally transform a landscape.
Class of 2015 – you have an incredible future ahead of you, and a whole world to explore. I can’t wait to hear about all the good that you will do. Congratulations!
I have feared this moment. But not for what I imagine are the usual reasons - not for the size of this crowd, the sacredness of the ceremony, or the institutional pressure to demonstrate the merits of a liberal arts degree. I feared overshadowing the many beautiful and unique voices in this class, if I were to discuss what ‘our’ experience was like. Because, as a student of this university, I have become much more aware of the limitations that each of our voices has on representing others.
So, instead, I would like us each to reflect on our own experience. Let us frame our last time together by acknowledging each of our growths.
Who were you when you came to this place? And how have you changed since then? That’s what I’d like to talk about today. I’ll begin with my answers.
It’s been six years since I started spending my nights alone, in the dark, dank streets of Houston, Texas - with the homeless men and women who lived off of nothing - at that time, some of my closest friends. It’s been a little less than that since I spent nights away from home - in others’ houses, camping outside the city, or in the back of my car - alone.
It’s been five years since I dreaded the idea of going to college, for fear of failure that I’d never really committed myself 4 years since I decided I’d come to Puget Sound, It’s been a little less than that since I sat on that plane, full of angst, wondering if I would run from this place, too.
But for the first time in my life, I stayed here - and tried to create a place. And there I was, on the squeaky, leather couches outside of diversions Googling, ‘How do I write a thesis statement.’ Then I joined my first club, my first sports team, I soon found my voice in the newly-made poetry club - exploring, performing, and professing the echoes of the etchings of the heartstrings of my soul.
I found another expression of my voice in late-night radio jaunts on KUPS - spewing weeks-worth of musical research through turn-tables and non-static airwaves.
I discovered my academic voice stuffed fathoms-deep in books, conversations with professors, and friendly debates about the the validity or soundness of TED talks, news stories, or friends’ research…
And it was here where I realized and actualized my fiercest, all-consuming passion of leading others through love and integrity.
It was in these communities - and others - where I found my voice here...I came here as a runner. And I leave knowing what it feels like to take less than four fears to create community - and even less than that to find my different voices.
And this is not just my story. So, if you are able to, I’d like you to raise your hand when one of these upcoming lines applies to you...I will signal like this when I am done speaking each line.
And as you lower your hand, I’d like you to think about the person who is most proud of you for having raised your hand, even and especially if that is your past self...who first came here months, or years ago.
Finally, I’d like you to raise your cap high and and keep it raised...when you hear the name of a place where you have here learned to find your voice and create your community...
As you bring your cap down and pressed against your chest, retrace in your mind’s eye that that most palpable moment you’ve been remembering...and keep it there while I finish this together... Tracing trajectories and echoes... While you let your mind wander, you might wonder...
How will this degree have prepared us for the world outside… And I’d...be remiss or even dismissed...if I said I knew…
So I propose, not prose, but poetry to find answers, for one man writes, that
Poetry is the tracing of trajectories of a finite sound to the infinite points of its echoes.
For, we here represent a singular sound - a finite blip, an indelible yet indifferent ink-stain on the map of our lives
For we shall never share a space, this place, or anything like it again…
But before we go - and become lost in the world - as an almost-infinite array of colors across time
That trace the trajectories of our new-found voices...
Let us remember...and find solace in the fact that we here learned,
That creating community is not a cosmic luck-draw, but a skill that we’ve honed,
And that finding your voice is a power you’ve owned.
For, a human said, that everything in your life will rot and fall apart,
But the impact you have on others is the most powerful currency you own.
Let us be ever-grounded, knowing that this place helped us to create that currency,
Through the constant calibration of our own voices,
Now, let us spend and spend this...to no end.
And those amazing communities and voices you’ve had here...
You will never find that again - unless you seek it.
Thank goodness, you now know what to look for.
I wish you much more than love and respect. Thank you.