Every May, around 600 amazing-stories-in-progress dress up in long black gowns and square hats, march through campus, are awarded sheepskins, and go out into the world to live out their tales of adventure. Here’s just one of them.
The daughter of a Puget Sound faculty member, she had always felt at home on a college campus. She had been a talented local high school student who discovered an interest in public affairs early in life. She went off to study at Princeton University. A dream. Just one year away from graduation, the unthinkable happened. She was struck with a life-threatening disease. To call this turn of events a tremendous disappointment would be an understatement.
Forced to withdraw from Princeton, she took the long trip back home to Tacoma to receive the medical treatment she desperately needed. Once here, she discovered that she had come home in more ways than one. She had grown up attending events, and lectures, and concerts on campus, and seen her life shaped by what she had learned here. She had taken her first trip abroad, accompanying (when she was only 11 years old) 30 Puget Sound undergraduates and her father, who was the faculty member/guide, on a trek through Italy and eastern Europe. As a high school student, she had taken college classes at Puget Sound and become friends with some of the faculty. And after her three years at Princeton, she was especially impressed by their unfailing commitment to students and to the life of the mind.
Now, healthy once more, she made an important decision. She would not return to Princeton. Rather, she would stay right here and graduate from the University of Puget Sound. A family friend, history Professor Walter Lowrie, encouraged her to entertain the unthinkable once more: this time, to apply for the highly competitive Rhodes Scholarship to study international relations at Oxford. She never imagined herself a Rhodes Scholar. And she is convinced she never would have applied for a Rhodes if she had been at Princeton. At Puget Sound, she did.
Cut to the chase: she was the only person from the state of Washington selected for a Rhodes that year. That was in 1987. She went to Oxford, and it changed her life and set her on the path that would lead her to a think tank at Stanford, writing on the human right to self-defense; to working with the United Nations on the most intractable of international crises; to living in dangerous places like the Gaza Strip, Bosnia, and Jerusalem so that people living there might dream of living in peace. It would lead her ultimately to a leadership role at the International Peace Academy, where she continues to work directly with world leaders to resolve seemingly irreconcilable political conflicts around the globe. She still thinks about—and acts upon—the unthinkable.
This year she put on her black gown again, her square hat, and delivered perhaps the best commencement address I have ever heard. Quoting John Stewart and Donald Rumsfeld, she told three amazing stories about war and peace and their relationship to knowledge—one about reading novels to reconcile conflict in Haiti, another about redesigning license plates to bring peace to Bosnia, and a third about the costs of mistaking modern-day Iraq for 1940s Germany. Amazing. She got another sheepskin from Puget Sound this May, too, this one an honorary doctorate in humane letters. Elizabeth Cousens’ story is amazing. It is the story of war and peace. And it is our story. And there are 600 more of them. Every May. I can’t wait to read the next 600 chapters.