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Peace Corps Acting Director Delivers Commencement Address at Antioch University New England

Remarks of Carrie Hessler-Radelet
Acting Director, Peace Corps
Antioch University New England, Keene, NH

AS PREPARED FOR DELIVERY
May 17, 2014

Thank you, Pat, for that warm introduction. And thank you for your service.

President Jones, Dr. Treadwell, Chancellor Nudelman, Board of Trustees, Board of Governors, faculty and staff, friends and family, and most importantly, members of the Class of 2014:

Congratulations. You made it! 

You’ve balanced coursework, research, and internships while juggling jobs and families.

You’ve absorbed lessons from your professors. You’ve learned from one another, probably learned far too much about each other.

You’ve come together over potlucks and Coffee Houses, planted seeds in the community garden, hiked Mount Monadnock, ran up tabs at Elm City Brewery, and explored this town from end to end. And now, today, here you are. 

And I’d like to recognize the parents and family that are here today. I sat where you are sitting just two weeks ago, when my son, Sam, graduated from Michigan State University. So I know what it is like to be one of the parents. Congratulations to you! 

I was on my way over to commencement this morning and I passed a mother who was trying to take a graduation photo of her daughter in her cap and gown, with her father. She said, “Let’s make this look natural, Darling. Could you put your hand on your dad’s arm?” To which the father replied, “Honey, if you really want to make this look natural, you should just put your hand on my wallet!!”

All kidding aside, Antioch is truly a remarkable place – and it plays a special role in Peace Corps history, which I’ll tell you about in a few moments.

Antioch is a place where social justice is part of your DNA. Where compassion for one another, and caring for the world we share, is part of what it means to be an Antioch University graduate.

A community that challenges its members – in the words of your founder, Horace Mann – to “be ashamed to die until you have won some victory for humanity.”

A rigorous, socially-conscious, practice-oriented grad school that is committed to nurturing difference-makers.

Whether you have spent your time at Antioch pursuing a degree in psychology, education, environmental studies or management, you have been asked at every step not just to deepen your understanding of your chosen field, but to translate it into real good in the world.

It’s a challenge that we at Peace Corps embrace fully every single day.

Like Antioch, our purpose is to create change agents – to spark positive change around the world, on the ground, in the communities where our Volunteers work. One person and one connection at a time. 

Like Antioch, Peace Corps draws men and women who are interested in not just imagining a better world, but rolling up their sleeves and doing something about it. 

In so many ways, the missions of our two organizations intersect and overlap.  It’s why I’m not surprised to find such a strong and growing community of returned Peace Corps Volunteers at Antioch. 

Students like James Goreham, who served as an environmental Volunteer in Zambia working in rural villages as well as national wildlife parks… You should ask him, if you have a chance, about his near close call with a hippo while crossing a river one time.

James came to Antioch in search of a collaborative, interdisciplinary program – one that would help him build on his service experience and pursue a career in environmental management. Today, he is receiving his master’s in resource management and conservation. 

Or Michael Nork, who taught English in Romania, where encounters with contaminated rivers and littered streets in his community inspired his interest in sustainability. 

Today, Michael is receiving his master’s degree in sustainable development and climate change, and is set to start working for a nonprofit near Concord, working with towns throughout the region to help them strengthen their recycling programs. 

We’re so proud of these Volunteers, who come to Antioch having “already changed – and been changed by – the world,” as President Jones says. 

We’re grateful for the warm welcome that they have found here on campus, and for the “strong and abiding ties” that Antioch has forged with Peace Corps – from the very beginning of your history, with returned Peace Corps Volunteers represented among your earliest students, to our new Master’s International program in your Department of Environmental Studies, to our partnership through your Coverdell Fellows Program, which celebrates its first class of graduates today. 

Thank you, Antioch, for your support. Thank you for your partnership.

You know, what strikes me most about one of your school mottos is the very last word:  Now.  “Because the World Needs You Now.”

Not “after graduation”, not “when you’ve published your first book”, “when you’ve made your first million”…

Not “10 years from now”, “5 years from now”.  Not “tomorrow”.  

But now. Today. This very moment. 

It’s a thrilling challenge, isn’t it? Thrilling, and inspiring.

But, if we are being honest with ourselves – probably a little bit intimidating, too. 

And today, as we come together to celebrate your successes, I suspect that there might just be a few tough questions lingering in the back of your minds.

How will I answer Antioch’s call to action? How will I make a difference? How will I matter? What victory will I win for my community, my country, my world?

Some of you may have already decided on your next steps. 

You’re crossing the stage today with a job in hand, an opportunity secured – a few of the blanks filled in, at the very least. And that’s something to celebrate, for sure. 

But some of you may still be figuring it out. And that’s okay. We’ve all been there.  

That’s when we go with that age-old grad school standby:  fake it until you make it, and in the meantime, make it up as you go.

To those of you who are grappling with not just the philosophical questions provoked by commencement, but also the practical ones – the ones involving lists filled with things like: 1) job 2) health insurance 3) roof over my head…

The good news is that thanks to the health care law, it’s easier than ever to access affordable coverage – coverage that will help guarantee better health care, and better health.

But let me also offer, in my role as Acting Director of the Peace Corps, a few words that I hope may be helpful to you: We’re hiring. 

That’s right. While some job markets might 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 Azerbaijan to Zambia and dozens more countries in between.

Since the founding of Peace Corps – just a few years removed from the founding of Antioch New England – almost a quarter million Peace Corps Volunteers have served in 139 countries around the world tackling some of the world’s most important challenges, from environmental protection to youth empowerment to community economic development. And all the while, Volunteers are also investing in their own futures. 

Today, Peace Corps is a training ground unlike any other and a launching pad for a 21st-century career. It is a pathway to unlocking potential that you may not even know you have.

That was certainly true for me. 

When I left for Peace Corps service, I didn’t know yet that Peace Corps would change my life, in ways I could not have predicted. 

My husband Steve and I were assigned as secondary school teachers in an all-girls high school in Samoa. Steve taught Math, and I taught English. 

The students we taught were motivated, but in the small village where we worked, the odds were stacked against them. Of the 300 girls in our school, every year only five or so students passed graduation exam. And of these five, typically only one went on to university. 

We despaired that so few of our students were able to continue their educations. 

But about a year after I left Samoa, I got 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!”

I wept when I read that letter. 

I don’t know if Palepa started the business she dreamed of. Or if she is indeed today a matai. But what I know is how much I learned from my students – patience, perseverance, a willingness to challenge the status quo, and 300 reasons to never give up, no matter how tough the odds.

Many Peace Corps Volunteers may feel that they got more out of the experience than they gave.  I know I certainly did.

But what I also know to be true is that most Volunteers give more than they’ll ever know, often in ways they did not expect. 

That is the magic of Peace Corps – the whole is truly greater than the sum of its parts. And that is what I have found to be so true about service – and so much of life itself. 

There’s so much that you just can’t predict. There’s no way of knowing for sure, sitting here right now, where you’ll end up in five years, or 15, or 50. 

There’s no way of knowing for sure what impact you will have, what you will achieve, who you will touch. 

Not long ago, I spoke by Skype to a group of Peace Corps staff and Volunteers who were in Senegal for a malaria boot camp, which is intensive training that prepares them to lead malaria prevention efforts in their villages and small towns. 

One of the Volunteers asked me what has changed since I served as a Peace Corps Volunteer back in the dark ages. 

Certainly, technology has transformed the ways in which we connect with one another, and the ways in which we connect with the world. And yet, even now, there are some things that you just can’t understand via Tweet or text. 

There are some things that you just can’t see just by swiping your smartphone and zooming in a little closer. There are some things that don’t come into focus unless you go there. Unless you stay. 

That’s why Peace Corps Volunteers don’t just go the distance; they live and work in their communities for two years. 

It’s because the relationships that are at the heart of the Volunteer experience – the relationships you build with your host family, your counterparts, the members of your community – these all take time to develop. 

You can’t really begin to partner with people until you step into their shoes and live life as they do. 

Here at Antioch, you’ve learned by doing. 

You’ve learned about the challenges – and the small miracles – of teaching by stepping in front of the classroom yourself. You’ve learned about the complexity of sustainable development by helping city officials in Keene update their climate change action plan. You’ve come to understand the power of therapy by working in clinics, hospitals, treatment centers, even prisons.

And now, as you head out to begin your next chapters, I encourage you to continue learning hands-on and seeking answers for yourself.

I encourage you to continue exploring the world as widely and as deeply as you can. 

“The world is all gates, all opportunities,” in the words of Ralph Waldo Emerson, in whose footsteps you might have tread on Mount Monadnock. 

Go and see. And don’t just stop long enough to check in on Foursquare. Roll up your sleeves.  Open your eyes. Stay for a while. 

Going and seeing isn’t just about covering geographical distance, though. Sometimes the hardest distance to close is the space between you and the person sitting right next to you. 

This is, in part, what makes the Peace Corps experience so powerful. 

As a Volunteer, you live and work side-by-side, shoulder-to-shoulder with the people in your community. You come to experience the same daily rhythms, the same seasonal cycles. You learn to see the world through their eyes.

It can be overwhelming, especially at the start. For many Volunteers, the first night when you lay down, you look up at the stars, and the sky looks more beautiful, more immense, and more intense than it’s ever looked before.

And you’re thinking, “What have I done? Can I do this? How am I going to last for a whole two years?” 

But, day by day, and step by step, you start to figure things out. You learn the language, figure out the food, start to understand the local jokes, share daily joys and daily sorrows. And the more you understand the people around you, the more you begin to understand yourself.

You come to see that there is nothing more important you can build than the relationships that will define your community and transform your life. 

At Antioch, you’ve come from all walks of life. But here, under one roof, you’ve grown together. You’ve forged connections with your peers and with your professors that have made your experience so meaningful and so unforgettable. 

My hope for you is that in the days and months and years to come, you find a way to hold fast to these relationships, no matter how far the distance between you. 

Because while the hard-earned degrees that you’re graduating with today are the tangible products of your time, energy, and student loans – the relationships that you’ve built here might just be the most valuable. 

Finally, no matter where you are, no matter where you go, I hope that you find a way to serve – as many of you already have.

I don’t need to tell you what it means to give of yourself to help others. You already know, from first-hand experience, what it’s like to connect, to build bridges, to cultivate common ground. You know what it’s like to be a part of something greater than yourself, and you know that you can’t help but be transformed by the experience. 

This is true whether you’re helping farmers in Botswana connect with global markets, or starting a peer education program around environmental stewardship in Armenia, or working in a food pantry in Keene, or mentoring inner-city youth in Boston. 

You don’t have to travel thousands of miles away from home to serve others. You don’t have to join Peace Corps to make a difference. 

But I wouldn’t be doing my job if I didn’t come right out and say: I hope that you will. 

I hope that at some point – maybe in a few years, maybe in a few decades, maybe in a few months, maybe even today – you will think about a path that is not the easiest or the most glamorous, but I promise will be a life-changing, life-defining experience. 

But whichever path you ultimately choose, I hope that you’ll find a way to serve. I hope that you’ll consider doing something that brings you face to face with the poor or the vulnerable, whether in this country or in the developing world.

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 ordinary citizens rising to meet the challenges of our time. 

I hope that you will pursue a life of service because it will challenge you, teach you, and open your eyes in ways unlike any other experience. It will open doors of opportunity that might be impossible to imagine right now. 

And it will inspire you to believe – even in the face of some of the steepest challenges faced by some of our most vulnerable communities – in the profound power of people’s resilience, compassion, and hope. 

Service changes lives – first and foremost your own.

I need only look to an example that some of you might already know very well. 

Dr. Alan Guskin is known in the Antioch community as head of your Ph.D. program in Leadership and Change, and before that, as president and chancellor of Antioch University.

But we in the Peace Corps family knew him even well before that – as one of the students who was at the University of Michigan on the night that John F. Kennedy made a spontaneous stop during his presidential campaign, and delivered an off-the-cuff speech that led to the creation of the Peace Corps. 

There, on the steps of Michigan’s Student Union, Kennedy challenged America’s youth to serve their nation by serving those with pressing needs around the world. 

Al was a graduate student at the time, and Kennedy’s words struck a chord. Afterward, he and a few others went out to dinner and drafted a letter to the student newspaper on the back of a napkin, challenging their classmates to commit to answering Kennedy’s call.

In the following days, Al sprang into action – organizing student forums, writing proposals, and starting a student petition that gathered hundreds of student signatures in a matter of days. It sparked a movement of young people that energized university campuses seemingly overnight. And it eventually caught Kennedy’s attention.

Shortly after entering office as President, he signed the executive order establishing the Peace Corps.   

To this day, Al gives credit to his fellow student organizers – to the leaders of the Greensboro sit-in and the other student movements that were taking place all around the country; to the “groundswell” of people and factors that created a tipping point which led to the beginning of the Peace Corps and the surging of the civil rights movement.    

But to me, what Al’s story shows, more than anything else, is how much you can achieve when you commit to being a part of something greater than yourself, and how much your own life can be transformed in the process. 

People ask me sometimes, in talking about the impact of the Peace Corps, why it is that I have so much faith in the difference that an individual can make.

Sometimes I tell them the change that our world needs the most can start from just one person.  Sometimes I tell them, 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 the rise and fall of the tides can literally transform a landscape. 

Sometimes, I just tell them a story. Because every day, I meet someone whose life was changed as a result of Peace Corps.

I meet someone like President Earnest Bai Koroma of Sierra Leone, who told me when I traveled to his country for his second inauguration that he had grown up with a Peace Corps Volunteer in his life. 

When he was around 11 years old, a Peace Corps Volunteer named Sharon moved into his neighborhood. She was the first person he could remember who talked to him about community service – about the idea of doing something purely for the good of others. 

And as he went on to build a career in business, and then in public service; and then as head of his country, he always thought back to what Sharon had taught him about giving back and serving others.

I’m not sure why I said this – likely it was because I was sure at the time that I’d never have to actually follow through – but as I was sitting next to the president at his state dinner, I found myself saying:  well, the next time you’re in the States, let me know, and I’ll see if I can’t find Sharon and bring her to you, so that you can tell her what you just told me. 

Literally one week later, as I was going about my day in Washington, D.C., I got a phone call from the president of Sierra Leone. 

Good news, he said.  I’m coming to Washington next week. And I can’t wait to meet Sharon. 

I don’t know how we did it.

But when I asked our team to track down a returned Peace Corps Volunteer named Sharon who had served in Sierra Leone in the 1960s, they did. They found Sharon, who had come back from her Peace Corps service to become a teacher in the south side of Chicago, in some of the nation’s toughest schools.  

When we contacted her, she told us that she wasn’t sure if she was the Sharon we were looking for. There had been so many other Volunteers. Plus, she said, “I’m pretty sure none of the students in my after-school program grew up to become president.”

She didn’t want any of the limelight. She didn’t want anyone to make a big fuss over her. But eventually, she agreed to come. 

On the day of their meeting, she arrived first – the retired schoolteacher, standing in a corner, clutching a big photo album in front of her like a shield. 

Then the president of Sierra Leone strolled in – 6-foot-2, as regal as you can imagine, carrying a big briefcase, trailed by a five-star general. He crossed the room in five steps and threw his arms around her. 

SHARON! He exclaimed, wrapping her up in a big hug. She didn’t know what to say. 

And then he said two words that changed everything: Touré Street.

Because that was the street where they had both lived, nearly 50 years ago. And because she was, in fact, the Sharon that he had remembered after all these years. 

There’s so much in life that you just can’t predict. There’s no way of knowing for sure what impact you will have, what you will achieve, who you will touch.

Which is why you should never miss an opportunity to connect. To make a difference. To go and see for yourself.   

Class of 2014 – you have an incredible future ahead of you, and a whole world to explore. I can’t wait to hear about your victories. 

Congratulations!

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