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Sunday, May 19, 2024

REMARKS BY PEACE CORPS DIRECTOR CAROL SPAHN FOR THE 2024 COMMENCMENT AT HOBART AND WILLIAM SMITH COLLEGES

REMARKS AS PREPARED:

Peace Corps Director Carol Spahn: Thank you, President Gearan and the entire Hobart and William Smith Community. I am so very honored and inspired to be here – at a school that is clearly so committed to living a life of meaning.

Graduation is such a time of promise – and it is a tremendous accomplishment in normal times. But for this brave class, these committed professors, and these amazing families: you all are the class of 2024, having navigated college and supported these students during one of the most disruptive periods in modern history.

Walking around campus with masks on, enduring daily health checks and social distancing – with shifting mandates and tremendous uncertainty…just as you are jumping into the unknown in a new place with people you had just met.

Despite all this crazy world has thrown at you, you have shown grit and resilience and adaptability!

Congratulations! You did it!

And now, I invite you to turn to your neighbor, whether you know them or not and – give them a big high five, reach up there lift your hand highs high and tell them how awesome they are.

OK!

Now that we have established that you have what it takes to do incredibly hard things, I implore you to boldly take the energy that just rippled through this crowd and channel it towards the unprecedented opportunity for large scale, positive societal change that is staring us in the face right now.

During COVID-19, so much of what we knew and accepted was turned upside down. Now, we stand at the precipice of what was and what will be. And we share an urgent and potentially beautiful moment to shape what we will become: as individuals, communities, a nation, and global citizens.

There is so much at stake.

Today, I will talk about progress: not just the measurable kind, although I will start there. Perhaps more importantly, at this time of massive, rapid technological advances, I will talk about progress towards our shared humanity – and the tremendous responsibility we have to intentionally and fiercely nourish connection – across difference and across borders.

First, let me take you back a few years....

In May of 1990, I was sitting at my own graduation ceremony, about to join a world in massive political transition, a world wracked by fear and loss from a devastating new disease, a world on the verge of a technological revolution that would change everyday life as people knew it.

Sound familiar?

Just a few months before I graduated, the Berlin Wall fell. Up until that point, the Cold War had defined my life and more than half a century of world history: tensions, brinksmanship, proxy-wars and the threat of nuclear disaster hung over our heads.

And then suddenly, there we were watching our TVs one night as people started climbing up and over that wall, hammering away with sledgehammers at this monument to decades of geopolitical gamesmanship.

We watched as the people from East and West Berlin, who until just a day before would have been shot for trying to cross the wall between them, walked through its giant holes to embrace one another after decades of separation. And in an instant, the world as we knew it was forever changed.

At the same time, the HIV/AIDS crisis was reaching global proportions, unleashing fear in communities around the world, including the U.S. Contracting HIV at that time was a certain death sentence, and it disproportionately impacted poor and marginalized communities. In some countries, over 25% of people were infected with HIV and Saturdays were reserved for funerals.

I didn’t know it at the time, but the internet was about to make its way into homes across the country and throughout the world – ushering in a digital revolution that completely changed how we lived and worked almost overnight.

Let me just stop right here for a second, because I am reading some body language. Yes, that’s right, I went to college before the internet…

I typed my school papers on a typewriter…

I might have been very excited the first time I faxed something.

And I was already serving overseas in Romania in the Peace Corps when we made the transition from snail mail to e-mail.

I stand here behind this podium today – feeling a lot older after confessing those tidbits, hopefully a little wiser - and incredibly confident in the collective power we all share to make a difference in the world – one action, one relationship, one connection at a time.

Every moment from my own graduation to today, progress was being made. Not the “front-page headline, breaking news” kind of progress. Rather, the kind of slow, steady easy-to-miss progress which only becomes blindingly obvious with the value of hindsight. The kind of progress that can only happen when people work together, behind the scenes, out of the limelight, day in and day out, for a better world than the one they inherited.

Real progress like the fact that by 2015, 25 years after my graduation, we saw the rate of extreme poverty around the world drop from nearly 36% to just 10%.[1] Or the fact that global literacy rates have risen from 42% to 87%. And that HIV/AIDS – which threatened to decimate an entire continent – is now a manageable disease that people live long, full lives with.

Progress on a disease like HIV wasn't inevitable. It happened because the global community came together – connected— across disciplines and across borders to stop it in its tracks. And because they did, some of the world’s poorest countries have reached epidemic control, and an end to the HIV/AIDS crisis is actually within our reach – something I never thought possible while sitting at my own graduation ceremony.

As we turn to face the challenges of today, challenges that impact us as a truly global community, I am confident that our combined ingenuity, action and care can move mountains.

None of us are expected to have all the answers.

None of us are responsible for singlehandedly ushering in a new scientific, cultural, or technological revolution.

But at the Peace Corps, we believe that every intentional action taken in pursuit of progress matters, even if the impact may not be seen until decades later. We never underestimate how simply showing up, taking the time to show that you care, or offering a kind word may fundamentally alter the trajectory of someone’s life.

I have the best job in the world, because I get to hear about that impact, often decades later, as I meet with foreign ministers, and chiefs and former students who were taught by Peace Corps Volunteers. And I listen with a full heart as they tell me how they paid it forward, creating a ripple effect around the world.

Class of 2024, the world needs your kindness and your spark.

Be bold. Let your light shine and be a cheerleader for those around you.

Create and recreate community, again and again, in every interaction. You have faced a lot over the last four years and you came through it together.

You faced it with the people you met that first day moving into Hale Hall or Blackwell House, who are now your closest confidants.

You faced it with your teachers and professors and advisors who guided you on which path to take, or helped you pick yourself back up when you fell.

If there is one thing I have learned over the course of my life and my career, it is the power of connection – the kinds of vulnerable, authentic, human connections that we are all fundamentally wired for.

Now, this was not an easy path for me. I studied accounting. Numbers made sense….but people….people are complicated!

It was easy for me to hide behind a balance sheet that reconciled every month. There was clarity and simplicity.

But back ‘in the good ole’ days’ when I was sitting where you are now, there was also a greater “sharing economy.” I was forced to go outside of my introverted world to ask for help, to engage. When you needed to get to the airport, you asked a friend for a ride. When someone was sick or just had a baby, you brought food. And when a friend came to town, they’d sleep on your guest bed, or couch, or the air mattress that slowly deflated overnight until you woke up in the morning on the floor.

Today, we order an Uber, send DoorDash or gift cards, and stay at Airbnb’s. It is incredibly convenient and efficient, but lacking in the small points of human connection that used to be inherent in our everyday lives.

Technology has driven tremendous progress – and for that I am grateful - but we must take intentional action to ensure that it doesn’t continue to push us apart, drive us further into our own bubbles and echo-chambers, a place where we can hide behind the safety of a screen, where we don’t risk that glorious awkwardness that comes from the chance encounter with a stranger or an uncomfortable silence.

I invite each of you to reflect on one or two of the most meaningful, memorable experiences you’ve had in your lives: when you felt your understanding of the world – and yourself – expand; when you felt a deep connection to a person, a place, a culture, or a worldview.

I am willing to bet that the moments that come to mind are times when things did not go as planned, when you had to overcome an unexpected hurdle, when you stepped outside your comfort zone, maybe even made a fool of yourself.

For me, it was breaking down in tears during a very official ceremony around an ancient Bodhi tree in a Buddhist temple in Sri Lanka; getting horribly lost on our first family road trip in Africa, singing awful karaoke with new friends in D.C.; or sitting down and explaining to my Romanian host family that, while I did say I would eat anything – that did not include cow tongue. My most treasured memories and experiences, the times where I have stretched and grown have all come from times when I let my guard down, took a chance, and experienced moments of real connection.

Those moments are precious. And they have taught me that I can embarrass myself, fail, break down in tears – and it will not only be o.k., it will actually bring me closer to people. And now, instead of fearing ridicule, I am willing to take risks, knowing that people will have my back.

So, my call to all of you “Statesmen” and “Herons” of the Class of 2024, is to fiercely nourish and seek out connection. Do not stay in your bubble or pod; I am talking about the kinds of deeply personal, curious, human connections, made across difference, that have the potential to alter the course of human history following a period of deep uncertainty and isolation.

Some of you will do so through the powerful and transformative call to public service.

And, in fact, I know that there are two sitting out there right now who will soon become Peace Corps Volunteers. Welcome to the Peace Corps family!

Others will find those connections in government, health care, technology, education, art or music or literature.

Wherever you find your path taking you from here, be that spark that is lit by hope, by possibility. Progress requires hope – it requires that we believe that our individual actions matter and that we believe in each other.

When I started this speech, I asked you all to give each other a high five. Did you know that – according to that internet thing, so it must be true - the simple act of giving someone a high five can build social connection, communicate confidence, increase endorphins, and reduce cortisol? The act of lifting your arms above your head signifies a gold medal performance. You are both celebrating with a person and getting them to cheer for themselves.

Class of 2024, find meaning and pursue progress through connection. And when you just don’t feel like you have any more to give, a simple high five could make someone’s day.

Thank you and congratulations.

[1] https://www.worldbank.org/en/publication/poverty-and-shared-prosperity-2018

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