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Monday, May 22, 2023

REMARKS OF CAROL SPAHN, DIRECTOR OF THE PEACE CORPS, FOR THE GEORGE WASHINGTON UNIVERSITY ELLIOT SCHOOL OF INTERNATIONAL AFFAIRS GRADUATION CELEBRATION

REMARKS AS PREPARED:
Delivered on Friday, May 19, 2023

Peace Corps Director Spahn: Thank you, Dean Ayres. It is such an honor – and quite surreal – to return to my alma mater and join in this fantastic graduation celebration.

When I graduated from the Elliott School in 2000 – which feels like an eternity ago – I was a young mother with two daughters, aged three and one. Three years earlier – and yes, it took me three years to earn my degree – we left Romania in May, had a baby in July, and started graduate school in August.

It was a much bigger challenge than I had imagined, but I had an amazingly supportive husband who worked all day, and took the reins at night. And I had professors who not only supported me along the way but also convinced me to stick with it during a fairly severe bout of postpartum panic. Graduating was a family affair, and I am so very grateful.

To all the staff, faculty, family, and friends who have supported these graduates on their academic journey: Give yourselves a pat on the back and give your neighbors a high five. It truly takes a village to persevere, and I wish that everyone could have such amazing support systems.

Hannah, thank you for that inspiring message. It really hit home because I have been scared – no, actually terrified – more times than I care to admit. And I have learned the hard way that most things that are worth doing should terrify you – at least a little.

Class of 2023! Congratulations – you made it through a very rigorous program during one of the most disruptive periods in modern history. And access to quality education is a precious gift – and one that comes with great responsibility.

So before you head out into the world, please allow me to give you a final assignment. The due date for this assignment is every day for the rest of your lives. And not a day will go by when you are not tested.

Your performance on this assignment will impact every aspect of your life – your work… your health… your happiness...

On days you do well, you will carry yourself with the kind of quiet confidence that attracts trust and connection – even joy! You will be at peace with yourself and others, and you will have purpose and meaning motivating you from within.

On those days when you shortchange the task at hand, you will feel it tight in your gut and deep in your bones.

The assignment is simple, but its execution is complex, especially in today’s world. Your assignment is to lead – every day – with integrity.

Integrity: the uncompromising adherence to strong moral and ethical principles and values requires honesty, authenticity, and humility.

It is the highest form of self-respect and respect of others. And, as my father said, “If it is the only thing you have left at the end of the day, you have succeeded.”

But how do we achieve this in a world in which truth has become subjective and fact can be turned to fiction?

When AI has us wondering which parts of our everyday experience are authentic and which ones have been machine generated?

When the echo chambers of social media are deafening?

And when false conclusions and harsh judgments have become political sport?

Discerning – truly discerning – what is ‘real’ – and following our moral compass, our values – requires an increasingly intentional investment of time, energy, and critical thinking every… single… day.

Now, I chose accounting for my undergraduate degree. It was practical. And a part of me was drawn to the simplicity of a debits and credits world that always balanced. There is something comforting in tasks that have a distinct beginning and end. Where the rules are widely accepted, and the numbers tell a story that is clear and concise.

I lived in this world for several years before joining the Peace Corps as a Small Business Development Volunteer in Romania just a few years after the fall of communism. Thus began a lifelong journey of discovery.

My understanding of what was required of me to live with integrity became increasingly complex – I learned to challenge my assumptions – to insert nuance and understanding into my value system. And, to let go of judgment.

To lead with integrity, you must commit to continuous growth.

And I hope that these beautifully challenging years at the Elliott School have instilled in you a spirit of radical empathy, relentless curiosity, intense discipline, and the humility required to grow – not in a straight line – but in big, broad circles so that your value system, your world incorporates more and more points of view – and in so doing, you become connected to others in deeply profound ways.

In this process, I hope that you are able to channel your inner two year old. You know, the one who asks, ‘Why?’ ‘But Why?’ a thousand times a day as they try to understand the world. And I hope that you engage – not in the spirit of debate, but to feed your eagerness to learn and grow.

And that you are ready to challenge the status quo – over and over and over again.

Because leading with integrity also requires tremendous courage.

I have noticed people lately saying that they are going to ‘lean in’ to a controversial topic, a new way of doing things, an alternate viewpoint. I am going to lean in a little bit here... Leaning in – to me – implies putting a toe in the water at some, but minimal personal risk.

While I applaud this...

My friends, given the magnitude of the issues we face at this point in history, we need people who are not going to just put a toe in the water; we need people who are going to do a cannonball off the high dive. We need doers, risk takers, original thinkers.

Innovators who not only build a new technology or tool, but who challenge the underlying power structures and systems, who think holistically, and who protect the most vulnerable when evaluating who stands to win and lose… People who examine a situation from every angle, who do the hard work of digging deep – not to claim a position of power – but rather to nurture understanding and to uplift others.

To paraphrase Franklin Roosevelt, “We need people whose faces are marred by dust and sweat and blood, who strive valiantly... who, at the best, know, in the end, the triumph of high achievement, and who, at the worst, if they fail, at least they fail while daring greatly.”

Daring greatly involves getting ‘into the arena’. Some of you are already planning to serve boldly with the Peace Corps, whether in Senegal, Vietnam, or Guatemala. And many of you will go on to serve in other ways – because international affairs is ultimately about service.

And the attitude with which you serve and the time you invest in people will define the breadth and depth of the relationships you develop – and ultimately, your success.

In Malawi, I had an Education Volunteer who was struggling with her headteacher and came to her Program Manager very frustrated and expecting some concrete to-dos or even an intervention. After listening to the challenges she was having, her Manager gave her some unusual advice. He asked her to go to the teacher’s house every Sunday and have tea. It was that simple.

In my many years in the world of international development, I have witnessed – time and time again – how human connections borne out of mutual respect and understanding – relationships that transcend borders and cultures and ages and lived experiences – are where transformation takes place and things start to happen. As they did for that Volunteer.

I hope at some point in your education you were introduced to the work of Robert Gersony, perhaps better known as the ‘most influential humanitarian you have never heard of.’

Bob’s influence derives from his unconventional methods: he has conducted extensive, on-the-ground research during conflicts and following natural disasters around the world in dangerous areas and at pivotal times. He has interviewed hundreds of people in every place, utilizing local translators and often traveling alone. His work has challenged some of the most basic assumptions behind our foreign policy and his methods have inspired confidence in his analysis and recommendations.

As international affairs professionals, you will be called upon to make decisions that will impact people from all over the world – and possibly for decades into the future. And those decisions should never be shortchanged.

Leading with integrity means that you do the work. You go below the surface. You challenge conventional ways of doing things, you get creative, ask ‘why?’ again and again – to people who know the history, think about the future, understand what is at stake and are on the front lines.

For those of you who know someone who has served in the Peace Corps, you know that we have stories – and I could go on and on.

But let me wrap up by saying that I warned you that your performance on this assignment would impact every aspect of your life… and I promised you that it will be worth it.

Integrity lies at the intersection of intention, curiosity, empathy, courage, and humility. It is being ‘real’ in this world of blurred lines and distorted realities. Doing the right things for the right reasons – and, as C.S. Lewis said, “Even when no one is watching.”

Class of 2023 – I invite you, with your degree soon in hand, to take on this last assignment.

How far are you willing to go? What are you willing to do… to sacrifice… to work for? Not just because it is your ‘passion,’ but because you are ready to lead with integrity.

My wish for you as you start this next phase of your journey – is that your world continues to grow in big, broad circles and that you experience the quiet confidence and peace of knowing you have given it your all.

Congratulations!

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