Peace Corps Director's Commencement Address at the University of Rochester
May 14, 2000Remarks by the Honorable Mark L. Schneider Director of the Peace Corps Commencement Ceremony University of Rochester May 14, 2000
President Thomas H. Jackson, distinguished faculty and administrators, students, families, friends and, most important, graduates of the Class of 2000. Congratulations to you all. I am honored to accept the first George Eastman Medal and join you in celebrating the first graduating class of the 21st century, the Class of 2000. For 150 years, the University of Rochester has built a proud record of scholarship, research and community service. And for 100 years, women have helped to build that record, from Susan B. Anthony, to the women who constitute nearly half of the class of 2000.
And this is a special class. A third of you have studied abroad. More than 70 per cent of you have done community service. And 800 young people in the city of Rochester have benefited from your tutoring. It may have taken l50 years, but they finally got it right. This class is truly awesome.
Now it is Mothers Day and a million Moms are marching in Washington, D.C. But we also have a very special group of mothers here today to whom a debt of gratitude is owed. Clearly, they were there at the beginning. And they have witnessed your tears and shared in your joy. They have wiped your noses and cleaned your clothes—and some still do. Let's give a special round of applause for your moms.
This may be my first visit to this campus, but as the Peace Corps Director, I feel very much at home here. Since 1961, 315 Rochester alumni have served our country and the people of developing nations as Peace Corps Volunteers and then continued their commitment to public service when they returned home.
I am thinking of Returned Peace Corps Volunteers Terry Platt who now teaches at your Medical Center, and Glen Cerosaletti, who now heads your Overseas Studies program. I am thinking of Donald Hess, one of my far more distinguished predecessors as Peace Corps Director who served as Vice President here. And I am thinking of Dr. David Gootnick, who graduated from your medical school and is now the head of all medical services for the Peace Corps.
Eight University of Rochester graduates currently serve around the world as Peace Corps Volunteers. And most important, they are now being joined by six members of the Class of 2000.
It was 33 years ago when my wife and I walked into a poor barrio in San Salvador as Peace Corps Volunteers. We had no idea that we were about to embark on the most intense emotional and intellectual learning experience of our lives. Once cold statistics on poverty, malnutrition and inadequate health care became very real, very quickly as we saw tiny wooden coffins carried to the pauper's cemetery just past the white-washed chapel on the hill. We made friends for a lifetime there, talking till dawn, teaching children and adults, and learning from them as well. Perhaps what I remember most was working with neighbors to construct a narrow bridge across the gaping ravine that both literally and figuratively split the community so that children on one side could reach school safely on the other. When President John F. Kennedy established the Peace Corps nearly 40 years ago, he said, "We have, in this country, an immense reservoir ofÉmen and women, anxious to sacrifice their energies and time and toil to the cause of world peace and human progress." I believe that is still true, and still needed, today.
Too many people are denied the opportunity to live free from disease, corruption and conflict. And, in some ways, the challenges have become more complex. There are 50 million websites to connect the global community, yet most people in the developing world have never made a telephone call. Thousands of men in a dozen countries carry laser-guided hand-held rockets that can destroy jet planes, yet they cannot read or write. Nearly three billion of the world's population survives on less than $2 a daycannot read or write. Nearly three billion of the world's population survives on less than $2 a day. We see the devastating effects of HIV/AIDS on entire nations, deforestation and global warming. Even in our own country, we see pockets of grinding poverty and persistent discrimination. We see drugs, crime and guns threaten too many of our own cities. What will we do about it? That ultimately will be up to you. Now, there are some people today who claim that your generation is no longer interested in ideals or issues or involvement. They say that you don't have the time or the desire to volunteer because you are too busy preparing to launch your first IPO. Well I say they are wrong.
The thousands of graduates who are joining the Peace Corps and AmeriCorps tell me they are wrong. The overwhelming majority of graduates in this Class of 2000 who are tutoring young people tell me they are wrong. The 70 percent of all college students nationwide who said they volunteer to help the homeless, read to the elderly, and protect the environment tell me they are wrong. The spirit of service in this generation is just as strong as any who have come before you. And it has never been more important.
On my very first trip as Peace Corps Director, I returned with my wife to the barrio where we served together as Peace Corps Volunteers. While much had changed, one thing had not. Still spanning that ravine is the same small, unassuming bridge that my Salvadoran friends and I had built more than 30 years ago. Today, their grandchildren are crossing that bridge. Even more important, some of their children have become leaders of grass roots organizations, members of freely-elected local government, teachers and bridge-builders to a better life for their nation.
That bridge is, in a way, a metaphor for life—how something made with human hands and human spirit can actually withstand wind and storms and even the test of time. How something so small can make such a huge difference in the lives of people.
Of course, you do not have to travel halfway across the world with the Peace Corps to volunteer. Often, it is enough to simply cross the street and be a Big Brother or Big Sister. Sometimes it is enough to speak up for what is right. But the choice always is yours.
Thank you very much.