5/11/2013

Melanne Verveer's Commencement Address

  • Melanne S. Verveer Melanne S. Verveer, the first U.S. ambassador-at-large for global women's issues, will deliver Franklin & Marshall College's Commencement address Saturday, May 11. (Photo provided courtesy of Georgetown University Office of Communications).

The following is the text of remarks by Melanne Verveer, the first U.S. ambassador-at-large for global women's issues, as prepared for delivery at Franklin & Marshall College's 2013 Commencement:

It is a wonderful honor for me to be here today to celebrate the achievements of the Class of 2013.

I also want to congratulate F&M as you mark your 225th anniversary.

As a daughter of Pennsylvania, I have long known that Franklin & Marshall is a jewel among academic institutions, but your reputation is not confined to the Commonwealth. You are recognized for your academic rigor, world-class faculty, your leadership in research and innovation, and so much more, not least of which is the highly selective student body.

Your reach extends around our country and increasingly around the world which is reflected in a diverse student body from 41 countries. And, one need only to study the roster of some of your graduates to see the breadth of leadership in the sciences, government, politics, law, media, education, the arts and business.

Benjamin Franklin's initial gift of 200 pounds to start the college has certainly paid off handsomely!

It is also a pleasure for me to be here with your president, Dr. Porterfield. I have known him for many years -- during the times he served as a high-ranking government official and later as senior VP at my alma mater, Georgetown University. He is not only a formidable intellect, but a person strongly committed to human rights and social justice, a rabid sports fan and an all round, Mr. Nice Guy. Washington’s loss is truly Franklin & Marshall's gain.

But the most important thing I want to do is recognize the graduates. Congratulations for making the journey and doing it well.

From the college house discussions to countless exams.

From the Waffle House at 3 a.m. to cheering on the Diplomats.

From the Common Hour to the hours spent at Hildy's.

From study abroad to challenging research projects.

You made it, and you and your families deserve to feel very, very proud, indeed.

I know something of the emotions you are feeling today -- a sense of achievement, gratitude, elation, relief, survival and perhaps even apprehension. And perhaps part of that apprehension is owed to the fact that you aren't sure how long I'm going to go on with this speech!

It's always hard to know what the best advice is to impart at a time like this. Bob Hope once famously told those who were about to go out into the world:

"Don't."

Or, to paraphrase the wisdom of one of the great philosophers of "Animal House," John Belushi, "You are about to end the best 7 years of your life!"

Your skills, talents and ambitions are needed now, more than ever -- even if it might occasionally feel like the job market has yet to take notice. With a prestigious degree from F&M, I am confident that each of you is going to go on to do great things.

But what matters most is what you choose to do with what you've learned. That's why they call this a commencement. After all, this isn't the end of your journey. It's the beginning.

You are graduating at a time of enormous challenge, but also enormous possibility. It's an exciting time to be alive.

As a society, we've witnessed remarkable change, remarkable progress, even in just the last few decades -- your world is more closely connected than at any time in history. Yours is a world of rapidly growing economic integration and technological progress.

Even some of  the poorest people in remote villages in the developing world are gaining access to cell phones and with the access, vital health information, banking services, literacy training and more.

We have made enormous progress in science and medicine. And yet we don't seem to have the political will to save our planet from the consequences of overconsumption and resource depletion.

Technology and travel afford an opportunity for us to know and understand each other better than ever before. We know from the human Genome project that all people are 99 and one half percent the same the world over. Yet we experience divisions, strife and instability. We need only to look at the headlines from Syria to Sudan and from the DRC to Afghanistan to know man's inhumanity to man -- outright savagery -- continues to affect our world. And not just in far away places as we have seen recently in Boston and Cleveland.

With all the progress we have made, the toughest challenge remains to transform human behavior. History tells us that it is an insurmountable challenge. History also tells us that we must try: to reconcile our differences, to create opportunities, to engage in service no matter what profession we pursue, to empower others who are powerless -- to be changemakers.

As Gandhi said, "We must be the change we want to see in the world."

Years ago, I traveled with Hillary Clinton when she was First Lady to Bosnia, where the Balkan conflict had been raging. We met with women who were trying to hold their families together and who were desperately working to create a better future.

They told us how they had always gotten along -- Christians and Muslims -- living side by side. They celebrated each other's births and weddings, and shared the pain of separation and death. How was it that people who once lived together peacefully for generations could turn to hatred and ethnic violence? There are explanations for this embedded in history, national myths and historical memories of ancient grievances. But explanations are trivial compared with the practical efforts to stop it.

The women in Bosnia, like women in so many zones of conflict were trying to bridge the divides in their society and rebuild their  lives.

After the meeting, we met with U.S. soldiers at an outpost. And one young man said, "Look at us," pointing to his fellow soldiers. "We're men and women. We're black, brown and white. We practice different faiths. Some of us have funny accents and we come from all over America -- from cities and farms."

"And," he said, "The people we've come to help all look the same, and they are killing each other."

It was a lesson I’ve never forgotten from a very young soldier and it is something your example can offer the world: the positive power of diversity and democracy in action.

F&M has given you a headstart, and we need you to be the bridge builders, the problem solvers, the committee leaders and change-makers.

I want to suggest one project that none of you -- men or women -- will be able to avoid.

It is one that ranks with the Cold War and Civil Rights projects of my generation.

It is an inescapable aspect of your lives today, and it will be as long as you are occupying space on this planet. It is the status and full participation of women in every facet of human endeavor….here and, even more acutely for obvious reasons, around the world.

The challenges are appalling, but the positive consequences of overcoming them are enormous.

Women comprise the majority of the world's poor and unschooled. Roughly every 90 seconds a woman dies in childbirth, violence against women and girls is a global epidemic whether manifested in human trafficking, child marriage, honor killings, girl infanticide, rape as a tool of war or domestic violence.

In their powerful book "Half the Sky," Nick Kristof and Sheryl Wu Dunn estimate that more girls have been killed in the last fifty years, precisely and merely because they were girls, than all the combatants who were killed in the wars of the 20th century.

Women are half of the population but hold only one-fifth of seats in national parliaments. They are rarely negotiators in peace talks. Their talents, experiences and perspectives are being excluded from the very decisions that affect them, their families and their societies. This is in some respects true of all societies, including our own.


Take Japan, possessor of one of the world’s oldest and more refined cultures, as an example. The other day in Washington a former president of the World Bank observed that Japan's GDP would be 70% larger if it just fully incorporated the talents of its female citizens in its economy.

The creation of the position that I held as the first U.S. Ambassador for Global Women's Issues demonstrates the U.S.' commitment to incorporating women’s issues into all aspects of foreign policy. It remains a simple fact that no country can get ahead if half of its people are left behind. And it recognizes that the major challenges of our times, from economics to security to the environment, cannot be solved without the participation of women at all levels of society.

As Secretary Clinton observed, "If women are denied their rights and the opportunities to participate fully in their societies, global progress and global prosperity will have its own glass ceiling."

More than six decades since the adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, women's rights are still too often viewed as separate from human rights. Women's equality has rightly been called the great moral imperative of the 21st century.

All around the world women are working to transcend their conditions and to change their communities and our world for the better. They are ordinary people who, confronted with adversity, are doing the most extraordinary things.

It takes intelligence, patience and courage -- sometimes great physical courage -- to bring about change.

In Afghanistan, girls withstand acid burnings and face down death to go to school. Women there continue to risk their lives to vote and run for office. One night when I was meeting with a group of women in Kabul -- women who were struggling to move their country forward, despite the violence and efforts to marginalize them -- one of them said to me, "Stop looking at us as victims and look at us as the leaders that we are."

She was right, of course.

And if the Afghan women are silenced or marginalized as decisions are made about Afghanistan's future, any potential for peace will be subverted. They are more than half the population and they are agents for change.

We do not know whether the revolutions in the Arab world will be an historic turning point that will lead to the blossoming of democracy and a better life, or will result in dashed hopes. Women were on the frontlines -- shoulder to shoulder with the men --- from Tahrir Square, across Tunisia and Libya and in the streets of  Yemen -- advocating for dignity, democracy and opportunity. As Tarwakal Karmen, who won the Nobel Peace Prize, told me of the women change-makers in her native Yemen, "The women in my country woke up and they are not about to go back to sleep."

In China, a woman lawyer, Guo Jianmei, whom I first met years ago was running a legal aid center at Peking university to help women who were undergoing the societal shocks that came as a result of the massive social transformation that is occurring in China. She was a pioneer, taking on cases, ranging from domestic violence, employment discrimination, divorce or housing. Today, she is no longer allowed to be affiliated with the  university and her support is jeopardized.

Yet, her fellow citizens support her. She is an agent of change trying ensure the protection of law in her society.

Zin Mar Aung, a student democracy activist, spent 11 years in solitary confinement (of a 28-year sentence) for writing a letter to Burma's military junta urging democratic reforms. She was released during the country's recent opening after years of isolation.

And she has not paused a day since her release to continue to work for the advancement of democracy in her country. Her father in a recent interview spoke of what it was like to have his daughter released from prison, and he added, "She is my daughter, but she belongs to the country."

I've learned a great deal from women like these and so many more. They are ordinary people who have done extraordinary things, simply because they saw a challenge and sought to address it. They didn't ring their hands, get distraught and ask, "why, why is this happening?" Instead, they imagined what could be and asked, "Why not?"

Looking at the challenges of my generation is leaving to you, you might conclude that my generation was grossly incompetent. But that's not the case at all.

We could have resolved all of these problems, but we didn’t ….by design to give you something worthwhile to do.

You don't have to take the whole world all at once. Start where you are and do whatever you can and never underestimate the difference one person can make.

And I do hope that you'll find a way to support women’s quest for empowerment.

And that you'll raise your voices on behalf of those who still, in too many places, are unable to raise their own. Neither men nor women alone can reconcile the challenges of our world with opportunity. We must do it together, just as you've worked together here at Franklin & Marshall.

This great institution has prepared you for lifetimes of meaning. Be citizens of your country and global citizens too. And, be ambassadors for good wherever life takes you.

We are counting on you.

Congratulations and Godspeed.

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