Remarks as prepared by Dr. Rahel Nardos '97, Director of Global Health, Oregon Health & Science University:
President Barbara Altmann and the entire F&M community, thank you for this incredible honor. It is wonderful to be back at my first home in America. If you had asked me when I was a little girl growing up in Ethiopia whether I would be standing here in front of you today as your commencement speaker, I would have said , 'Yeah right.' Lam Alegn Be Semay, Wetetuanim Alay, which translates to, I have a cow in the sky, but cannot drink her milk.
I was born in communist Ethiopia, the only girl in a family of five boys. My parents were both teachers, so they didn’t have much, but they truly valued our education. We lived in a community where food was rationed, teenage boys disappeared suddenly from the streets as they get drafted into the military, and having your own running water and toilet was a luxury. We were one of the few families who had those luxuries, although this did not keep me from coming down with chronic gastrointestinal illness as a child. Every time I got sick, my mom would wake one of my brothers at 5 in the morning to go and stand in line at the local government hospital so that I have some hope of being seen by a doctor that day. My brothers tell me, resentfully, that people with more money will pay off the guards and be put in front of the line. So, when I was a kid, I hated hospitals. They were dark, crowded, loud, smelled terrible and felt like places where people went to get sicker or die. And no matter what my ailment, the doctors always prescribed 30 shots of penicillin on my butt. Not all in one day, thankfully. But still, I was skinny, and it hurt. Despite my disdain for hospitals and my fear of doctors, here I am a physician, not only just a physician in the U.S., but the type who spends a great deal of time travelling internationally to build medical capacity in hospitals like the ones where I swore to never set foot in. I believe that these early life experiences, disguised as hardships, gave me my internal compass. They were responsible for making me who I am today, what I chose to care about, how I define success, and how hard I am willing to work for it. What experiences shape your internal compass? What speaks to you at your core? Take time to find out. This will be the source of your passion, your fulfillment and your resilience.
So, what I learned through the years is also that the direction that your life takes has as much to do with you as it does with who happened to be in your path and how you choose to engage with them. One day in middle school in Ethiopia, I was talking to my PE teacher telling him I was worried about where I was going to go for high school. My parents were teachers with six children and can’t afford to pay much for school. He then told me that the international school in town — which is the most elite school in the country run by Americans) — offers scholarships to select students every year, and if you pass a competitive exam, you not only have a shot at joining, but you may very well have a chance at higher education in the U.S. This was news to me and felt far-fetched at the time.
Suffice it to say that this casual conversation changed the course of my life. I got into the International community school in Ethiopia where I received a first-class education. I also met my chemistry teacher, Ms. Shiferraw, who told me about F&M and its commitment to welcoming international students. F&M took a chance on me, a girl from Ethiopia with no financial resources, but a lot of potential. F&M gave me a scholarship and provided me my first home in the U.S. Once here, those incredible human bridges continued to appear in my path. From my friends who became my family away from home ( thank you Eddie, Kwesi and Abeeku) to the humble professor who thought I had what it takes to co-author a book with him thus opening a lot of doors for me down the line (thanks Dr. Michael Penn) to the generous woman, Meredith Rousseau, who gave me a home for several months after college graduation when I was struggling to get a job with the impending visa crisis, and my first boss after college who saved my job for me when my visa did expire and believed in me when I applied to medical school, even though the odds were heavily against me without permanent residency or citizenship. Don’t underestimate the power of these human bridges, and don’t miss these fleeting opportunities; put down your phones ( literally), look up and engage with those around you. These real-life human connections may well change your life. As you advance in your career, be a human bridge yourself! You will find that elevating others is far more meaningful and impactful then most things we define as success.
So, one thing you always learn about in hindsight is that you can’t really plan most things in life with any certainty. This is because the forces of change are constantly evolving and you have to adapt. As an immigrant who constantly straddles two worlds and never quite fits in either, I have learned through the years not to take myself too seriously. Just ask my friends at F&M about my early transition to this American life. It wasn’t pretty. I remember one night my first year in college, my friend Eddie (here in the audience today) called me on the phone to tell me that it is daylight savings the following day and so I need to push my clock back one hour. What? In what universe do we rewind time? Only God can change time! I know I am constantly lost around campus and clueless about a lot of things. But this is going too far. 'How stupid did he really think I am?' In Ethiopia, the sun always rises and sets at the same time, like it should. So, nonetheless, I showed up in class the next day and there were no students or teachers for another hour. Mind you, this is on top of all the other ridiculous things I had to re-learn, like some months have 28 days and others have 30 or 31. Who came up with this? In Ethiopia, every month is 30 days and then we have a 13th month which is four days and becomes five days every four years. Period. So, my advice for you is to adopt the Ethiopian calendar, which, by the way, is eight years behind, so you will be younger. Seriously though, my advice for you is to learn to bend , be open to other world views, and adapt, but to stay rooted.
Finally, know that you are privileged, and my big ask of you is that you use your privilege as a force for greater good. Do something bigger than yourself. Our world needs this now more than ever. We are living in increasingly divisive world and there is a lot of inequities all around us. We are divided by race, by religion, by political views, really by everything that differentiates us, and these differences instead of being celebrated and harnessed to unify us, they are used to put more distance between us. I am speaking from personal experience. I have had a patient refuse to see me because I am not a true American and I have been told by families of my patients that I look too pretty to be an African American. I can’t even tell you how many times I get confused for a nurse. But what gives me hope is places like F&M that see the power of global communities and do their part to bridge these divides. What gives me hope is that when I talk to my patients who have lived with terrible childbirth injuries in Ethiopia and my patients in the US who can’t leave their homes because they can’t control their bladder, what I hear is the same suffering, the same vulnerability and the same hope for a cure. When I operate on them, I can’t tell them apart from the inside. But most of all, what gives me hope is you.