Last Updated June 20, 2008

Spring 2002 Commencement

American University
School of Communication/School of International Service
Commencement Address
Peter Bell, President and CEO, CARE USA
May 12, 2002

Graduates of the Class of 2002, I salute you. Congratulations, on the diploma you are about to receive and on the hard work by which you earned it. Congratulations, as well, to those who have supported you - especially to the mothers in the audience on their special day! As for the fathers out there, you have a right to feel short-changed to get me instead of Goldie Hawn!

I am honored to be in the company of graduates of the schools of International Service and Communications. I have been committed to international service my entire career, and my appreciation for the importance of communication has only grown over the years. How else can we convey our ideas and feelings? Which reminds me of a story: An elderly couple was sitting in rocking chairs on their porch on the side of a mountain. It was sunset and the view was magnificent - so much so that it prompted the man, in a rare expression of emotion, to blurt: "Ma, I'm proud of you." To which she responded, "Pa, I'm tired of you, too."

Communication, like service, demands a life-long commitment!

Forty years ago, on a different university campus, I sat in your place awaiting my undergraduate degree, and listened to a commencement address by President Kennedy. I won't try to compete with JFK, but I will steal one of his insights! President Kennedy saw that the public discourse of the day reflected outworn concerns. He urged us to look ahead to grasp the duties of our generation.

How different the world is today from the world that my graduating class entered! We came into a world that was divided into two Cold War camps, each governed by a distinct political ideology. You will step into a world where the easy movement of people, goods, services and information defies and overwhelms national boundaries. Back then, I needed a passport and a plane ticket to see the world. Today, you can make that journey on the Internet. You have the world literally at your fingertips. Make the best of it!

I grew up in the age of McCarthyism, where suspicion and intolerance prevailed. I went out into a world in which the threat of nuclear war hung like a dark, ominous cloud. Most of you grew up in a more hopeful and optimistic post-Cold War period. But September 11th marked the beginning of a quite different era.

Flying human bombs struck at the very heart of the most sophisticated economic and military power in the world, and sounded an alarm like none we had ever heard before. Those chilling events frightened and horrified us. But they also jolted us out of our complacency. As you - the first graduating class since September 11th - step into a world whose shape and dimensions are still uncertain, I want to share five lessons from my experience. I hope that they will be useful to you.

First, be bold in envisioning the better world you desire. Then seek it with purpose! Make your idealism an inexhaustible source of energy. Forty years after my college graduation - and many ups and downs later - my idealism is unshaken. At CARE, my primary challenge has been to advance a vision of a world free of poverty. There are those who may write me off as a dreamer, but I have sought to make the case - to whoever will listen - that poverty can be ended. Not alleviated, but actually ended! Nearly half of the world's people live on $2 or less a day. For them, access to safe water, adequate nutrition and basic education may seem beyond reach. That so much poverty and inequity exists in today's world is intolerable. That this should be so in a world of such riches and technical know-how is morally indefensible. Ending poverty is a daunting task, but it can be done. We have the means to end poverty. The real challenge is mustering the will.

A world free of poverty is my dream. What's yours?

Follow your dream of a better world. Turn it into a vision that energizes you to push the boundaries of what is possible. Don't be limited by conventional wisdom. Many wise people regard it as a truism that the poor will always be with us. But I do not believe it, and I never will! A better world will only be achieved if you have the audacity to imagine it, the faith to believe it, and the courage to work toward it.

Second, hold tightly to your principles and core values. Speak up for decency and justice. You don't have to be a rabble-rouser to bring about change, but you should be prepared to take some heat. On a visit to Rwanda in 1996, I met Edouard Sebushumba. He is a Hutu public servant. In the years prior to the genocide, Edouard had been the chief administrator of the Giti district. Together, he and CARE staff had fashioned a water and sanitation project that was a model of community participation. In 1994, despite brutal threats, Edouard resolutely refused to join in the incitement to violence in Rwanda. To the contrary, he urged calm and civility. As a result of his courage, Giti was one of only three or four districts in the entire country without any mass killings.

You will have many opportunities to stand up for what is right. The opportunity may be in your professional life, when you are confronted with hard choices about how far to stick out your neck. Or it may be in your personal life, when you must decide how to balance work and family. For journalists, it might be fighting for news space to tell an overlooked but important story. For aid workers, it might be standing in solidarity with poor communities as they confront those in power. Always stay true to your values and principles.

A world of tolerance is my dream. What is yours?

Third, remember, even the biggest dreams and most ambitious goals begin with the actions of individuals. Believe in the difference that you, as an individual, can make. While working for the Ford Foundation in Brazil in the late 1960s, I learned an important lesson from a young Brazilian professor of sociology. He had been ousted from the University of São Paulo by the military regime. Rather than go into exile, he proposed starting a freestanding center for social research. I recommended that the Ford Foundation make a start-up grant. Despite warnings from the U.S. Embassy about the professor being a leftist and threats about my grant recommendation being bad for my career, I won approval from the Foundation. Despite harassment from the Brazilian secret police, the professor built the center into a premier research institution. He went on to play a leading role in the democratic resurgence of Brazil. Just last week, I had a happy reunion with my old friend in Brasilia. Fernando Henrique Cardoso is now in his second term as the elected president of Brazil!

You will meet many such individuals in your lifetimes. Learn to recognize the potential of each and every one. Last June, when the Taliban still ruled in Afghanistan, I visited a rural school supported by CARE, and met an outspoken, bright-eyed sixth-grader named Katra. It took courage for Katra's parents to defy Taliban edicts and send her to school. "We are the future of our country," Katra told me proudly. She aspired to be a doctor. She made a believer of me.

There are millions of Katras in the world, and they are the future of their countries. At the heart of any vision of a better world are ordinary people like Katra or the young Fernando Henrique Cardoso - or you! Sisters joining their brothers at school. Graduates going out into the world with big dreams. What each of you does to advance change will count.

Fourth, embrace the diversity of the human family and the basic oneness that binds all of us together. While in high school, I spent the summer as an exchange student with a Japanese family. They had lost relatives in the atom bombing of Nagasaki 12 years earlier. Taking me into their home was a way of reconciling with America. Mrs. Okajima's motto - "to make the world more wonderful" - still guides me on my better days.

Many of you have already mastered a second or third language. For me, working and living in Brazil and then in Chile, and learning Portuguese and Spanish, opened new windows onto the world. My encounters with diverse cultures have tremendously enriched my life and career! What strikes me most in my travels, however, is the oneness of humanity. Rich or poor, every human being wants to be respected, and to contribute to society. We all yearn to sleep in safety and awaken with hope.

On a visit to Sri Lanka in late 2000, I met a farmer in a remote, war-ravaged village. He told me that he wanted only two things for his children: books for their education and peace for their future. What parents in this world do not want education and peace for their children?

Embrace the differences among peoples. But, also, affirm the basic oneness - the dignity - of each and every human being. In reaching out to others, especially people who are poor and vulnerable, you will affirm your own humanity, and sow the seeds for peace in the world.

I dream of a world of peace and hope. Join me in turning that dream into your own commitment.

Finally, be open to change. Even setbacks and reversals can bring opportunities. Seize them! In the early 1980s, I served as president of the Inter-American Foundation. We subscribed to the credo that poor people - through their own organizations - can set community priorities, tackle projects themselves, and press authorities for support. I soon learned - the hard way - that not everyone agreed with us. The presidentially appointed board commissioned a report on our work. The report concluded: "It is well and good to involve poor people in development, but wrong to let them be in charge." Shortly thereafter, I was fired. Yet, thanks to a spate of Congressional hearings and investigative reports by journalists like American University's own Pat Aufderheide, the integrity of the foundation was preserved. As for me, I never felt more supported. I went on to dedicate the next part of my life to the search for peace in Central America, the return to democracy in Chile, and the fostering of inter-American dialogue.

Being fired was hardly pleasant, but in the end, I found other ways to advance my goals. What may seem like reversals in your life will have their silver linings, but you have to look for them.

I dream of a world where truth and courage prevail. Is this also your dream?

In summary: boldly envision a better world, stand up for your principles, respect every individual, embrace both our diversity and oneness, and be open to change! On the one hand, September 11th has brought unsettling change of enormous proportions. On the other hand, it has revealed the interconnectedness of people around the world. September 11th made it clear that building bridges of solidarity, respect and cooperation is the only way to overcome our collective vulnerability.

This sense of interconnectedness and solidarity was conveyed eloquently by a Nigerian student in Atlanta in the wake of that fateful day. "On September 11th," he said, "I became an American citizen - and all of us became citizens of the world." In your careers - and in your everyday choices - you will have chances to break down walls, to build bridges and to discharge your obligations as citizens of the world. Look for those opportunities and seize them!

Your part in the great challenge of building a better world may not be in a high-profile job or a controversial act. It may be through steady commitment over many years. You will encounter disappointments and setbacks, but you must keep the faith. You will find wisdom, clarity and renewed energy in unexpected places. Search for professional opportunities that are platforms not only for your skills but also for your values. Don't serve as an instrument of narrow or short-sighted interests. Whatever the issue, be a voice for fairness, equity and justice. Take risks for what you believe is right. Measure your success not in dollars, citations or promotions, but in lives and minds changed for the better - including your own!

History has given your generation a great responsibility and an even greater opportunity. A generation from now, historians will be writing books about September 11th, 2001. May they look back to that day as an alarm bell that aroused this nation and the world from apathy. You have heard the wake-up call with your own ears!

This time, hitting snooze is not an option.

Wake up!!

You have the energy and capability to make this world a better place - a place where poverty and injustice are under siege, and hope and tolerance triumph. The Katras of the world are depending on you!