Commencement and Acceptance of Honorary Doctor of Science Degree, Georgetown University School of Nursing & Health Studies
May 19, 2012
President DeGioia, Dean Iguchi, Professor Kraemer, graduates, families and friends . . . as African politicians say to make sure they haven’t left anyone out, “All protocols observed.” Thank you for those very kind words. Thank you for your gracious hospitality, and most of all, thank you for this extraordinary honor. I am deeply touched.
On a lighter note, I should add that you’ve helped me make amends, at least a little, to my dear parents back in Green Bay. I am the product of a medical marriage: a physician and a nurse-midwife. They desperately wanted their boys to go into health care. From me, they got politics and diplomacy. Mum, Dad, this is as close as we’re going to get!
In all seriousness, graduates, you are the ones who make standing here today such an honor. You represent a new generation of health care practioners and policymakers. You represent new hope for us all. And graduates, I hope you realize the full glory of this moment: this is Georgetown! One of the world’s premiere institutions of higher learning. . . a place where great minds are nurtured and so many great leaders have found their way.
I know getting to this moment hasn’t been easy. Together with family and friends, you’ve had to conquer academic challenges, financial challenges, social challenges. Well today you’re ready to plant the flag and claim this peak as your own.
Never mind that there’ll be other mountains out there. Never mind that you’ve still got to climb back down to safety. For right now, you have conquered Everest, and you should savor every moment of your achievement. Well done!
I have two tasks before me this afternoon. One is try to offer some useful insights as you move on from this institution. That’s a tall order because I’m sure you’ve received lots of great advice from people far more qualified than I.
My second assignment is even tougher – to keep it brief. After all, it is Saturday afternoon, graduation parties beckon, and I’m one of the few things standing between you and your bright future.
In terms of wisdom to offer, I certainly don’t have all the answers. I don’t even have all the questions. But what I can do is briefly share two lessons I’ve learned in my modest work . . . two memories I carry from my time in Africa. As has been mentioned, I began my career in Africa 25 years ago in a small village in Kenya where Sue and I served as volunteer teachers. Our little school didn’t have electricity. There wasn’t even glass in the windows, just bars to keep nature out. In some classes, we had one textbook for every dozen students, and so the students would try to huddle together to share the pages. The chalkboard in each classroom was thick black paint on a wall, and the tin roof was riddled with holes. Whenever the rains came, students would shift their seats into well-rehearsed patterns to avoid the drips, and then the streams, they knew were coming.
In those days, education wasn’t compulsory, nor was it free. Little more than half the kids in our village ever enrolled in school, and far, far fewer ever graduated. Needless to say, teaching in this setting presented lots of obstacles—from the lack of good materials to the illnesses that robbed so many students of class time. But, in some ways, the worst was the process they called “chasing students.” Every few months, the headmaster would come into the classrooms, and read off a list of names of those who had fallen behind in paying school fees. If your name was called, you had to leave the room immediately, and not return to school without some payment in hand. And it always seemed to happen as we prepared for exams.
It wasn’t that the headmaster was cruel or uncaring, quite the contrary, but the school simply couldn’t survive without those funds. I remember the first time it happened in one of my classes. I was busily writing out a lesson on the board. With so few textbooks, you had to write all the lessons out word for word. When the headmaster came in, and read those names, a quarter of the class silently stood up, and made their way outside. It startled me, and I had to pause to gather myself. But what could I do? So I returned to writing on the board.
Several minutes later, I heard soft noises behind me—something very unusual with the strict discipline of our school. I carefully stole a glance over my shoulder…only to see a few of my students sneaking back into my classroom. I was stunned…and speechless. In my days at Edison Junior High, if you would have told me about kids sneaking in to school…!
Graduates, in so much of the world, they’re desperate for even a pale imitation of the opportunities we here take for granted and, in many cases, throw away. Through this wonderful university, through the School of Nursing and Health Studies, the Lord has bestowed upon you wondrous skills and gifts that can help lift the human condition. You have been given that which millions can only dream of.
How will you use those gifts?
Now, the next time Sue and I lived in Africa was some twenty years later—this time in Tanzania, where I had the honor of serving President George W. Bush as his ambassador. Of course, things were a little different this time around. We had electricity and running water. Instead of hitching rides on covered pick-up trucks, we had our own car…even a driver. But things were also different because Africa was different. In the intervening years, HIV/AIDS had spread across the continent like a brush fire…bringing death and despair to so many places. The scourge of AIDS, and America’s response to the pandemic, shaped my work as ambassador—in some ways, it was my work.
Now, when most people think of ambassadors, they think of receptions and fine china. Well, Sue and I didn’t do cocktails. We did ARVs, bednets and clinics. And it was the most rewarding work of my life.
I remember a day when my parents were visiting us from Green Bay. My schedule was to take me to the city of Morogoro, about four hours from the capital, to cut the ribbon on a US-funded care and treatment center. Then I was to ceremonially help distribute food to poor shut-ins living on the outskirts of town. My dad has been a practicing physician for more than 50 years, and I remember how proud I was when I asked him to join me that day. “Let’s go do rounds,” I said to him.
The first event, opening the care and treatment center, was festive. There was singing and dancing – there was always singing and dancing – and a grand tour of the facility. The center was modest by American standards, of course, but for those in desperate need of access to care, it was magic – and more importantly, it was theirs! I met with nurses, hospital workers and local officials, and they were proud to talk about what this new center meant to them. At that moment, I could not have been prouder to represent the American people.
Our next project, delivering food to shut-ins was, of course, very, very different. Part of our goal was to continue to show Tanzanians that they had a friend in America. But the main purpose was really to help me better appreciate the daily challenges of those poor Africans who had been rocked by AIDS and malaria and poverty.
All of our stops that afternoon were moving and poignant, but there was one in particular . . .
We brought food to a family that was struggling to survive in the shadows of the town’s bustling streets. Their home was a rickety structure that looked more like an abandoned farm shed than a place where human beings could live. There were no windows, but a few rays of sunlight reached in through holes in the walls. The floor was dirt. As we entered the building, and after our eyes adjusted to the darkness, we saw the lady of the house, sitting on an old crate.
She was a little overwhelmed by our visit, even though she knew we were coming, but she relaxed as we opened our boxes of grain. A few of her children, dressed in worn out clothes, stood by eyeing me carefully. The poor woman’s breathing was labored and noisy as she sat on that old crate, but she wanted to talk. Through a translator, and with little emotion, she told us that her husband and one child were already dead from AIDS and, as my dad would confirm later, she was in the “homestretch” herself.
She went on to explain that she was once a successful businesswoman, but now she was down to her final shillings. Through that translator, she said to me, “Ambassador, I have a question.” She was looking off into the distance as she spoke. “With this last little money, should I buy books for my children who are healthy, or medicine for the ones who are not?” She wasn’t saying it for effect. And, of course, I had no answer. None.
After what seemed to be a lifetime, my father said to me, “Mark, can’t the government do something?” “Dad,” I answered, “there’s no Medicaid here. There’s no disability, no welfare. If we don’t do this … it won’t happen. That’s the simple truth.” Just as with the festivities earlier in the day, at that moment, I was proud to represent the American people.
Graduates, these days, some are questioning whether America should continue to lead in this world — or whether we can afford to. These questions are understandable. These are challenging times for our nation’s economy and tough choices for policy makers. What I’ve learned from my modest work in Africa, from that small Kenyan school and that rickety Tanzanian home, is that America must be engaged in this world because the world is a much darker place without us.
Second, and perhaps more to the point on this wonderful occasion, you must be engaged in this country . . .in leading us through these challenging times. You have been blessed with an amazing education. You have acquired skills and knowledge that can change the world . . . on the grand stage or one family at a time.
Put those blessings to work.
People like me, like your professors and your families, we’re counting on you. We’re rooting for you. We’re excited for you.
Again, to everyone here at Georgetown, thank you for this wonderful honor.
And graduates, all I can say is: Go get em!