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Commencement Speech by New York Times Columnist Nicholas Kristof

Commencement Speech by New York Times Columnist Nicholas Kristof

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Published by Dave Tobin
Given May 12 at Syracuse University &
SUNY College of Environmental Science and Forestry commencement
Given May 12 at Syracuse University &
SUNY College of Environmental Science and Forestry commencement

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Published by: Dave Tobin on May 12, 2013
Copyright:Attribution Non-commercial

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07/10/2013

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By SU News // Sunday, May 12, 2013
Congratulations to Chancellor Cantor, the members of the Board of Trustees, faculty, parents, guests, and mostimportant of all, members of the Class of 2013!Now, I hope that you students now appreciate that ancient wisdom "the tassel is worth the hassle." It sounds a littlebetter in Latin, but you get the idea. And a special congratulations to all you moms out there, Happy Mother's Day!It's a pretty awesome way to celebrate, isn't it, to watch your little baby get that great big degree? Pretty awesome.And to you graduates, just a little tip, this is coming from a dad, but your parents are so, so proud of you today and ifyou've learned anything at all in University you know that means that this is the optimal moment to ask for a loan. Gofor it!I'm especially happy to be celebrating with you in Syracuse for a couple of reasons. One is that my late colleague,William Safire, of the New York Times, was just a devoted Syracuse man.Even in our black and white pages, as Jaime would say, he proudly bled orange, and this year what with Syracuse'ssuccess in basketball and lacrosse, Bill would be completely insufferable.I'm just a little bit jealous. Nevermind.But the other reason is that what SU is doing, what all of you are doing along with Nancy Cantor through Scholarshipin Action really is something truly important in terms of reaffirming the University as a public good.And I promise not to bore you with a discussion of public good, you can put away your economics textbooks, but thatidea of a public good is something that is so central to our history, to our identity, everything from public schools tonational parks, like Yellowstone, Sesame Street, cancer research, and yet we as a country have, I'm afraid, beeninching away a little bit from that vision of the public good as a unifying force.Partly that is as America has become more polarized as a nation, politically and economically.Today the top 1% have a greater collective net worth than the bottom 90%. And in this period we have seenAmerican schools go from number one in the world to, according to one recent study, number 17. Universities aremaybe the most important public good we have, and I really do thank Syracuse University for leading that effort toemphasize that point, and for democratizing tertiary education as a whole.But granted, look, it's a tough time to graduate given the job market these days, we know that.
 
There is a story, maybe apocryphal, of a commencement at another University. A couple of graduates still in their capand gown went out of graduation ceremony, jumped into a taxi and the taxi driver looked back at them and the saw
them in their regalia and said oh, congratulations, and they beamed and said, “Class of 2013!”
 
 And the taxi driver beamed back and said, “Class of 2003.”
 
In journalism we call those kind of stories “too good to check.”
 Well, in a larger perspective though, whatever the challenges of this job market, the truth is that, frankly, we're sodamn lucky to be in this time and place and enjoying this public good of a University education. Let me tell you abouta friend of mine, a Zimbabwean woman named Tererai Trent. She grew up in rural Zimbabwe. She was not allowedto go to school because she was a girl. So she herded the family cattle in the fields. But Tererai was truly brilliant andso she learned on her own, she learned math and reading by doing her brother's homework.And actually after a few years of this he got in trouble because the teacher didn't understand how her brother, whowas mediocre in class, kept turning in this brilliant homework, so he beat the brother until he confessed it was hissupposedly illiterate sister who had been doing his homework.That could have been an opportunity for her, but instead everybody just got mad at Tererai.So Tererai was married off at the age of 11. Married off at the age of 11 to a man who beat her and was jealous ofher intelligence. But Tererai is also a reminder of the human capacity for resilience. And I hope that when you findyour own dreams blocked that you will think of her and how she pursued her goals.What she did was she wrote down three goals on a piece of paper, the first goal was that she would go to the United
States to study. The second goal was that she would earn a B.A. and a master’s and the third g
oal was that shewould earn a Ph.D.These are completely absurd goals for a married girl who has had no formal education and who is a cattle herder inrural Zimbabwe.But she took that piece of paper with those three goals, put it inside a piece of plastic, put that inside an old tin canand buried it in a field under a rock near where she was herding her cattle.Then she began to study on her own and took correspondence courses and did brilliantly.And after some years of this she was accepted to Oklahoma State University.She then dug up that tin can, took out that piece of paper and checked off goal number one.She then earned her B.A. and master's. She went back to Zimbabwe, dug up that tin can and pulled out that piece ofpaper and checked off goal number two.Finally, just a couple of years ago, she earned her doctorate.
 
She went back to Zimbabwe, went back to that old field where she used to herd cattle, found the stone, dug up the tincan, pulled out the piece of paper and checked off goal number three. And now she's used her education to set up aschool in the village because she feels lucky and wants to give back that opportunity that she had. Her school isgoing to open this fall.Well, let's all give Tererai a hand, actually. She deserves it! I called her and told her I was going to tell her story hereand she was very proud and I will relay your enthusiasm to her as well. An amazing woman.And people like Tererai, I think, remind us of a basic truth in the world, which is that talent is universal, but opportunityis not.Talent is universal and opportunity is not.And I hope that you can use your education to help chip away at that challenge, that the truth.The truth is that we have all benefited from opportunities that others extended to us and many of you are receivingdegrees in part because you had the chance to receive financial aid. Now, in the coming years as you
as you paydown those debts too
I hope that you will have the chance to pay that forward as well.Now, I'm not saying that you should all enlist as aid workers. You don't all need to become Mother Theresa. But I dohope that you will find some space in your life, some space for engaging in a cause that is larger than yourselves.And just keep your mind open for those opportunities where you can make that kind of a difference. Think of theCleveland story that has riveted us for the last couple of week, the three young women kidnapped and locked upinside a house for ten years. Now, when Amanda Berry's hand snaked through that front door and she beganscreaming for help, there were a couple of men in the street.Now, I think it would have been very easy for them at that point to think oh, there is some crazy woman, maybeinvolved in some domestic dispute. I think plenty of people would have moved on rather than get involved insomebody else's mess. And I think all of us would have felt a little uncomfortable about trespassing on somebody'sprivate property to go up on that front porch and ask what was going wrong.And those two men, of course, did just that, and then they also took it upon themselves to break down that front doorto let her out. And everything changed.For most of us, the chance to intervene is not going to be that dramatic. But you too are going to encounter needsand pleas and you'll frankly have the same sense of uncertainty about what the right thing to do will be. You'll bebusy. You're going to have plenty of demands on your time and on your wallet. And you can't help everybody.

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