NORTON, MA—Despite the world’s problems, a leader of UNICEF’s emergency response efforts said people around the globe inspire gratitude and awe, and she urged Wheaton College’s graduating seniors to hold on to their empathy for the plight of others and never believe anyone who says you can’t change the world.
“Please, don’t ever let anyone or anything take your empathy,” said Commencement keynote speaker Lisa G. Szarkowski, vice president of humanitarian emergencies and executive communication for the U.S. Fund for UNICEF.
Addressing the 371 members of the Class of 2015 during Wheaton’s 180th Commencement ceremony, Szarkowski, who is a 1990 graduate of the college, admitted it was not easy to remain open and caring for others.
“The world will present you with plenty of occasions to be offended, wounded, outraged, defeated and exhausted. When we lose empathy, we become less human. We detach from other people. We start to think selfishly and often shortsightedly.
“This applies to your personal relationships, your community and the world. We must keep our hearts and minds open. And I’m the first to admit this is scary and painful at times. But the upside is that you will have a fully human experience. You will understand that you are part of a larger human family that is far more alike than it is different.”
Szarkowski joined the U.S. Fund for UNICEF in 1999 as deputy director of media relations. Within a year, she co-created the organization’s humanitarian disaster response protocols for communications, advocacy and fundraising.
For more than a decade, she has led U.S. Fund for UNICEF’s coordinated emergency team responses for major disasters, including the 2004 tsunami in South Asia, the 2006 earthquake in Pakistan and the 2010 earthquake in Haiti, and the 2012 famine in the Horn of Africa. In 2014, her role was expanded in response to catastrophic conflicts in Syria, Iraq, Central African Republic, South Sudan and the Ebola crisis in West Africa.
“Right now, the largest humanitarian crisis since World War II is unfolding,” she said. “The conflict in Syria is now entering its fifth year and it shows no signs of stopping. Half of Syria’s population has been displaced. Neighboring countries are absorbing a massive influx of refugees and some 14 million children are impacted.”
Addressing the problems in Syria and many other trouble spots in the world requires a collective effort, said Szarkowski, citing the Ebola crisis in Liberia as an example.
“Six months ago the country was essentially shut down by Ebola and last week Liberia was declared Ebola free. This did not happen because of any one organization, government or individual. This happened because Liberians mobilized to save their country and they were joined by like-minded people and organizations from all over the world. And every effort mattered.”
“When I look at you,” she told the graduates, “I can’t help but think of what will happen in 25 years, what you’ll bring to the world and what you’ll implement.”
Szarkowski, whose work focuses on the survival, protection and rights of the world’s most marginalized children, stressed how critical it is to protect children because they are the future.
“That’s where you come in. To the Class of 2015….You will help decide how to solve the problems of our time. We must stop viewing the world’s children as objects of pity and charity. The world’s children are here to advance humanity….When we give children what they hunger for, when we protect them and listen to them and let them develop to their full human potential, the world will know more peace, stability, health and prosperity.”
In parting, Szarkowski urged the graduates to remember all that they have and how lucky they are: “You, the Class of 2015, are immeasurably advantaged and fortunate. Now, go out there and act it.”
During the Commencement ceremony, Szarkowski received an honorary degree, as did three other individuals: Steven A. Hawley, a former NASA astronaut who flew on five U.S. Space Shuttle flights; David Wagner, an investment and business expert with deep experience in managing the finances of institutions of higher education; and Virginia Weil, Wheaton Class of 1965, who is retired as senior managing director of the Business Council for International Understanding, a nonprofit association that briefs U.S. and foreign ambassadors and diplomats, and supports American business in their international operations.
This year, eight graduating seniors have won Fulbright Awards to support a year of living, teaching and research abroad in Bulgaria, Germany, Macau, Malaysia, Mexico, the Slovak Republic, South Korea, Sweden, Taiwan, Turkey and Uruguay. They are: Clancy Connolly, of Scarborough, Maine; Jonathan Gerkin, of Greenwich, Conn.; Courtney Gilman, of Mount Vernon, Maine; Leslie Gould, of Ashburnham, Mass.; Lindsay Koso, of Lexington, Mass.; McKenzie Kuhn, of Glenwood Springs, Colo.; Erika Prince, of Plymouth, Mass.; and Elaine Yuan, New York, N.Y. In addition, Koso and her classmate Nana Asare were awarded 2015 Thomas J. Watson Fellowships to pursue self-designed global research projects.
Located in Norton, Mass., Wheaton is a selective college of the liberal arts and sciences with a student body of 1,600. Since 2000, more than 200 Wheaton students have won prestigious international scholarships, such as the Rhodes, Marshall and Fulbright awards. Wheaton continues to earn a top ranking among the nation’s liberal arts colleges for its success in preparing students to win U.S. Fulbright awards for advanced study and work abroad.