May 16, 2015


Lisa G. Szarkowski '90To President Hanno, the trustees, fellow honorees, the Class of 1990, parents and guests and especially to you, the Class of 2015, I thank you. I realize you could have had your pick of speakers today, and I want to let you know how honored I am to have been chosen for this privilege. It was entirely unexpected, and I accept it with humility and the certainty that it is equally deserved by many others in my class, who are contributing to our communities and many important causes and fields.

In preparation for today, I had to slow down and spend time thinking through who I was 25 years ago on this day, and what my path has been. However, it’s hard to take yourself seriously when your classmates are posting visual evidence of your fashion and hair mistakes from the 1980s. Thank you.

My memories also include people who are no longer here: classmates Daphne and Tammy and our dear Professor Goodman. In my world, no one would have been prouder to be here than my dad. We lost him unexpectedly and much too early. And the first people to rush to my side then are the same people who are here today cheering me on as they always do: my baby brother, Matthew, who is Class of ’92, and co-founder of the Gentlemen Callers and co-founder of the Head of the Peacock. How about that for history? And my beloved family and closest friends and colleagues—without all of you, I would never, ever be here and be who I am. I love you and thank you.

So take heart, Class of 2015, because your friends from Wheaton are your friends for life. And so are your professors. We are sometimes gifted with people who come into our lives and see things in us that we don’t recognize in ourselves. Here at Wheaton that person was a professor, my academic advisor. She was also my teacher, my advocate, my mentor. She pushed me to lose my fear and do my best to experiment and, most of all, to feel and think and empathize with others. I’m so honored to say that Dr. Pamela Bongas is here with us.  I want to thank her publicly for all she has given and continues to give. Thank you, wherever you are.

One last “thank you” to Wheaton itself for awakening the activism in me and affording me rich experiences that would shape my life. Within my first few months here, Professor Goodman had us leafleting Cambridge for a candidate for Congress.

We rallied against apartheid and marched for women’s rights. I was awarded fellowships through Wheaton to work on behalf of poor children and women. One was in Attleboro and one was in a remote village in Kenya. And it was here in the Dimple where I heard some of the most influential and respected voices on inequality, such as Marian Wright Edelman and Jonathan Kozol. Even our own motto today and your hymn have taken on new meaning for me coming back—not as an adult but as an alumna. You know, ‘that they may have life and may have it abundantly,’ and how much that is infused throughout everything here at Wheaton and all of the people.

My work brings me into difficult situations. I meet people at their most vulnerable moments—when a baby is struggling to take her last breaths, or a mother has lost her child, or a family has just crossed a border seeking refuge from something terrible. There are thousands of such moments stored inside of me, and often I am asked if this work is sad. And the answer is “yes,” and infuriating, but these emotions are dwarfed by the gratitude and awe that I feel for the extraordinary people I have met and worked with, and what they’re doing to save and protect children.

This is the first thing I want you to know, that good things are happening, that quantifiable, measurable, really good things are happening. In 1990, when I graduated, 35,000 children died every single day of preventable causes that are shamefully inexpensive to treat or prevent or cure. Then, 12.7 million children were dying of things like diarrheal dehydration, pneumonia and malaria. Today, that number has been reduced by half, to about 6.3 million children, in a span of 25 years. This progress is really hard won, but it’s still unacceptable that 17,000 children are dying every single day of preventable causes, and their survival has to be our foremost priority.

I am proud to say that UNICEF led this charge globally and has saved more children’s lives than any organization in the history of the world. However, none of this work is done solo. All of it is by and with and through partnership. No matter how bad things look anywhere in the world, I promise you will find people risking their lives to help children. Our partners encompass everyone from CEOs and heads of state to village elders and tribal leaders, NGO’s faith-based communities, celebrities and children and families themselves.

I want to reference Liberia as an example. Six months ago, the country was essentially shut down by Ebola. Last week, Liberia was declared Ebola-free. And this did not happen because of any one—yes, applaud for them—this did not happen because of any one organization, government or individual. This happened because Liberians mobilized to save their country. They were joined by like-minded people and organizations from all over the world, and every effort mattered, whether it was the sixth grade class from New Hampshire that raised money or the kids themselves in Monrovia who went door-to-door educating people to stop the spread of the virus.

When I look at you I can’t help but think what will happen in 25 years, what you’ll bring to the world and what you’ll implement. And I think another thing that needs to be said is don’t ever believe anyone who says you can’t change the world. Just don’t believe them.

Now that you know there’s progress and a network of like-minded people committed to this work, I wanted to talk about some difficult things, because being a humanitarian is not just about helping people, helping some people in some circumstances some of the time. Human rights applies to all people, everywhere, all of the time. That’s important. And children’s rights are the easiest to trample upon—especially the rights of children who are excluded and marginalized and poor.

Right now the largest humanitarian crisis in the world since War World II is unfolding. 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.

Syria is by no means the only conflict that is stealing childhoods. In the past year alone, brutal fighting has raged in South Sudan and Central African Republic, Iraq, Ukraine, Gaza, Yemen and Nigeria. These conflicts are proliferating. As a result, there are more refugees and displaced people right now than in any other time since War World II. And the numbers continue to grow.

Displaced people live in a kind of misery that is hard to explain in a short speech. After surviving trauma that compels them to leave, they endure a second wave of destruction, and it is no less cruel or lethal. If they are lucky, they may arrive at a refugee camp, which sounds like it should be a safe haven, doesn’t it? No one greets you with warm towels and clean sheets. You’re lucky if you get a piece of plastic to shelter you and maybe some food rations. Many times, refugees are confined to their immediate environment and prohibited from working. Access to basic services like water and sanitation and education are minimal or non-existent. Life becomes focused on daily survival.

When you have nothing, and even your hope for your children to lead a better life has been destroyed, your judgment becomes impaired, and bad ideas suddenly start to seem like good ideas. There is no shortage of opportunists who exploit the desperation of refugees. Extremist groups are all too ready to capitalize on this lack of opportunity for young people. If you can put yourselves in the shoes of a kid with no money, no home, no job, no chance of school, no sense of citizenship, you can see how bad choices can get made.

Sometimes, though, the loss of childhood is less traumatic but just as profound, such as I witnessed a couple of weeks ago on the border of Syria and Lebanon in the Beqaa Valley, where I met Fatima, who is a 12-year-old girl. Fatima’s father died in Syria. She and her mother fled to Lebanon, but her mother died a few months ago in a snowstorm. Apart from her shy smile and her sad eyes, you immediately notice her hands, the hands of an elderly woman: heavy, callused, swollen hands covered in scratches and scabs from picking potatoes in the field. She wants to be a doctor. She is desperate for school, but that’s not possible. Gandhi famously said, ‘If we are to teach real peace in this world, if we are to wage a real war against war, we shall have to begin with children.’ And that is a message that needs to be heard now more than ever in recent memory. In 10 years, I don’t want to find Fatima confined to a potato field. In 10 years, I want Fatima to be a vibrant force for change in her community, leading and helping others.

And that’s where you come in, Class of 2015. Please, please don’t believe anyone who says you can’t change the world. Your generation will help shape what Americans think and feel, and 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. We need to step out of their way and let them do their job. They are resilient and open-minded and willing and eager beyond any words can express. 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 closing, I have two messages. One is from me and one is from children. From me, please don’t ever let anyone or anything take your empathy. 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. 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. My wish for everyone in this audience is next time you see something that moves you, even if it’s half a world away happening to someone you will never meet and never know, that you allow yourself to feel for that person.

In my travels of late, I asked children if they could send a message, any message, to you, what would it be? And here is the winning theme: You are lucky. Yes, you with the student loans and no jobs, you are lucky. A girl in Chad, in the West African nation of Chad, is more likely to die in childbirth than to see school past eighth grade. She is more likely to die in childbirth than to get to the eighth grade and beyond. So that’s the benchmark of what I consider lucky and privileged. And each one of you who is about to graduate today is inordinately more advantaged than many of your peers in the world. Even though there are massive inequities here in the United States that require our activism, we are still at a level of freedom, influence and generosity that is unrivaled in most other countries.

By the way, did I tell you how beautiful you are? Because you should see yourselves. You, the Class of 2015, are immeasurably advantaged and fortunate. Now go out there and act it. And I will see you back here in 25 years at our reunion.

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