Commencement | Aaron Williams Address to SIS Graduates

Commencement Address
(As prepared)

American University School of International Service

May 8, 2011

The Honorable Aaron Williams

Thank you, Mr. Provost, Dean Goodman, and President Kerwin, for this tremendous honor.

And to the faculty, families, distinguished guests, and, most of all, the Class of 2011, congratulations on the wonderful achievement we’re here to celebrate today.

Earlier this spring, I took part in a panel discussion in New York, where one of the speakers made a comment that really resonated with me.He said, “We need to find or create authentic reasons for hope.” Well, to my mind, every student at the School of International Service is an authentic reason for hope. And every graduate is another victory for the forces of good in this world.

I’m doubly delighted to be here today, because I feel a special connection with American University, not only because the Peace Corps’ Director of Global Operations, Esther Benjamin, is a proud AU/S.I.S. alum, and not only because S.I.S. recently became the latest school to join with the Peace Corps in offering the Masters International Program, but because this school is one of our nation’s top producers of Peace Corps Volunteers. 

Even as we meet today, there are 55 AU alumni serving in 40 countries. They might be helping Zambian fish farmers to boost their stocks, or helping empower young girls in Malawi to be community leaders, or teaching health and hygiene to schoolchildren in Peru, or any number of other projects. But all of them are bringing a message of solidarity and support to people around the globe.

And perhaps we need that spirit of solidarity more than ever. Consider the range and scope of the challenges we face in the 21st Century:Climate change. Global economic crisis. Terrorism. Nuclear proliferation. Challenges that no one nation can hope to meet alone.

But if the challenges are new, more than ever, we have the tools that we need to address them. And if the problems are great, that means your generation has the greatest opportunity to solve them. 

After September 11, the defining moment in the dawn of this new century, it was young people who bravely stepped forward to serve, both in the military and civilian service. Young people have transformed our technological lives, creating Google and YouTube and Facebook.

Young people have changed the way we run political campaigns. Just ask President Obama. 

You have the power to change the world for good.   

As you can imagine, I’m partial to the Peace Corps as an avenue for action. After all, the Peace Corps, from the very beginning, has been characterized by youth, born on the steps of the University of Michigan’s student union, half a century ago,when a charismatic young senator challenged students to devote part of their lives to service abroad.

The idea caught on. By the time of President Kennedy’s inauguration, he had received more than 25,000 letters on the Peace Corps. The agency didn’t even exist, yet young people were clamoring to serve. 

And I’m proud that, in our 50th year, the Peace Corps is stronger than ever. With more than 8,600 Peace Corps Volunteers currently serving around the world, there are more Americans in the Peace Corps today than at any point in the last 40 years. 

For me, the Peace Corps opened doors I never knew existed. I was raised on the South Side of Chicago, the first person in my family to finish college. My relatives expected me to do something practical, to start my teaching career. But I was drawn to the kind of public service that I had heard President Kennedy speak about. I applied to the Peace Corps. 

The flights that took me to California for training, and then on to the Dominican Republic, were the first time I’d ever been on a plane. I worked in a small town, helping a group of primary school teachers to earn their high school degrees. They wanted to improve, to access better opportunities. I was determined to help them succeed.


And I learned a lesson that has guided and inspired my work ever since: When people join together in common cause, we can achieve extraordinary things. 

Through the Peace Corps, you too can be a part of something much bigger than yourselves, in fields from education, to environmental protection, to public health.

Just a few weeks ago, for example, the Peace Corps announced a new partnership with the President’s Malaria Initiative, to help eradicate a disease that claims the life of an African child every 30 seconds. During that event, I had the pleasure of acknowledging two outstanding Peace Corps colunteers who were on the front lines in the fight against malaria, and one of them, Kris White, is a first year student at S.I.S. He’s the type of outstanding young professionals that attend this wonderful university.

I want to make sure that children everywhere can sleep peacefully, without fear of this dreaded disease. And I would love to have you, and your parents, and your grandparents, volunteering with us toward that great goal.

I’m not kidding, grandparents!  Peace Corps is for everyone. It’s never too late to serve.  Our oldest Volunteer is named Muriel.  She’s 86. And she has a blog.

But I know there are many paths to choose, many ways to make a difference. So, what I’d like to do is share three lessons that relate to the Peace Corps experience that I believe have broader application for our lives, and for the world.

My first lesson: We grow by challenging ourselves. By stepping out of our comfort zone. 

As Eleanor Roosevelt once said, “You must do the things you think you cannot do.”

A sense of humor really helps when things seem unfamiliar or tough. A colleague once told me about when she and her fellow Volunteers first touched down on the tarmac in Mali. They were in a desolate part of West Africa. The landscape was dusty and bare.  Everyone was quiet. And then someone said, “Wait, I thought we were going to Maui!"

Flexibility helps too. Our Volunteers serve for 27 months. At first, it can feel overwhelming, especially because, in most Peace Corps communities, the pace of life slows down. You may be raring to go, with your checklists and plans, but that’s not the way things work in your village or town or small non-profit organization, or district government office. And you realize that you have a lot you must learn before you can successfully lead a new project.

But day by day, and step by step, you start to figure things out, and the more you understand about the community around you, the more you understand about yourself, because there’s something different, something really special, about being there, at the grassroots, not only being able to see your impact, one child, one family, one classroom at a time, but also in the way that being embraced by one small village expands your own horizons. By the time you leave, you’ve realized two years wasn’t nearly long enough.

More than that, inevitably, you realize that you have received far more than you gave. 

Lesson number two:The most important thing in life is relationships.

Whether we’re talking about politics or diplomacy or business, real change comes in the very personal interactions between real people. There’s a joke I once heard:  “If you’re in an argument with somebody, walk a mile in their shoes. Because then, even if you still can’t agree, you’ll be a mile away, and you’ve got their shoes!" But the truth is, being able to walk in someone else’s shoes, to empathize and see the world from their perspective, those are the indispensable skills for shaping peace and progress.

The Peace Corps gives you a chance to develop and practice and hone those skills. It helps you see the common good that exists in all of humankind. Just the fact of living and working shoulder-to-shoulder and speaking to people in their own language can make all the difference in our ability to connect and to build the better world we seek, together.  

My last lesson:  Service isn’t just about a moment.  Service is a mindset. That’s why we don’t call ourselves “former volunteers.”  We are always returned volunteers. Whatever field you choose, whatever line of work, you can always find ways to help others. And when you start your careers with a service mindset, it never goes away.

I know you don’t need me to lecture you on that, because service is what this school is all about. Many of you were probably drawn to S.I.S. precisely because it has the word “service” in its name.

It’s a mindset you might carry into government, like S.I.S. alumna and Germany’s Green Party founder Petra Kelly, asking how you can best lift the lives of those you represent.

It’s a mindset you might carry into the media, like S.I.S. alumnus David Gregory, asking the tough questions and shining the light that builds trust between policy makers and the public.

It’s a mindset you might bring to the nonprofit sector, like S.I.S. alum and human rights activist John Prendergast, speaking out for those whose voices might otherwise never be heard.

When you let the call to service inhabit your imagination, it will guide you for the rest of your lives, and the rest of us will all be better off because you did.

Sargent Shriver, our legendary first director of the Peace Corps, once observed that critics often charged the Peace Corps of being naïve. They’d say, “Isn’t it an illusion to think that the Peace Corps might actually help…change the world?”

But Shriver would respond with a question of his own. He’d say, who or what do you think is going to change the world?

Half a century later, the answer to that question hasn’t changed. Like Sargent Shriver, we at Peace Corps still believe that what can change the world now is the same thing that has always worked in the past: “An idea and the service of dedicated, committed individuals to that idea.”

That’s why we are so grateful for and inspired by schools like S.I.S. We see in its graduates the dreamers and the drivers of bold ideas, determined to make their mark on the world as leaders for peace and progress. As President Obama has said, “Service isn’t separate from our national priorities or secondary to our national priorities. It’s integral to achieving our national priorities. It’s how we will meet the challenges of our time.”

And as President Eisenhower said at the groundbreaking for S.I.S., “The waging of peace demands the best we have, the best young men and women that we can find.”

Class of 2011, you are the best, and now is your moment to serve, and to shine. I can’t wait to see what you’ll do next. 

Congratulations and godspeed!