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Commencement 2004

Dean Larry Kirkman's Remarks

2004 Commencement School of Communication, Class of 2004, on behalf of the faculty and staff and alumni of SOC, congratulations to you on your achievements and congratulations to your families. Today, we also honor their contributions to your success. Today you make the transition from student to alumni. You join a network of more than 8,000 SOC alumni working across the communication professions and around the world.

There's no easy map for your careers. The onslaught of the digital age has put us all on a new footing. You must anticipate and help shape the professional roles and the new media services that are emerging. As the digital generation, you are challenged to bring high expectations for the powerful communication tools you have learned to use.

This year is historic for the School of Communication. We set the goal of renovating the McKinley Building as the future home of SOC. It will provide the facilities that our programs need to grow. But, it's about more than bricks and mortar. It's our opportunity to realize the School of Communication's philosophy and vision for media education in the 21st century.

We see SOC as a communication laboratory, involving students, faculty, and alumni in a community of professional practice, a meeting ground for creative storytellers, media strategists, and investigative journalists. The participation of alumni in the life of the School --and that means you now -- is central to our vision.

We want you to report back from the frontlines of your professions, to speak in classrooms, mentor students, and present your work at our public events. The idea of SOC as a laboratory only makes sense if it is informed by your real-world experience and driven by your commitment to our shared values.

American University prides itself on being a values-based institution, with an identity built on the ideas and ideals of public service and human rights. But, what does this commitment to human rights mean for you as communication professionals?

You can find a compass point in Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights -- adopted by the General Assembly of the United Nations in 1948. Listen to Article 19, it is an inspiration for me:

"Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers."

To speak, not just to listen, not just to consume but to produce - that is the human right of communication.

Article 19 raises profound questions for those of us working in communication. Who has a voice? Whose information needs are met? Who has access to all the social, political, civil rights and economic benefits of an information society?

Let me tell you a story I recently heard from a friend about a fishing village in India, in the state of Tamil Nadu. It's about a young woman who works in a community technology center. She's about your age, and her name is Pakkialouchme. Every morning, she collects data on local wave heights from a US Navy satellite, because the wave heights can be used to predict storms while they are still way out at sea.

She translates this data into Tamil, the local language, she reads it into an audio file and sends it online to the nearby fishing village. At the village, another community organization broadcasts her report through loud speakers planted along the beach. Every afternoon when the fishermen are mending their nets, they listen to her voice to help them decide whether it is safe to go out the next morning or not.

My friend asked "how valuable is this service? Has it made any measurable difference in the lives of the villagers?" "Well," the center director said, "in the past there were 5 to 10 deaths each year from drowning. Since Pakkialouchme has been doing this work, there have been no more deaths."

Most of us would think that was success enough, but this young woman does a lot more. Beyond the weather and the price of fish, she gathers information with a longer shelf-life, on health care for example. She exchanges information with other tele-centers around India and even across the world. She gets a very cheap, effective new idea for a water pump from a village in Africa, and they had got it from a group in China.

She also becomes the librarian and public records agency for the village - tracking childhood illnesses - is there a common source of pollution?

And, her information channels become a critical tool for democracy. Government workers assigned to pay pensions and maternity benefits are corrupt and unresponsive. She connects the villagers to a political process to challenge this system.

The villagers get a voice to transform their society.

Pakkialouchme's career is about the power of the media to support the struggle of poor people to improve their lives. How will your careers intersect with this young knowledge-worker for a fishing village in India?

Your School of Communication student commencement speaker, Danielle Kosanovich has asked the toughest questions about the practice of communication - about truth and transparency, credibility and conscience, how media can serve as a champion for the common good, how media can present the evidence and testimony that drive public debate.

Through her studies, her community service, and her global perspective, she represents our focus on public affairs and social engagement. Danielle graduates today with a double major in Public Communication and Political Science and a minor in Women's and Gender Studies.

She is a National Ambassador for Kids Voting - the leading national program to get school children engaged in the democratic process.

Please join me in welcoming and honoring Danielle Kosanovich.