Rajiv Shah, Commencement Speaker

Rajiv Shah Commencement Address


Thank you and good morning. Are you excited? I’m certainly very excited. When I first heard that your class had asked me to come and participate in today’s commencement, I didn’t believe it. I literally didn’t believe it. I thought they were joking. And then when they explained to me how this process worked and said, “No, no they really did invite you,” I was very excited and really honored.

I thought I might just describe why I was so enthusiastic to come here and to speak with you. First there’s the honor of having the chance to be with and address any graduate on their memorable day of commencement.

I still remember my own college graduation, in a setting somewhat less personal and comfortable than this one, and it was a very special moment. It wasn’t that long ago, about sixteen years, but things were very different then. Yahoo was the name of a local clothing company a college friend of mine had started. Wikipedia wasn’t around so we all actually had to write our own college essays. Tweeting was something birds mostly did. And I didn’t have access to actual health insurance. So things have actually changed in recent years.

But I remember at that time really looking forward to my summer. I was set to visit a poor tribal community in rural south India to work on a health and development project with local physicians, really bringing service and adventure together and giving me a unique opportunity to see the world.

As I went on that trip and from village to village, I met children and dispensed medications and I had the chance to encounter people who had a life story that was very different than my own. I always knew there were kids around the world who didn’t get enough food to eat or didn’t get a chance to go to school. But that summer, sitting with them in their homes and playing with them in their villages, it changed my idea of what I wanted to do with my life.

Of course, I didn’t know how to make that change. So I came back and, as I had planned, went on to medical school, and I got on with my life, but always had this nagging restlessness and far less certainty about what it was I actually wanted to do.

When I finished medical school, I made another brief detour, this time to work on Al Gore’s presidential campaign. And when, while some of us thought we won, we actually didn’t, I’ve had to find something else to do, but realized that I came away with the set of lasting and deep friendships that gave me the confidence that it would be possible to pursue a career in public and social service.

And through friends, that led me to take an internship at a new foundation being formed by Bill and Melinda Gates. I didn’t know anything about what they were trying to do, but I figured Bill Gates had a pretty good record when it came to start-ups, and I ought to join.

What was intended to be a short internship before my medical residency turned into an eight year journey that taught me how rigorous, businesslike approaches could be applied to address many of the most pressing challenges of poverty and suffering that we see in the world and that I witnessed in those villages in south India.

If we can invent new vaccines, we could eradicate diseases like polio, and, hopefully someday, like malaria and AIDS. If we could create new ways to finance global health and global education, we could allow nations around the world to invest in their children, giving tens of millions of kids new opportunities they hadn’t previously had.

And it would prove to all people that extreme poverty and hunger are solvable problems. We can inspire action that would change the world for the better.

I’ve now seen these actions at work at USAID. With President Obama’s and Secretary Clinton’s strong leadership, we’ve launched that most important effort to address hunger in a generation. In just five years our Feed the Future effort will help eighteen million people move out of poverty, more than seven million of whom are young children who currently go to bed hungry every night.

Sitting in my cap and gown that day at the University of Michigan, in our stadium that holds one hundred and twelve thousand people, I didn’t know that these experiences would add up to this type of career. But it’s really that sense of service and adventure that makes today so special and why I’m so excited to be here.

And that brings me to the second reason I consider this speech such an honor. The chance to address the graduates of Colby College in particular.

Here in Waterville there’s a store that sells cloth bags that are handmade in Cambodia. If you put it that simply it sounds unremarkable, just another indication of a globalized world. Dig a little deeper and you’ll learn that these bags were made by women in Cambodia living with HIV/AIDS. And that the reason these women in Battambang can sell their goods here in Waterville is because one of your fellow classmates who began an exchange project with that village made that happen. That international focus is a deep part of your legacy here at Colby.

Colby’s first graduates, back in 1822, left Waterville to live and work in a remote village in Burma.  Two years later Colby educated its first international student. And today more than ten percent of the class consist of international students. And Colby was the first campus to divest from South Africa’s apartheid regime, starting a movement that would awaken the world’s conscience.

Today, Colby graduates, you, are proficient in foreign languages, have studied abroad in more than seventy countries, and join the Peace Corps at a higher rate than at any other college in our country.

Last month I traveled to South Sudan, a region beset by violence and deep poverty. And, until recently, a girl in South Sudan was more likely to die in childbirth than to complete secondary school.

For years our mission there has been working to educate girls in the region, improve agricultural production, and help reverse the highest rate of maternal mortality in the world. And these efforts are working. Last year we partnered with the United Nations to build facilities for a national referendum, train poll workers, and register voters, and we helped facilitate a historic referendum that proceeded peacefully and on schedule, paving the way for the birth of Africa’s newest nation.

And we’ve created partnerships that have brought down the percentage of women who die in childbirth, so more mothers can live to see and care for their children.

A key leader in these efforts is our mission director, Susan Fine, in Juba. Not only is Susan a capable leader who is changing the world, she’s also a Colby grad. I’ve come to learn that’s a frequent combination. From Ethiopia to Bangkok, Uganda to Nepal, Colby grads are at the forefront of helping serve those in greatest need. And those are just the ones working at USAID and the State Department.

Whether you choose to join development or any other field, your broad and inclusive view of the world will give you unique insights that allow you to shape a much more interconnected planet.

And that’s the final reason why it’s so exciting to be here. You’re not just Colby graduates, you’re the Class of 2011.

Right now in Washington, there’s an ongoing debate about whether America can still afford to behave like a superpower. Some believe we should slash our development and diplomacy budgets and close our borders to new generations of immigrants, immigrants like my father who came here in the late 1960s from India. That we should reduce our efforts to prevent radical extremism, eliminate global pandemics, and expand economic opportunities around the world, because times are tough here at home.

It’s a serious debate with serious consequences, and it occurs at a time when other countries are expanding their global presence at an unprecedented rate. We do need to grapple with and manage our finances and be responsible about our budgets. But I suspect this is also a debate many of you consider irrelevant. Your class—modern, worldly and with a deeper understanding of global issues than any generation has ever had—knows that America has to step up our engagement with the rest of the world.

With your actions you’ve shown us that Americans realize that a world where hunger is beaten, diseases are eradicated, markets are free and equal in a world that makes us safer and enhances our prosperity and expresses our core values.

You give us great hope that we will win this exciting but increasingly competitive future. Your efforts show us that Americans will continue to lead, as we have done for decades, around the world.

We are a country that does big things. We build, we innovate, we solve what people think of as impossible problems. We’re the country that helped rid the world of smallpox, helped eliminate hunger and poverty for hundreds of millions of people who most people thought would starve to death during the Green Revolution. And we launched the largest humanitarian rescue mission ever mounted in Haiti, feeding more than four million people and providing water and other services to a million and a half others at a time of critical, critical need.

By bringing together a variety of skills, whether you’re premed or a history major, an engineer or an economist, you can play your part in the next great opportunity to improve human welfare. For some of you, it may mean joining an NGO and making your impact directly. For others, it may mean joining a corporation. Today any career or skill can be put to service of those in need.

America’s economy is projected to grow about two and a half percent this year, but Africa’s economy is experiencing yet another year of fast-paced growth—over six and a half percent. That story is true throughout the developing world. There is no longer any sector of our economy—public, private, or social—that can ignore the opportunities, the realities, and the competition that exists in the developing world.

Some of you may even start your own NGOs or companies. At USAID, as part of our USAID Forward reforms, we’ve started a venture fund to support projects that just do that. Smartphone applications that can be used to monitor election fraud or identify counterfeit drugs. Solar lamps that can help children study at night in villages that power lines can’t reach. Or cheap medical devices that can help resuscitate newborn babies who are born in villages where there are no hospitals and there are no doctors.

These aren’t projects that exist in people’s imaginations, these are technologies, ideas, and businesses that are being designed by American companies, in garages, in laboratories around our nation, and, in each of these examples, on college campuses around the country.

These ideas will be crucial to solving the next big development challenges: preventing child death from malaria, bringing light to millions who don’t have access to electricity, ending hunger in our lifetimes, or transitioning a long-autocratic region in the Middle East to democracy.

We’re conditioned to believe that achieving these massive goals is impossible, that it’s too much for any one person to try to take on. But only by setting such massive goals can we inspire the innovation required to achieve them. And only by having the audacity and naivety to believe that you can make a huge difference can we put our efforts and energies to work for this purpose.

So congratulations to the Colby Class of 2011 for what you’ve already accomplished and for the example you’ve already set and for the things that you have in front of you. If you’re like me and I was on my commencement day, I suspect you don’t know exactly what your next set of experiences will lead to. But if you approach it with the same playfulness, commitment, and confidence that you’ve already shown, I know you’ll succeed.

Thank you, very much.


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