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Greg Mortenson, coauthor of the bestseller Three Cups of Tea, and senior class speaker Qiamuddin Amiry of Kabul, Afghanistan, cofounder the Afghan Scholars Initiative, emphasized the role of education in solving global problems when they spoke at Colby College’s 188th commencement Sunday, May 24. Five-hundred nine members of Colby’s Class of 2009 received diplomas from President William D. Adams as thousands watched on the Miller Library lawn.
In the years since his failed attempt to climb K2 led him to discover his mission, Mortenson has created approximately 80 schools, mostly for girls, through the nonprofit he cofounded, the Central Asia Institute. He encouraged graduates to make the most of failures. In Afghanistan, he said, “There’s a very beautiful Persian proverb that says, ‘When it is dark, you can see the stars.’ And I think that’s a good thing to hold onto.”
The Taliban, Mortenson said, has destroyed more than 800 schools in Afghanistan and Pakistan in the last two years, mostly those for girls. “So, why do a group of men want to bomb a girls’ school and not a boys’ school? Because, I think, their greatest fear—it’s not a bullet, but it’s a pen,” he said. Mortenson quoted the Islamic hadith: “The ink of a scholar is holier than the blood of a martyr.”
The good news, Mortenson said, is that since 2000 the number of children being educated in Afghanistan has grown from 800,000 to 7.6 million—”the greatest increase in school enrollment in any country in modern history,” he said. “That’s the candle, that’s the light of hope for a country like Afghanistan.”
In stressing the need for hope as Colby students set out to make a difference in the world, Mortenson recounted a disagreement with his publisher about the subtitle of his book. Attempting to make it newsworthy, the publisher argued for Three Cups of Tea: One Man’s Mission to Fight Terrorism . . . One School at a Time. Mortenson was opposed, advocating for One Man’s Mission to Create Peace . . . One School at a Time. “Fighting terrorism is based in fear,” he said, “but promoting peace is based in hope. And the real enemy, whether it’s in the U.S. or Afghanistan or in Africa, the real enemy is ignorance, and it’s ignorance that breeds hatred.”
The publisher agreed with Mortenson’s condition that if the hardcover edition did not sell well the subtitle could change for the paperback version. “So the hardcover came out, it didn’t do very well, and they changed the subtitle to One Man’s Mission to Promote Peace . . . One School at a Time two years ago, and it’s been a New York Times bestseller ever since,” he said.
Student-elected speaker Qiamuddin Amiry ’09 gained perspective through the struggles early in his life, he said, including civil war in Afghanistan and later the Taliban regime. “During the civil war, survival became the number-one objective of life,” he said. Later, at the United World College in Hong Kong and then at Colby, Amiry was able to look beyond survival and toward helping others.
“It was here that I had the chance to see that it is merely a different environment, different people that I had the good fortune to interact with, and different sources from which I took inspiration,” he said, “that made the difference between a young suicide bomber from Kabul and the young man standing before you today.”
“I believe that the environment in which we grow up, and the people that we encounter in life, shape our character and mold our dreams.” He translated a Persian saying: “Melons gain color from the other melons around them and they ripen together. You, Class of 2009, have colored and shaped me—and one another—in ways that will alter the rest of our lives.”
“As his highness the Aga Khan reminds us: ‘There are those who enter the world in such poverty that they are deprived of both the means and the motivation to improve their lot. Unless these unfortunates can be touched with the spark, which ignites the spirit of individual enterprise and determination, they will only sink back into renewed apathy, degradation and despair. It is for us, who are more fortunate, to provide that spark.’
“There is no doubt that we are the fortunate ones,” Amiry said. “The question is, can we provide the spark?” Through the nonprofit he cofounded with classmate John Campbell while they were undergraduates, Amiry is providing outstanding students from Afghanistan with the opportunity to study at private high schools in the United States.
Following Amiry’s speech, President Adams awarded the Condon Medal, given annually to a senior with extraordinary qualities of constructive citizenship, to James Goldring ’09. Goldring founded Luzicare, an organization to raise money for people affected by HIV/AIDS in Malawi.
Honorary degrees were awarded to outgoing chair of Colby’s board of trustees Joseph F. Boulos, Tom’s of Maine founders Kate Cheney Chappell and Thomas M. Chappell, astronomer Margaret J. Geller, Harvard law professor Jack Goldsmith III, and Mortenson.
Yilin Xu, a mathematics and economics double major from Beijing, China, led the procession of seniors as the class marshal and valedictorian.
Photos, audio, video, and more are online.