Ann M. Veneman, Honorary Doctor of Humane Letters


Executive Director of UNICEF



May 28, 2006

President Liebowitz, Senator Jeffords, and honorable trustees, distinguished faculty, staff and alumni, family, friends, students, and the outstanding Class of 2006, congratulations to you all.

Good morning, and thank you for the privilege of being here. I deeply appreciate the honorary degree you bestow upon me today. Warmest congratulations to the other honorees as well.  It is humbling to be recognized among such illustrious company. It is especially meaningful to be honored by a school with such a sterling reputation, particularly in international affairs, a rich history and a bright future.

I hope you will join me in paying a special tribute to a very special group, and that is your parents. They are sometimes overlooked, except when tuition is due, but they have helped instill the values and attitudes that have gotten you to this point today. You are a lot more than just graduates to them. Maybe you are also that second mortgage or maybe you are the Porsche they did not buy.

It is true that higher learning can be expensive, but it is also true that ignorance is far more costly. But while you might think that your education is ending today, in reality it is just beginning. Ralph Waldo Emerson said that things taught in schools and colleges are not an education but the means to education.

Today you embark on a new beginning. After you leave Midd, you will discover your future. You will discover things about the world around you, and I am told that it might be hard for Middlebury students to imagine, but you might also discover a social life.

A few weeks ago I was speaking with a young woman who was about to graduate from the University of Minnesota. She said to me, "The future is wide open to me, at the same time the options can be overwhelming." It is hard to blame her or any of you for feeling that way.

Today your choices suddenly become more difficult than which flavor of Ben and Jerry's to choose or which song to download on your iPod, and your competition is no longer defined by credit units or your grade point average.

You are now on a playing field that is populated from all around the globe. Technology is helping drive a remarkable and rapid transformation. Globalization is not a prediction. It's a reality.

To give you an example of how dramatically the world has changed, consider this: in 1492 it took Christopher Columbus 70 days to reach the New World, a voyage of about 4,000 miles. Today a message can travel that same distance at the speed of light or about 282,000,000 times faster than the Santa Maria. In effect, this means that the Earth of Columbus's time has shrunk to a relative size that is just slightly larger than a golf ball.

The writer Thomas Friedman has defined three distinct phases of globalization. Globalization 1.0 began with that first voyage of Columbus and marked a time when collaboration and competition occurred among countries.

Globalization 2.0 began around the year Middlebury College was found in 1800. Transportation advances such as railroads and, later, airplanes, along with the Industrial Revolution, shifted that collaboration and competition to the level of companies.

And in the past few years, we have entered Globalization 3.0. The growth of the Internet and other technologies has shifted the focus of the power to the individuals. Your competition is no longer just the person across town. It is the woman in China or the man in India. Our news and entertainment, our social networks, finances and travel, even our cars and running shoes can now all be made to suit individual preferences. If you have an idea that is good enough, all it takes to become successful is a computer and a connection to the outside world.

A commencement ceremony may be the only place in the world where someone would speak to hundreds of people in identical caps and gowns about the power of the individual.

But it is true. Like Columbus, you find yourselves in a new world, and it is one with tremendous opportunities.

Since the typical member of the Class of 2006 was born, the World Wide Web, Microsoft Windows, digital cell phones, high definition televisions, the gas-powered fuel cell and the iPod were all invented. Technology could make currency obsolete, could generate fusion power in your home, and provide transportation that is free of harmful emissions. Nanotechnology will make computers even faster and smaller or maybe give us medical nano bots that can perform surgery or carbon-based construction material that is 100 times stronger and four times lighter than steel.

Your ability to adapt and capitalize on these changes will help determine your ultimate success. But as the world is drawn closer together, we become more aware of inequalities and our vested interest in helping address them.

Franklin Roosevelt understood this more than 60 years ago when he said, "The future and safety of our country, of our democracy, are overwhelmingly involved in events far beyond our borders."

If you do not see the linkages between the suffering child in Africa, in Eastern Europe and South Asia or in Latin America, and your own security and prosperity, then you simply are not looking hard enough. Issues that were once isolated by country or region are now crossing national boundaries such as conflict, disease, pollution and economic conditions.

We live in the most prosperous nation in the world, but we also inhabit a world in which one billion people live on one dollar a day or less. A world in which 10.5 million children continue to die each year of causes that are largely preventable. A world in which natural disasters, exploitation, famine and hunger continue to undermine peace and stability. Every minute that you have been listening to me, 20 children under the age of 5 have died around the world. Almost all of them from preventable causes such as disease or malnutrition. Every minute nine more people have contracted HIV, and at least one of those people is a child under the age of 15.

Throughout my travels, I have witnessed many of the human faces behind these numbers. I have met survivors of the genocide in Rwanda and learned of women who were targeted for rape by soldiers with HIV. I have helped comfort victims just days after the earthquake in Pakistan. I have seen mothers and babies in countries in Malawi who are dying of AIDS. I have spoken with children who were orphaned by the tsunami in India and Sri Lanka. I have met with a young Rumanian woman who was forced into prostitution in Ireland by a sexual trafficker, and I have spoken with a 12-year-old orphan girl in the Democratic Republic of Congo who was brutally raped by four men in an area where rape is used as a weapon of war. When I asked her what she wanted to be when she grows up, her answer was very telling. She said to me, "I want to be a nun."

Class of 2006, you do not have to look into the face of a hungry child, a sick infant or a dying mother to care. But I can promise you that if you do, it will profoundly alter how you view humanity.

The problems of the world can sometimes seem insurmountable, but we are all presented with two choices: despair or determination. We can choose to make ourselves and others more aware of what is happening in the world around us. We can choose to help worthy organizations that are doing good work around the globe. Or, we can choose to volunteer or devote a portion of our lives to public service.

One young person who works in a clinic in Swaziland or teaches students in Guatemala or helps install fresh sources of water in India, one person who works to make a difference is worth a thousand of those who are on the sidelines complaining about the state of the world. The needless suffering of one child is the debasement of all humankind. But even one person has the power to bring comfort to the afflicted or hope to the hopeless. One person can help change the world.

Commencement speakers often give advice to graduates, but instead of telling you how to live, I'd like to say a bit about how you are living. I see in your generation tremendous compassion and integrity. A generation that is growing up in the belief that financial status does not determine true worth. A generation to whom hard work, honesty and strong personal values are as important as ever.

As you begin the next chapter, I would suggest that you consider the following: instead of visualizing your life as a straight line stretching out before you, take the ends of that line and bring them back together to form a circle, and think of your life as that circle. None of us knows at this moment how large our life's circle will be. Some people have circles that are small but very full, and others have circles that are very large but exceedingly empty.

You might not have very much control over the size of your circle, but this is certain: it is you who determines how full your circle will be. You can try to fill it with money, expensive cars, electronic gadgets and self-indulgence and find that when the ends of the circle meet, it is still quite empty. Or, you can fill it with close friends, a loving family and a commitment to fair play and honor and find that when the circle closes it is full of wonderful memories, meaningful contributions to others, and people who really matter.

If you treat others with respect and dignity and establish relationships based on trust, you can fill your own circle without having to empty the circles of your neighbors or co-workers. If you seek to continuously improve and learn, you can fill your circle with knowledge rather than have it drained by ignorance. And if you give something of yourself or help your fellow human beings, you will fill your circle with love and respect.

Class of 2006, fill your circle with all that is good for you and for humankind. God bless you. May your future be worthy of your dreams. Thank you.

"Gamaliel Painter's Cane" sung by Francois Clemmons.
The Middlebury College Alma Mater, "Walls of Ivy," sung by Francois Clemmons.