I would like to begin with a quick story from when I was studying abroad in Kenya last spring. For three weeks during my four months in Kenya, I stayed at Kennedy Mugo’s house, a current Middlebury student, who is sitting right over there and who many of you may already know. I lived with his mother and sister in Nairobi during the urban homestay portion of my program.
It was the weekend and the sun was relentless as I walked through a permanent open market with Mugo’s sister Daisy and their cousin Paul. The individual market stands, comprised of rickety wooden frames, loomed well above my head, keeping the area surprisingly shady and cool. The uneven, dirt paths between them were narrow, and a mist of dust hung in the air, illuminated by the streaks of light that shined through the gaps between the stands. You could find anything you ever wanted there, from soccer cleats and secondhand sundresses to pirated movies and flashy sunglasses.
Giving, at its roots, is the sharing of something, be it tangible or intangible, from one person to another.
As we perused the market, looking for new jeans for Paul, an impoverished young boy came up to me, asking me quietly for money. He couldn’t have been older than eight years old, and he wore a tattered navy-blue shirt and no shoes. The dirt was visible on both his face and clothes as he stood next to me, holding out his hand and repeating “please miss, please.” We had been told not to give money to street children because it taught them that the frowned upon habit of begging paid off and, even more than that, as visitors, it wasn’t our place to interfere with the balance within a community. He continued to follow me, though, and eventually I asked Paul what I should do.
I was getting worried that he might try to steal my bag since I refused to give him any money. Paul looked down at the child and asked him, “Unataka mkate?”—do you want bread? The boy responded, “Shilingi”—money. He said it again, holding out his hand. Paul shook his head, “Hapana, I will only buy you bread.” The boy nodded. “Do you know where the nearest grocery store is?” Paul asked. The boy motioned to the left with the flick of his hand and began leading us out of the market.
“Why are you doing this for him?” I asked, wondering if I had missed something during their conversation in Swahili. Paul smiled and shrugged his shoulders as we weaved through the congested crowds of people shopping in the market place. Still confused, I probed further, “Why not just give him the money and send him on his way?”
“If you just give them money, they won’t buy food. They’ll buy glue to get high. If you actually want to help them, you have to buy food and give it directly to them,” Paul explained. He and the boy then disappeared into the grocery store and were in there for over 10 minutes, as I waited outside. “He had a hard time choosing between all the different kinds,” Paul said laughing when he returned. I could see the boy heading back towards the marketplace with a light skip in each step, looking around proudly from side to side as he clutched the bread to his chest.
I would not have received the opportunity to attend Middlebury if it wasn’t for the blind generosity of a complete stranger, who expected nothing in return.
John D. Rockefeller once said, “Think of giving not as a duty but as a privilege.” Back in high school, I really had no conception of giving and the way in which it not only benefits those who receive but also grows and deepens the life of the person giving as well. My time was valuable and something that needed to be used efficiently to achieve what I wanted in life. So I was selfish with it, which is pretty normal at that age. Academics and sports were my top priorities. I was a three-season athlete. I ran cross-country in the fall, Nordic- ski raced in the winter, and ran track in the spring.
I was incredibly dedicated and gave myself fully to my academics, sports teams, family, and friends, but rarely did I do something with my time and resources in which I did not directly benefit from my actions. In light of my attitude back then, I saw community service as largely a waste of time-—something that other kids did because they didn’t have any other significant interests, like sports, theater, or speech and debate. I dreaded even the most minor community-service requirements because that was time that could be spent doing homework, going skiing, or hanging out with friends. My senior year, I was accepted into the National Honor Society, and they required that you complete a mere 10 hours of community service per semester to remain a member. Even then, I found ways to inflate and fudge my hours here and there to avoid “wasting my time” when I could be doing something I saw as more productive or worthwhile.
It was when I arrived at Middlebury, though, that my attitude began to change. The shift happened slowly and was largely unconscious, but by the beginning of my junior year, I was completely taken with the concept of giving back and helping an individual or the greater community by offering them my time and knowledge. It no longer felt like a sacrifice or a burden when I volunteered to take a prospective student on a tour of campus, or spent three hours on a Saturday afternoon learning how to hip hop dance with seventh- and eighth-grade girls, or participated in events like Relay for Life. In fact, I enjoyed it immensely and couldn’t believe I had, at one point in my life, scoffed at the idea that community service had any significant gain for those people who were donating their time to help someone else. Since then, I have been very involved in two mentoring groups on campus, one for middle school girls and a cross-county-ski program for kids in elementary school. This winter, after choosing the “early retirement plan” from the Nordic team my senior year, I got the chance to be a volunteer coach for a local high school Nordic team in Brandon, Vermont, a few times a week, and it was one of the most rewarding experiences I have ever had.
In hindsight, the choice to come here has been the single best and most influential decision of my life when reflecting on the opportunities, people, and experiences this place has afforded me over the last four years.
I believe this change of heart came about largely because I knew that I would not have received the opportunity to attend Middlebury if it wasn’t for the blind generosity of a complete stranger, who expected nothing in return. In hindsight, the choice to come here has been the single best and most influential decision of my life when reflecting on the opportunities, people, and experiences this place has afforded me over the last four years.
One aspect of giving I always have difficulty grappling with is our need to quantify a donation in a way to measure the impact you are making on the lives of others. This is most easily done by observing and recording statistics, like the relative amount of money a person has donated or the number of houses a work group is able to construct on a weekly basis. When it comes to helping a person pay for a college education, though, this straightforward system of measurement seems largely inappropriate in terms of assessing the overall impact the money is making on the lives of the students themselves.
Giving, at its roots, is the sharing of something, be it tangible or intangible, from one person to another. In the case of our scholarships, this initial contribution came in the form of a quantifiable amount of money. This concrete, fiscal gift was then translated into something much more helpful and meaningful, the gift of an education. After studying abroad in Kenya and seeing firsthand the drastic improvements in quality of life that people got when they completed even just high school—a difference that sometimes literally came down to whether or not a family had enough money to buy potatoes, onions, cabbage, and tomatoes for dinner each night—I realize the deep effects that receiving any form of education has on bettering our lives and broadening our options for the future.
That being said, the gift of an education at Middlebury itself goes far beyond providing the simple framework for an education and thereby the means for creating a potentially happy, successful future.
By giving young adults like me and those in this room the opportunity to attend Middlebury College, you are giving us an overall experience that we will carry with us for the rest of our lives and an incredibly supportive, motivated, and caring community that transcends time and space. I, like John Tormondsen, was also a Nordic skier, and, although my experience as a skier and student at Middlebury was, I’m sure, very different than his, there is a common bond that is understood across generations and varying interests. It is this bond and the hope that other students will find Middlebury and the overall community just as enchanting as they did when they attended college here that I believe keeps people motivated to give back. This, in my opinion, is the true beauty of the scholarship program here—the gift of experience through a complete and deep exploration of mind, body, and place.
The gift of an education at Middlebury itself goes far beyond providing the simple framework for an education and thereby the means for creating a potentially happy, successful future.
And if anyone here is attending graduation on May 23rd, you will also see me proudly clutching the diploma to my chest as I cross the stage because, like my friend Paul, you all have given us something that goes far beyond just physical money—the priceless, never-ending gift of knowledge and a lived understanding of people and place, the experience of which cannot help but profoundly affect an individual, challenging and encouraging them to grow, develop, and approach life, and its many curveballs, with unremitting creativity and enthusiasm.
Thornton Wilder, a well-known American playwright and novelist in the mid-1900s once wrote, “Money is like manure; it’s not worth a thing unless it’s spread around encouraging young things to grow.” I think the donors in this room truly embody this mentality, and we cannot thank you all enough for the generosity you have bestowed on all of the students in this room. I can say, with absolute confidence, that your kindness will never be forgotten by all of those whom you have helped over the years.
In conclusion, I think Winston Churchill summed it up best when he said, “We make a living by what we get, but we make a life by what we give.” Thank you.
|Em's remarks were a moving tribute to financial aid donors at Middlebury, who make so many students' educations here possible.|