“Every one of us needs to be humble,” Commencement speaker Sakena Yacoobi told the graduates of the Middlebury Institute of International Studies at Monterey gathered on Colton Hall Lawn on Saturday, May 21. “When we are humble, and we are listening, then we are ready to transform, to bring innovation and creativity.”
Two hundred and seventy graduates listened humbly to Yacoobi’s words of wisdom under mostly sunny skies as more than 1,400 family members, friends, alumni, faculty, and staff looked on. The class of May 2016 included graduates from 31 countries receiving degrees in 13 programs.
Middlebury President Laurie L. Patton, who took office last July, attended Commencement at the Institute for the first time on Saturday. She took the opportunity to share a treasured Middlebury tradition with the Institute community, bringing with her the original cane bequeathed by Gamaliel Painter to the College in 1819—see this interesting video for more on this tradition—and taking a moment to educate Painter’s spirit about the Institute and its place as part of the greater Middlebury community.
“Monterey is the next visionary step for our founding fathers and mothers at Middlebury,” Patton said, telling the graduates that “You are here today because you decided that you wanted a career of meaning. You wanted to make a positive contribution to the world.” Introducing Yacoobi to the graduates, she told them “You are idealists who have transformed yourselves into change agents… She is one of you.”
Yacoobi founded the Afghan Institute of Learning (AIL) in 1995 to provide training, education, and healthcare to the Afghan people, with a particular focus on women and children. The first organization to open learning centers for Afghan women—a concept that has been replicated again and again—AIL has grown into one of the largest non-profit organizations in the country, providing education and health care services for over 12 million Afghans to date. Yacoobi, who received an honorary doctorate degree at Commencement, is also a member of the advisory council for the Institute’s Center for Social Impact Learning.
In her remarks to the graduates, Yacoobi stressed the importance of connecting with the local community and building trust, rather than coming into a situation and assuming you know the best solution. “The world is so unjust. When you are going around and trying to bring peace, you must work with a community, but you must also be a part of it. You cannot say to people ‘I am here, and I have the answer.’ They are simple, they have a simple life, but they have the solution.”
Following the formal presentation of Alumni Achievement Awards (see our story on the winners), Student Speaker Evyn Simpson approached the podium and immediately thanked “the baristas on campus,” as well as a long list of other community members that concluded with Professor Ed Laurance, noting that “His Policy Analysis class was the highlight of my graduate career.” After giving a shout-out to classmates who have served in Americorps, Youth Corps, Peace Corps, World Teach, the Fulbright scholars program, and the military, Simpson noted that “This tradition of service is a reflection of who we are, and what motivates us. We all came to MIIS with the intention of giving meaning to our past experiences, and with the hope of having a positive social impact after we leave.”
It was a theme echoed by every speaker, including Vice President for Academic Affairs and Dean of the Institute Jeff Dayton-Johnson, who said of the graduates “You want to have an impact on the people and organizations you’re working with. On some level, in some way, you want the work you’re doing to make a difference.”