It was 2 a.m. in Ann Arbor, Michigan when presidential candidate John F. Kennedy arrived on the University of Michigan campus. His speech was not planned, but the few words he shared with students resound to this day. “How many of you are going to be a doctor, are willing to spend your days in Ghana?” he asked. “Technicians or engineers: how many of you are willing to work in the Foreign Service and spend your lives traveling?”
President of Hobart and William Smith Mark D. Gearan, who served as Director of the Peace Corps from 1995 to 1999, began Wednesday’s Convocation ceremony by reading a portion of JFK’s impromptu speech.
Marking the beginning of the academic year, welcoming incoming and returning students and faculty, Gearan shared the story of how JFK’s simple idea grew into a powerful agent of change – the Peace Corps, which will be celebrating its 50th anniversary this year. At HWS, Wednesday’s Convocation marked the beginning of an academic year dedicated to the exploration of ideas.
“We begin this year with this concept of ideas, and the power of ideas to literally change the word,” said Gearan. “Simple ideas can – and often do – become big solutions for some of our society’s challenging issues. Not every idea will result in a federal agency or win you a Nobel Peace Prize – but they will make a difference.”
Take one look at the newspaper, Gearan advised, and the evidence of conflict and struggle in the world is startlingly obvious. “But on this campus and during this year, we have a remarkable privilege,” Gearan remarked. “We live and study and work in a rich, learned environment that prizes the exploration of ideas. We have the chance to consider how ideas and events matter and how they can change the world.”
Gearan spoke of small ideas formed on campus and in Geneva that have blossomed into important efforts that continue to help individuals and families in the Geneva community. Programs such as Geneva Heroes, Geneva Community Lunch, and Success for Geneva’s Children prove that one person with an idea and dedication can initiate change.
Director of the Peace Corps Aaron S. Williams began with a question echoing a similar query put forth by JFK in his inaugural address nearly 50 years before. “Ask yourself: What can you achieve?” Williams posed. “What can you achieve on campus? In Geneva? Overseas?”
“Use this question to keep you motivated,” advised Williams. “An idea is a challenge you can work towards, no matter how bold that idea.”
“Over 200,000 Americans have said good-bye, given up what is familiar, gotten on a plane, and agreed to help others in a foreign country,” said Williams, who grew up on the south side of Chicago. The first time he ever boarded a plane was after he volunteered for the Peace Corps and was on his way to the Dominican Republic. While serving, Williams acted as a teacher trainer, and was responsible for 50 teachers in rural school districts. “For two years, these teachers sacrificed their weekends and summers based on the promise that I would help them get their diploma,” said Williams of his experience. “I became a leader, a coach, and a friend.”
Through the Peace Corps, people from across the United States have had the opportunity to become leaders, to participate in important services to communities of the world. Members of the organizations have worked teaching English as a second language, helped remote villages get access to clean water, and assisted farmers in small towns to sell and distribute crops. “Without the power of JFK’s idea, communities around the world would not be able to see Americans as they truly are.”
“Keep in mind the significance of volunteering,” stressed Williams. “What can you contribute to make someone’s life better? Can you give one hour? One month? Two years?”
“Now is the time to achieve, to create, contribute, and inspire,” imparted Williams. “Remember that one idea is never too much to achieve. When we come together for a common goal, we can achieve magnificent things.”
“My idea to try new things placed me on the path to serve. It shaped who I am today,” said Williams whose own idea has changed not only his life, but hundreds of others. “The Peace Corps was right for me; I challenge you to find what is right for you.”
Provost and Dean of Faculty Teresa Amott invited students to foster peace, and use their liberal arts education to think critically about their world. “We hope that some of you will serve in the Peace Corps after you leave Geneva and the Colleges,” said Amott. “A Peace Corps career – capital P, capital C – is not for everyone, but everyone can be a part of making peace.”
“If we think about the Peace Corps as a community of those who engage in creative alternatives for responding to conflict, then everyone can be a part of the peace corps – small p, small c,” said Amott. “A liberal arts education is about encountering the conflict of ideas everyday in class and on campus. We settle these conflicts, not through violence, but through the opening of our hearts and minds to the experiences of people most unlike us.”
Each year, the winner of the Faculty Excellence in Teaching Award is asked to speak at Convocation. Last spring, Associate Professor of Sociology Renee Monson was the recipient of the award. However, Monson is currently leading the Colleges’ program in Washington, D.C.; in her place, Associate Professor of Economics Jo Beth Mertens was asked to address students and faculty.
Mertens shared her own experiences in the Peace Corps, serving in Nigeria. “It is an experience I am thankful for everyday,” said Mertens. “I learned more – about myself, about our world, about my prides and prejudices.”
“The Peace Corps challenged me to think differently, to see differently, to relate to people differently, and to live my life differently,” explained Mertens, who then challenged the students of HWS to use their time on campus to learn to see the world in a different light. “I challenge you to take advantage of all that we offer here at HWS, and to learn – about yourself, about your world, about your prides and prejudices.”
“In doing so,” Mertens surmised, “you will learn to lead a life of consequence.”
183 HWS graduates have gone on to serve in the Peace Corps. Currently, there are 16 graduates serving in countries around the world.
Professor of Economics Alan Frishman, a former member of the Peace Corps, served as Faculty Marshal for the ceremony which took place Wednesday at 5 pm. on Stern Lawn. Other speakers included Vice Chair of the Board of Trustees Maureen Collins Zupan ’72, P’09, and Salisbury Summer International Internship Award recipients Benjamin Ahearn ’11 and Daniel Organ ’11. William Smith Dean Cerri Banks offered remarks on behalf of Salisbury recipient Lisa Philippone ’11, who could not attend the ceremony.