I made the following speech at the University of San Francisco graduation ceremony on Friday, December 14, 2012.
Fr. Privett, Members of the Board of Trustees, Dr. Bartlett, Deans and Faculty of the college. Thank you. On behalf of all the graduates, I would like to thank all the family members and friends, including my own, who have supported all of us as we’ve pursued our education. To those family members and friends here in this church today, and to those who could not be here today: Thank you. The least we can do to honor you is give you a round of applause.
My first visit to Africa was about five years ago. I was young, and according to the new studies my wife tells me about with excessive enthusiasm, my male brain was not yet fully developed. I was single, had never been to a developing country before, and went to Tanzania mostly because the idea of traveling outside my comfort zone scared me and I didn’t want to not do something potentially meaningful just because it scared me. Clearly my brain was not fully developed.
I was also very eager to make a difference. The Africa I thought I knew was the Africa of Save the Children brochures: poor and in need of help. I was comparatively rich and looking to help…surely this would work out. Well…my first foray into helping was as a nursery school teacher, during which time I likely did not revolutionize the East African educational system, to say the least. Mostly I spoke in English and said many incredible things which were probably not as incredible to the kids I was teaching, who did not speak English. It was a little discouraging. So when another volunteer told me about a local orphanage that needed help, I signed up. The orphanage, I was told, was called Matumaini, the Swahili word for “Hope.”
There were twenty kids living in this orphanage, sharing 4 beds. Each kid had exactly one outfit of clothing. Volunteers in our program donated money to build a chicken coop and bought mattresses for the beds. Never before had I felt so strongly that something was black and white. These kids needed help, and we had money. It was simple.
When I returned to Tanzania two years later, Matumaini had twice as many beds, with a fully functioning chicken coop, mattresses on every bed, and a staff of three full-time employees. It also had twice as many kids. Some “orphans,” I was told, were not even really orphans. Poor families decided to send them to Matumaini where they could be guaranteed regular meals, but breaking families apart in the process. It had never occurred to me to think about a method of help that might avoid such a problem because I never foresaw the problem in the first place. Things were not as simple as I had thought.
When I started the International Studies program at USF, I was hoping to gain some clarity. I can’t say that it came right away. Mostly, my classmates and I just got depressed as we learned about the intractable conflicts and problems facing the world and the unintended consequences stemming from noble efforts to make things better. We learned about how a campaign to donate shoes to Africa destroyed the domestic shoe industry in one country, eliminating jobs and fostering dependence.
This was a monumental downer. Presumably we were getting this degree to go do some good in the world, and yet the merits of even the simplest acts of giving were now being questioned. For the students in our program, it was a serious challenge we had to meet: how to remain positive, how to remain engaged, and how to adapt our thinking to understand that the world’s problems are more complex and multifaceted than we had realized.
It was also a challenge that was unquestionably necessary. What I experienced in Tanzania, but didn’t realize until I got to USF, is that good people want to help, but they also want to feel helpful, and sometimes feeling helpful and helping are not the same thing. And sometimes the difference between the two consists of a gap in knowledge: knowledge of other cultures, of other people’s motives, even of global systems. USF helped us to fill in those gaps, but it also helped us to recognize them. Understanding what we don’t understand made us more likely to listen, more likely to question, and more likely to dig deeper to find the root of problems.
Therein lies the beauty of our education. The world, after all, does have problems, and those problems do have solutions. USF helped us to figure out what they might be and what we can do to help. It is inspiring to feel that you have a better understanding of the world than you did just over one year ago, and that you can attribute that improvement to something more than just brain development.
Gandhi once said that “nothing you do as an individual matters, but it is vitally important that you do it anyway.” I am hesitant to be the first person in graduation speaker history to disagree with Gandhi, but here I might venture to argue that he was being a tiny bit pessimistic. At USF we learned much more than simply how to slave away against impossible odds. We learned how to understand the world so as to acquire the humility necessary to realize that our schemes and programs are often not as obviously brilliant as we would like them to be. We learned how to then not give up on trying to make a difference. How to then have a real impact on the world. So with apologies to Gandhi, if there’s one thing I learned at USF, it’s this: Everything you do as an individual matters, and it is vitally important that you do it.