Commencement 2011

Commencement Address

“Follow Your Heart, Do Good, and Change the World”
Pamela Cox ’75


Reed College, May 23, 2011

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Congratulations, class of 2011—those long nights of wrapping up that thesis, which I remember all too well, are over! And congratulations parents of the class of 2011—I am sure for all of you this day has come faster than you had thought possible four years ago.

I want to thank the class of 2011 for inviting me here today to give your commencement speech. It is an incredible honor. I would also like to thank the administration for so serendipitously scheduling your commencement two days after my own son's commencement so I could also be here today.

In asking me to prepare a speech, you gave me the wonderful opportunity to go back and reflect on my own experiences at Reed and on how it prepared me for a life that has been rich and rewarding. I am sure many of you—or your parents—are wondering how studying humanities and literature (or, as my parent's wondered, calligraphy) will be put to practical use.

Reed is a very special place, and as you prepare to leave, I would like to tell you a little bit about how those areas of study inform my work at the World Bank. I would also like to share with you some advice and present a few challenges.

Commencement speeches, as you know, are primarily about giving advice. As a mother of three young men, I am very aware of the impact—or lack thereof—of giving advice. But as a mother and as someone who was once sitting where you are now—I shall also go ahead and give it. I will also give you three challenges, which I hope will come back to you in the years to come, when facing tough decisions in your own life.

My first point of advice is to follow your heart.

I came to Reed thinking I would major in political science and go to law school, and I ended up majoring in international studies and getting my doctorate in development economics.

It was not at all a direct route. After my freshman year, I went off to Sweden to study the welfare state, and instead, there, I became interested in Africa and development issues. I returned to Reed, I switched my major to international affairs, and I became fascinated with economics, in large part due to the encouragement of the late Professor George Hay. I did apply to law school, but then decided it wasn't for me. Luckily, I had also snuck in an application to the Fletcher School and its development studies program and off I went.

Do something that you are passionate about. You will need to pay the bills, but remember that from now on you will need to work—for the rest of your life—and there is nothing better than getting up every morning and feeling excited about what you are doing.

You won't love it every day and every second, but when you are bouncing around in a Land Rover in Africa for the fourth hour on a trip to evaluate an irrigation project, and you are hot and you are covered in dust and you are wondering if you really should have taken that drink of water back in that village . . . you had better believe in what you are doing.

Which brings me to my second piece of advice: never stop learning and questioning.

Education is a process that teaches you critical thinking. Critical because you question and you are skeptical and you probe. And thinking, because you don't accept things at face value. Indeed in this era of technology and Twitter and talk radio, overloaded by information, it isn't just facts that we need, but the skills to sort and evaluate and connect and make sense out of the deluge of data we face every day.

Reed's magical ability is to take unformed 18-year olds and mold them into . . . a motley crew of skeptics and critical thinkers. Reed taught me to question, to discuss, to debate, to never accept the status quo.

There is currently a debate about the value of a liberal arts education, an education that does not "prepare" students for jobs in the workplace. I am here to tell you that a liberal arts education does, and in my case, did prepare me for a successful career. Of course, the economics and international affairs courses I took at Reed provided me with the professional skills I have used as an economist ever since I graduated.

But I have also used all the skills and knowledge from the diverse other courses I took.

The "History of American Education" seminar provided me with valuable insights on the struggles to set up the world's first universal public education system—struggles that many countries across the world deal with today.

The "European Diplomatic History" course, taught by Professor Segel—and I'd like to make a special mention as I understand he is retiring this year—helped my understanding of how countries waver between war and conciliation, valuable lessons I used when I worked in South Africa with the new Mandela government in the 1990s, as well as today's fragile and conflict-affected states.

The plays by Bertolt Brecht I read in "Modern European Drama" opened windows on how people survive in times of uncertainty and poverty and change—reminders of the reality of so many people in the world I deal with daily.

The language requirement was an important reminder that to know and experience the world, we must be able to communicate.

And this training has carried over. Throughout my career at the World Bank, I have worked in many regions and many countries—in Latin America, Africa, India, and Southeast Asia. With every new assignment, I delved into reading the history and literature of each new country in which I worked. I learned more languages—Portuguese and Spanish. My Reed training was clear: to understand a country, you need to understand not only its economy, but also its history, its culture, its food, its people.

We seek the answers to today's problems in what came before. To paraphrase Mark Twain, "history doesn't repeat itself, but it does rhyme." A liberal arts education—a Reed education, your education—is meant to be like the tsunami stones in Japan. These centuries' old stone tables are sprinkled along Japan's coast, marking the high water points of tsunamis, giving instructions on survival, and commemorating victims. They give warnings across the generations. Understanding what came before gives you an ability to understand the future, to continue learning and questioning and challenging what surrounds you, and it will be at the core of your professional development.

My third piece of advice is to leave your comfort zone, challenge the world and yourself.

You will have many times in your life when you can take the big leap. Perhaps in coming to Reed you already did so. Take the leap. A ship is always safest in the harbor, but ships are built to explore.

Ten or twenty or thirty years from now, you will look back and regret not what you did—but what you did not do.

In 1977, after passing our doctoral orals and newly married, my husband and I set off around the world to write our doctorates, first to Senegal, where I did my field research on the impact of energy prices on agricultural production, and then to the Philippines, where he did his research on Philippine foreign policy. We had little money aside from some grants, no safety net, few contacts—and lots of excitement. They were a tough two years. We learned how haggle in local markets, deal with local bureaucracies, worm data out of reluctant officials, ride bush taxis and jeepneys, kill giant cockroaches, and survive various gastric illnesses. They were some of the best adventures we have ever had.

Two years in the developing world confirmed my interest in working in the field of development, and I joined the World Bank in 1980.

Now, advice is easy to give, and easy to ignore. Many times in life, we are shaped more by the challenges we face. So let me give you three challenges, which I find are central to today's world.

My first challenge is to change the world.

In today's world, you are the global elite. In a world of the haves and have-nots, you are the haves.

If you are a citizen of the United States, your being here today and graduating from college puts you in the global elite. If you are from abroad, you have won a lottery that millions of people seek—an education and opportunity in the US. Eighty percent of global per capita income is explained by location, that is, living in a rich country. And indeed we live in one of the world's richest countries.

Every day, thousands of migrants—Mexicans and Guatemalans trying to go to the US, North Africans trying to go to Europe, Africans and South Asians to North Africa—risk their lives in the hopes of a better chance for themselves and their families.

You have that chance. What will you do with it? How will you contribute to making the world a more equitable, sustainable and livable place for all of us?

And probably part of that answer is in challenge number two.

Be a Citizen of the World.

The world, in the words of Thomas Friedman, is "hot, flat and crowded." How will you live in—and shape—that world?

In 1975, when I graduated from Reed, there was a war winding down in Vietnam and Cambodia, the world was in the midst of a debt crisis, oil and food prices were rising, unemployment and inflation were high, pundits debated whether the US had lost its competitive edge to an Asian tiger (Japan) . . . it was a world preoccupied by many of the challenges we face today.

But the world has changed vastly since then. The internet and information technology have brought us all closer together.

In the 1960s, the Vietnam War was the first war to come into our living rooms through the nightly news. Today, the uprisings in the Middle East come into our living rooms not only on 24-hour television coverage but also on our computers and smartphones. We don't just read about the tsunami in Japan or the earthquake in Haiti, we experience it through media captured by those who are living it.

We are all citizens of the world. While we may never ourselves travel widely or even beyond the US or our state, the trials and tribulations and triumphs of our fellow global citizens are with us.

I urge you to travel as much as you can, to see the world through your own eyes. You will find that most people in the world want the same things: enough to eat, a warm and safe place to live, education for their children to make a better life, security, dignity, and voice in their future. They want opportunity.

After the earthquake in Haiti in January 2010, we in the World Bank worked with over 100 institutions all over the world, from Australia to Japan, Europe, and the US, to evaluate the damage. One of the things that the World Bank does after tragedies is evaluate the damages and the urgent reconstruction needs. Usually this is a process that takes several weeks.

In the case of Haiti, working with the group Random Hacks of Kindness, Google, Microsoft, and other partners, we posted aerial photos on a website, divided Port-au-Prince up by blocks, and had universities and individuals all over the world evaluating the damage block by block and sharing the results in real time. We did the post disaster needs assessment in record time—a technology that Chile used again during its earthquake in March 2010. And we did it with a global platform.

Increasingly the problems we face daily and locally are global problems: unrest in the Middle East raises food and gas prices. Climate change affects us all. Today it is not enough to be a citizen of a community, a state, a country—we are all global citizens.

What type of global citizen will you be?

My last challenge is to do good.

I am tremendously heartened by the commitment and ethos of your generation for "doing good"—for helping others, for committing to change, for your passion for global issues. My own career has been committed to the "have-nots" and to public service.

In my office, amidst the pictures of my family, I have two other pictures I look at every day. One is a picture of two crumpled dollar bills, with the caption, "Every day nearly three billion people have to get by on this." The other is a picture I took in a mountain village in the tiny African country of Lesotho. It is of three boys, roughly the ages of my own sons at the time, huddled in blankets and boots by a stone hut. In Lesotho, boys don't stay in school—they herd cattle and eventually migrate to South Africa to work in the mines. I think of those boys and their future, and the future of my own sons, every day.

I also carry with me the faces of the many people I have met over the years who have been helped by the projects that I worked on. I remember the smallholder coconut farmers in the Philippines whose incomes were doubled when a project I worked on distributed fertilizer. I remember the community I visited in Madagascar where the pastor of the local church led a prayer for the World Bank because we had financed a road to the community that brought them access the medical clinic. I remember the women in Lima who told me their children could now go to school—rather than sit home and guard their houses—because they now had a title to their house and no one could take it away from them. And I remember the neighborhoods in Haiti where we provided funds for communities to rebuild their houses and get out of the camps, and money to feed children every day.

All these were World Bank-financed projects. But they would not have happened if I and my colleagues did not go out and find out what people needed and designed the projects to get those results.

Not all of you will work on development projects. But all of you will live in communities—here in Portland, throughout the US, and throughout the world.

How will you, through your lives and your work, "do good"?

I would like to leave you with a final thought, from Margaret Mead. I think she could have been a Reedie in her approach to life. She wrote:

"Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has."

And so, fellow Reedies, go out there and follow your heart. Go out there and never stop learning and questioning, leave your comfort zone. Do good! Change the world!

We're counting on you.

Thank you.


Read more about 2011 Commencement Speaker Pamela Cox ’75.