Remarks By Caryl Stern
Thank you President Healey, Members of the Babson Board, Faculty & Administration, Families & Friends, and of course, the Class of 2018. It is indeed an honor to stand here before you and share in your day.
Many of you travelled far and wide to be a part of today’s ceremony – some more than half the globe – to recognize those that have successfully navigated their way to the completion of a Babson education. And while some always knew they would get the privilege to go to college, for others, today is a dream come true. With over 260 million kids today denied access to a primary and secondary education, I know all too well just how far from reach a college education can be.
I remember my own graduation day – almost 40 years ago today. I remember that I attended an all-night farewell party the night before and was still suffering from it as I donned my cap & gown. I remember the look of pride on my Mom & Dad’s face, especially as I was the first girl in my family to graduate from college. I remember that it was a beautiful sunny day – but in all honesty, I do not remember a word of what my commencement speaker said…! I hope your memories of me are far better….
I have a picture that stays in my mind with everything that I do. It is a picture of a six-year-old little girl, standing on a dock, holding the hand of a her four-year-old brother, getting ready to board a ship bound for a country that neither of them knows – that speaks a language neither of them speak – and to which they are traveling with neither their mother or their father but instead with only a woman whose last name they know, but whose first name they will never know because once they arrive in their new country, they will never see her again. The year is 1939, the little girl is my Mom, the little boy, her brother – my uncle… and they are bound for America because the Nazis have invaded Vienna and as Jews the only way their parents can save their lives is to make the heart wrenching decision to send them away to an orphanage on the lower Eastside of Manhattan, hoping the separation will not be for too long. I heard that story from the time I was old enough to listen - my Mom emphasizing the woman who brought them to the USA – not the horrors that forced them to leave – teaching us very early on that one person can indeed make a difference.
By contrast, my Grandfather also boarded a ship – the SS St. Louis, often called the Voyage of the Damned. Over 1000 Jews & sympathizers fled Europe on that ship, most having paid dearly with everything they owned to buy passage to Cuba, only to ultimately learn the documents they had purchased were forgeries and that they would not be let in, leaving them in Cuba’s harbor for 40 days while the world debated their fate, ultimately returning them to Europe where most perished at the hands of the Nazis. But my Grandfather lived and he made sure we understood what happens when the world turns its back – when no one gives a damn.
These two lessons combined to turn our entire family into activists. From the moment our arms were strong enough to hold a sign, my Mom reinforced that if we were not part of the solution, we were not just “part of the problem” – we were the problem. Together we marched for Civil Rights, we marched against a war, stood for Women’s Rights, and for Gay Rights. I learned the value of standing up for what I believed in and the ways in which doing so makes my life worth living. As you leave Babson, do not just plan your career – find your voice, use it often, and consider the things you will do that will allow you to feel fulfilled. You are the single largest generation in human history - 80 million strong. You will make up over 50% of the workforce by 2020. You will run America for 40 years straight, longer than any other generation. You are the most globally aware generation, seeing the world without borders and are the most educated, optimistic, and plugged-in generation in human history. You are the generation that will inherit a $59 trillion wealth transfer from your predecessors. You will dictate how the world communicates and how the digital and consumer worlds reach their constituents. You grew up with things like mandatory service hours as early as kindergarten onwards. You can and will change the world as we know it today.
And change is desperately needed. As I stand here today with you, the world is bearing witness to the largest number of “kids on the move” since WWII: 50 million children are wandering our planet, 29 million forcibly removed from their homes. 50 million kids sleeping on rocks instead of on beds, out of school, taking great risks in the hope of finding a more safe and secure future. If we do nothing, the world will be losing an entire generation.
Children do not get to pick where they are born and if they did, they would surely not pick poverty or a conflict zone. Children are the victims of the politics of adults – they find themselves displaced, hungry, and alone, through no fault of their own. We need to stop calling them refugees, stop calling them migrants, stop calling them displaced people and see them for what they are – Children. I pray that your generation will create a world more fit for children than the one my generation is leaving you.
When I sat in your seats 40 years ago, I had no idea that I would end up running UNICEF USA or that I would even dedicate the majority of my career to the world’s children. I earned my bachelor’s degree in the very lucrative field of studio art – and only because the Metropolitan Museum of Art was not yet interested in buying one of my paintings did I end up agreeing to a teaching fellowship at Western Illinois University, in Macomb Illinois –- a rural community whose primary claim to fame was that it is 250 cornfield filled miles from both Chicago & St. Louis – and for this NYC Jewish girl, a place that was both beautiful and foreign. I spoke differently – I dressed differently – I practiced a different religion – and I struggled to find a way to cross cultural differences while staying true to who I was. That experience propelled me into an 18 year career in jobs that moved the needle on diversity issues. But it also taught me that while my formal studies had given me a foundation of knowledge that I would forever be grateful for and would call upon throughout my life, it would be the experiences I would encounter along the way that would define my life path. I learned the power of having a plan that was not too rigid and that could morph as I did, allowing me to take turns I did not even know existed until I came upon them. So plan – but do not lock yourselves out of the opportunities that may alter your plan.
And, just before my 50th birthday, one such opportunity came my way – UNICEF USA called me and offered me the CEO job. It has afforded me the privilege of serving the world’s children, but equally important, it has challenged me to learn, challenged me to experience difficulties I had never before considered, and filled my life with purpose. It has enabled me to deliver nutrients in the Horn of Africa, develop programs for disabled children in Vietnam, help with the earthquake response in Haiti, open wells in Malawi, and work in refugee camps in Darfur, Kakuma, and most recently the Za’tari Camp in Jordan. I have worked in over 40 countries and whenever children see our blue UNICEF shirts, they come running -they hang on our arms & legs – and walk with us until boredom sets in. But there are always some shyer kids who walk behind us… they never quite make eye contact with us but they stay with us all day, quietly watching. Most recently, in the Za’tari camp, when we began work at 5am, there behind us was a little boy – 4 years old – with his 12 year-old sister and a baby she carried on her hip. They stayed with us all day and at 5pm as we were wrapping up, we realized we had not eaten all day, which meant these three children had also not eaten all day. They had not complained or asked for food… making us realize they were accustomed to not eating all day. Earlier, we had been in a breastfeeding tent where young Moms were each given nutritional biscuits in an effort to insure their ability to provide sustenance to their new babies. We too were given biscuits but to avoid carbs, we quietly palmed the biscuits and hid them in our backpacks. Realizing now, that these children were hungry, we gave a biscuit to the little boy – expecting him to run off and quickly gobble it down. About 20 of us in blue UNICEF shirts watched as he took the biscuit – looked at it – opened it up and without anyone saying anything, broke it in half and gave half to the baby. All 20 of us wept. I tell you this story because if this child who had nothing, shared what little he was given – imagine what you could share.
So I stand here today to challenge you – to challenge you to remember you can make a difference and that your life will be much more fulfilled if you do. I challenge you to make a plan but to allow for unexpected turns. I challenge you to take the gifts Babson has given you and use them wisely. And, I challenge you to dig deep in you backpacks – find whatever biscuits you possess, and share them with others. I promise you will not regret doing so. Congratulations class of 2018 – make us proud!