In Commencement address, Gbowee urges graduates to break down barriers

by Daniel Kim | 6/14/16 3:52pm

This past Sunday, undergraduate and graduate students celebrated the end of their chapters at the College during this year's Commencement ceremony, held on the Green. At its 248th ceremony, the College awarded 1, 867 degrees, including 1, 087 undergraduate degrees, in front of an audience of over 11,000.

College President Phil Hanlon ’77 presented honorary degrees to former Marine Corps officer and writer Rye Barcott, businessman George Battle ’66, engineer and policy maker Arati Prabhakar, writer and researcher Daniel Yergin, entrepreneur Frank Venegas and Nobel Peace Prize laureate Leymah Gbowee, who also delivered the Commencement address.

After congratulating parents, donors and the Class of 2016, Gbowee, a Liberian activist who received the Nobel Peace Prize in 2011, acknowledged the recent shooting in an Orlando nightclub with a moment of silence.

She opened her address with a childhood story about an old lady who lived across the street from her family. Her friends told her and her sister that the old lady was be a flesh-eating witch. After Gbowee and her sister first heard this gossip, they rushed to tell their grandmother, who took the children to visit the old lady the next morning despite their desperate pleas.

Gbowee then shifted the topic to broader global issues such as free speech and gender discrimination. She referred to different insurgent and militia groups around the world and 671 terror attacks that have occurred across the world over the past six months.

"Our world is upside down. Fear and the politics of division have taken over. We are slowly losing our common humanity," she said.

She explained that people have built “invisible walls” — not only borders between states, but also borders within communities, schools and religious organizations.

“The problem with the borders that we have built is that they leave no room for others to cross, because mentally, people have transcended from being humans to being objects of violence based on the groups that they represent,” she said.

Gbowee urged the audience to take “The Open Mind Challenge,” making conscious efforts to break down those walls. Her childhood experience showed her how ignorant people refuse to cross "invisible borders" and instead create stories about people they know nothing about, just as the community did with the old lady.

After crossing the street to visit the old lady, Gbowee discovered that the old lady had been cheated out of her property, and had a chronically ill daughter. She learned that the old lady welcomed visitors, would share her smallest meal, but was also a “no-nonsense disciplinarian.”

Gbowee credited her grandmother for “The Open Mind Challenge,” which she called the “greatest lesson anyone can give their child.” She urged the graduating class to tear down these invisible walls and enter unknown spaces.

"Each of you has a task of lowering the statistics of violence through the acts of peace and justice. Each of you has a task to resist—especially now, in this country—the politics of division, discrimination, and oppression.Each of you has a task to break down the walls of racism," she said.

Michael Dettmer ’16, Bob Klingenberger ’16, Christopher Leech ’16, Ke Li ’16, Robert Scales ’16, Sarah Waltcher ’16, Bingyue Wang ’16 and Jonathan Vandermause ’16 were recognized as valedictorians. Vandermause was selected to deliver the valedictory.

Vandermause spoke about serendipity, which he looked up in the dictionary after hearing the word at the Moosilauke Ravine Lodge used in a professor’s speech during Dartmouth Outing Club First-Year Trips.

Vandermause discussed John Conway, an English mathematician known for his penchant for making math games. Conway did not excel even at his own games because he wasn’t interested in winning, but rather “simply exploring what’s there,” Vandermause said.

In 1969, while trying to figure out a way to assign numbers to a new game, Conway stumbled upon a new classification of numbers — surreal numbers, which Vandermause described as “arguably one of the deepest discoveries in 20th century mathematics.” He said Conway made this discovery because he was doing what he loved, and that the graduating class should all find something that truly engage them.

“In those moments of full attention we become alive to the hidden possibilities all around us, to the valuable things not sought for,” he said.

Hanlon gave the final speech of the ceremony, in which he underscored the importance of respecting dissenting voices and questioning personal views.

“I’m not asking you to abandon your ideals nor am I directing you to become a centrist,” he said.“I am asking, however, that you give fair and honest consideration to other points of view, and when you find them persuasive, to let your own opinions evolve.”

Hanlon concluded by wishing the graduating class a happy, successful and fulfilling future — keeping Dartmouth close to their hearts.

Native Americans at Dartmouth president Kimonee Burke ’18 and director of religious and spiritual life Nancy Vogele ’85 gave introductory remarks to welcome the guests and students. Burke touched on the historical background of Native Americans at the College and highlighted the importance of preserving its community. Vogele challenged the graduating class to “put into practice what they have learned” in addressing issues of injustice, war and other humanitarian concerns.