University of Vermont

Address Madeleine Kunin

Convocation 2005 Address: September 1, 2005
"Choose To Make A Difference"
The Honorable Madeleine May Kunin

Madeleine Kunin Thank you President Fogel.

It’s a great pleasure to join you this afternoon. First, Let me acknowledge the outstanding work of the two students who just spoke, Claire Ankuda and Sarah Porier. They demonstrate by their actions — what I will say in my talk — “choose to make a difference.”

Welcome to the new academic year at UVM.

Even though most of you are wearing old flip flops instead of new loafers, and have just purchased the latest computers, iPods and cell phones, instead of a manual typewriter — as it was in my day — the thrill of a new academic year hasn’t changed. It’s exciting. Especially this year at UVM when the University is receiving public recognition for its excellent teaching, and the vision for its future is being realized by President Fogel, the trustees, faculty and staff.

The start of the new academic year makes us optimistic, gives us a fresh start, as we open notebooks to a clean page, and open our minds to new ideas, questions, experiences and encounters. Many new experiences you will have are predictable — some will focus on technology, others on learning a new language, like Chinese or Arabic, others will delve into fiction or poetry, study political science, or explore the human genome.

I suggest to you in this academic year not only to confirm what you do know, but also to go to the very edge of what you know — as if you were balanced on a rock overlooking a deep chasm, peering into the world you don’t know. Going to the limit of one’s capacity — leaning out — and discovering that you can keep your balance even in unexplored territory is one of the thrills of learning.

That is my first piece of advice — this is a speech designed for advice — I offer it up for you to hold in your hand, turn it around, get the feel of it, and then decide whether to keep it, recarve it or let it go.

Go beyond what you know. Do things you’ve never done before. Speak to people who are not part of your comfortable circle, be an explorer of new lands. And begin to think about how you would like to live the rest of your life.

College, in many ways, gives you practice for life. It is a relatively safe place to practice.

Practice making mistakes and recovering from them, practice speaking in a public voice, practice having your set ideas challenged, practice social skills, intellectual skills, athletic skills.

You will need to practice as much as you can — because our world is spinning faster than before in orbits not known before — though each generation may have felt similar spells of dizziness as they sought to plant their feet on solid ground.

I share your qualms about how to prepare for an age when the fear of terrorism is almost as bad as terrorism itself, a condition described in the prescient novel, Saturday, by Ian McKewan.

How to confront a time of war in which men and women your age are fighting and dying for a debatable cause, while life goes on as usual for everyone else, how to live in an age of great wealth and even greater poverty, an age of globalization with unknown consequences, and an age of environmental destruction that may or may not sustain human life, as questioned by Jared Diamond, in his challenging book Collapse: How Societies Chose to Fail or Succeed.

But the glass is also half full.

More women are becoming doctors and lawyers, and secretaries of state. Women have choices that their mothers and certainly their grandmothers never had.

All young people have a spectrum of options that no prior generation had. Unlike earlier generations, you have the likelihood of living a long and healthy life. You have the ability to reach out to almost anywhere in the world, and have access to reams of information with one mouse click.

Tom Friedman, the New York Times columnist, writes in his book, The World is Flat, “Giving so many people access to all those tools of collaboration. Access to billions of pages of raw information, ensures that the next generation of innovations will come from all over planet flat. Is something the world has never seen before.”

As you look to see if the glass is half empty or half full, be conscious of the causes for pessimism — but dwell in the land of optimism. Without optimism, there is no possibility of taking action.

Perhaps the most important result of your privileged college education is to enable you to become a responsible actor in the world. Responsible in determining your own life choices. You could stop right there, and stay in your own orbit, but as I discovered in my life — you cannot protect either yourself or your loved ones, if you don’t extend yourself to ever larger concentric circles — your community, state, country, and yes, the world. Whether you like it or not, you are a citizen of the world — the question is whether you will be a passive or active citizen.

My political activism started close to home. My children had to cross the railroad tracks on the way to school. I turned my traditional role as a worried mother into the less traditional role of community activist. I wanted to get flashing red warning lights at the crossing. After asking people to sign petitions, testifying at public hearings, much to my surprise and delight, we got the lights.

An important lesson. It taught me that if you demand change, follow the process, you can get results.

From there, I broadened my horizons. I ran for the legislature because I was concerned about the natural environment my children would grow up in, the education they would receive — and these were my first issues.

Were there risks? Yes.

Did I win all my battles? No.

I lost my first election for governor — a fact not found in my bio — and discovered the resilience to run again and win.

Is it worth it to put yourself out there where you will be criticized, even attacked? Absolutely.

Perhaps — like the memories of childbirth — I only remember the good parts — the outcome.

Like the new school that was built in a poor rural area because we were able to provide the money to finance it.

The farm that was saved from development.

The woman who moved off welfare and earned a college degree.

The child who was saved from abuse.

And the people who finally received the training necessary to hold a steady job.

A program called Dr. Dynasaur that provides health insurance to almost every Vermont child.

These are the rewards— the results of controversy, debate, compromise, and finally, consensus.

Some successes are obvious, many are not.

As the American ambassador to Switzerland — I don’t know the names or the faces of the holocaust survivors or their heirs who finally received some remittance from Swiss banks, which for fifty years had ignored their pleas to have the money they had deposited returned to them. I didn’t act alone, but I played a part and had the satisfaction of seeing justice done.

Raul Hilberg who is professor emeritus of this university and the foremost holocaust scholar, divided citizens in Nazi Germany into three groups: victims, perpetrators and bystanders. I add a fourth category, involved citizens.

We cannot just be bystanders, because by doing so, we are indirectly complicit in what does or does not happen. Yes, I know we can’t fight every battle, join every cause, but that is no excuse for moral paralysis.

Perhaps I grew up believing that I could and should be a participant rather than a bystander from my mother, who as a widow, brought me and my brother to America at the start of World War II when I was six and a half years old. She told us, as most immigrant parents tell their children, that, “Anything is possible in America.”

We believed her.

She gave us a great gift — the ability to dream, and to believe that in America, dreams come true. We could become anyone we wanted to be.

Is that still possible today? Can we move a political system that responds more to big money than to individual citizens? Can we continue to believe in upward mobility at a time when so many are stuck at the bottom? Can we reach the political consensus necessary to govern when the country is separated into red and blue states, with little dialogue to join them?

These are fair and important questions.

Our American democracy is far from perfect, but as I concluded when I was in Switzerland — also a democracy — America is the only country in the world where an immigrant, not speaking a word of English upon his or her arrival, can succeed, whether that is in politics, business, science — you name it.

And yes, an individual can make a difference.

Look at Cindy Sheehan who turned her grief into action and opened a new debate on the war in Iraq.

A critical part of your education here at the University of Vermont is not only to gain skills and knowledge, but to stretch your imagination — to imagine what it feels to be someone else — someone in need. Someone whose life could be transformed by your intervention. Quite simply, to walk in someone else’s shoes.

There is a Hebrew expression, tikkun olom, mending the world. Think of yourselves as menders of torn fabric, healers of open wounds and creators of new possibilities.

Choose to make a difference.

As my mother said, “Anything is possible in America.” She turned out to be right. What was possible for me is possible for you. Only more so. Go for it.


Last modified September 13 2005 09:31 PM

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