Commentary: Changing the world for the better

May 5, 2013

Occasionally, we publish blog posts, speech transcripts and other commentaries of interest to the Washington business community. Here is an excerpt from the April 26 inaugural address of the new president of George Mason University, who has been on the job since July.

I was born and raised in the great city of Madrid, the second of four brothers. If you haven’t yet been to Madrid, you really need to add it to your bucket list! Madrid isn’t only home to the best soccer in the world (a fact contested only by people who choose to ignore the data), but the best art and night life, too!

During the summers, my brothers and I would go to my mother’s hometown, El Torno, a beautiful but very poor farming village in the secluded mountains of Extremadura. There, we ran carefree in the woods, swam in creeks and got ourselves into occasional trouble. When that happened, the infallible magic words that always saved us were “Soy el nieto de Don Cesáreo, el maestro” (“I’m the grandson of Don Cesáreo, the teacher”).

The reactions of admiration and deep felt respect for my grandfather, the teacher, were extraordinary. Granddad had been responsible for the education of the entire town. Whatever they learned or read, it was because of him. And for the brightest few, he’d been responsible for helping them escape the harsh life of this town and become teachers or doctors or engineers.

So I grew up thinking that there could be no profession more important in the world than being a teacher. As far back as I can remember, I always wanted to be an educator, like granddad.

The beauty of George Mason University is that stories like mine are not unusual. They are precisely what we’re about, what we do, day in and day out.

One of the first people I met at Mason was alumna Lovey Hammel. As a member of the Board of Visitors, she volunteered to lead the search for a new Mason president. She asked me to meet her and another visitor, Carol Kirby, in Dallas and hear what she had to say. She spoke about how she attended Mason part-time in the ’80s because she was working with her mom to create a small business that has now become a $60 million enterprise. She spoke of the university with great pride, and it was that pride and excitement for Mason that caused me to become very interested in this position. Mason changed her life, and she in turn changed the lives of many others, including mine.

I’ve met students and alumni from all over Virginia, from every corner of the United States, and from around the globe. White, black, Latino, Asian. Some from privileged families, others who were the first in their families to attend college.

One of them is Zainab Salbi, who had been one of my heroes for years before I arrived at Mason. Zainab moved to the United States from Baghdad when she was 19. Her childhood was marked by the Iran-Iraq war and by witnessing the cruelty of Saddam Hussein’s regime. Having interrupted her studies in Iraq, she was able to come to Mason and graduate in 1996. While at Mason, Zainab learned how hard war is on women, and how often rape is used as a tool of intimidation and terror, even in the heart of Europe, in the former Yugoslavia. With the encouragement of her professors, she created an organization, Women for Women International, where women support women in terrible cases of abuse. Since then, almost 400,000 women have been supported and received hope. Zainab has been recognized by the World Economic Forum, the Clinton Global Initiative, Time magazine and many others as one of the most effective social entrepreneurs in the world.

Another individual I had known and admired before coming to Mason is Anousheh Ansari. Anousheh grew up in Iran, a girl with a big brain and big dreams, including her dream to travel to space. Anousheh would eventually move to the United States, attend Mason and graduate with a degree in electrical engineering in 1989. After graduating, she and her husband created a very successful telecommunications company and together lived their American dream. One day, she found a way to train as a backup astronaut in Russia. Believing that this would likely be as close as she would get to her dream of flying to space, she dedicated herself and completed the training. At the last minute, the lead astronaut fell ill and her dream became a reality: the first Iranian to go into space, which was on Sept. 18, 2006.

Lovey, Zainab and Anousheh are different, but their stories share a common thread. Lovey, Zainab and Anousheh were nontraditional students at Mason. A traditional model of higher education did not fit the life plan for these women. Their personal circumstances made it difficult, if not impossible.

Mason empowered each of them to pursue successful careers and have a positive impact on many others.

That’s exactly what education should be about. We find people with talent, whatever their circumstances, and we help them grow so that they can change the world for the better.

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