Mills College 114th Commencement. "Education and Leadership"

11 May 2002

Address by Thoraya Ahmed Obaid, Executive Director, UNFPA -- Oakland, California

It is a great honour for me to deliver the 114th Commencement address today, and to commemorate the historic 150th anniversary of Mills College. Thank you for inviting me and for bestowing upon me the honorary Doctor of Laws. I have to confess right here and now that being honoured in this particular way was one of my dreams. I always felt that my four years at Mills were among the happiest in my life and that my alma mater has given me so much to enrich my life. And in response to the education, care and affection I received at Mills, I wanted my work to be worthy of this institution that has social responsibility at the heart of its educational philosophy and leadership of women as the reason for its being. I am humbled by this honour and grateful that one of my dreams was fulfilled.

To all of you young students, who are graduating today and receiving your degrees, I have one word for you: Congratulations! Not only have you successfully completed your studies, you have also made your parents very happy. I certainly felt that same happiness when my two daughters graduated. But, I also know that the challenges that young graduates face in this twenty-first century are more varied and may be even more difficult than the challenges my generation faced. We parents are here to support you until you are on your feet- which all of us hope would be sooner than later. I also congratulate the more mature students, because of your courage to turn your lives in a new direction or strengthen the direction you are pursuing. To the men graduates, I say I am proud to know that there are men who find satisfaction in being in the minority and who, through their experience at Mills, will be more understanding and appreciative of the leadership of women.

Thirty-six years ago, I walked up to the podium here at Mills College in front of my fellow students and friends to receive my Bachelor's degree. I remember looking out into the crowd and seeing an ocean of navy blue and black dresses and suits, and spotting my father- radiant and shining. It was not hard to spot him because he stood out in his full Saudi Arabian national attire-a long white gown with the traditional white headdress. He was looking at me, beaming with pride-not only because his first daughter was graduating from college, but also because I was the first Saudi woman ever to receive a scholarship from the Saudi Arabian Government to attend an American college. The year was 1966.

Mills was pivotal in my life and that of my family and the young women in Saudi Arabia. Just after graduation, I noticed that my father was very intensely preoccupied, not confiding in me. On the day we arrived in Jeddah through Rome, he shared his concern- how were we going to descend from the airplane. I did not understand what he was talking about but he quickly explained. The flight arrived in Jeddah and there were so many men, including my three older brothers, waiting at the bottom of the gangway and we were the last passengers to exit the plane. And, in a very dramatic way, we walked down the stairs, my face uncovered for the very first time - an act against the traditions of that time; my father held my hand firmly in his left hand and the Mills Bachelor's diploma in his right - and waved it very high up in the air. I never covered my face again; because my father sent a clear and loud message to the society - education was my honour as well as his. Education was liberating and empowering and it imparted wisdom. Yes, that was 36 years ago and Mills is still the educational institution that is liberating and empowering women of all walks and colours. I dedicate participation in this 150th anniversary of Mills College to my father and every father, brother, and husband who stood by their women as they made choices in their lives.

1966 was a very critical year. It was the same year that 35,000 men and women of all ages marched on the Pentagon to protest the Viet Nam War. Today, 36 years later, the Cold War has ended and Viet Nam and former Soviet Republics are independent, working hard to find their identities, to build their national economic and social systems and to find their place on the global map.

1966 was the year that Indira Ghandi became India's third Prime Minster and the third woman in modern history to head a government. Today, 36 years later, there have been 40 women heads of State.

1966 was the year that Margaret Sanger, an early advocate for family planning, died at the age of 82, after introducing and promoting the pill as a method of family planning. Today, 36 years later, voluntary family planning is accepted and practised around the world, thanks in large part to the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA), the United Nations agency, which I have the honour and pleasure to lead today.

My years here at Mills College were my introduction to the United States and my stepping stone to where I am today. I have come a long way since 1966 and part of the credit belongs right here, to Mills College. Mills is a small college where every voice counts and every voice is heard. They say all great things come in small packages and I think we can all agree: Mills is small and it is great!

The years when I was here were marked by great changes in my life, in this country and beyond. Having had my pre-university education in a fine boarding school in Cairo, Egypt, I lived a protected life. Like the other boarding students, I was always chaperoned wherever I went outside the walls of the school. The first day after my brothers brought me to Mills, I took the bus and went to downtown Oakland and walked for hours, until my feet hurt. But I did not feel the pain; rather it was a wonderful feeling of freedom and independence. For the very first time in my life, I was walking alone, without a chaperone. Though I was ecstatic, I also knew that this freedom had a price; it is the responsibility towards my family, my countrywomen and myself. I was the only woman with a government scholarship in the United States and my performance, both academically and socially, would determine the future of girls' education outside Saudi Arabia. I was 17 years old then and the responsibility seemed great and heavy, but Mills provided me with a supportive environment that made the load much lighter. It gave me space to grow and to find myself in a quality social and academic setting, to interact with students of many cultures and to learn about women of colour in the United States through first-hand experiences. It gave me the confidence to have a dialogue on Islam and Christianity with both the Chaplain of the College, Dr. George Hedley, and with Father John Cummins, now the Bishop of Oakland, who used to visit some students at Mills Hall.

Having a Big Sister, Marilyn Schuster, to guide me when I first arrived was one of the most thoughtful acts Mills could have offered me. Having the faculty living on campus meant that we could be nurtured and cared for and Dr. Imogene Walker, who introduced me to that wonderful imaginative world of English literature, was exemplary because of her support to us students and her commitment to her profession. I remember her and Dr. Hedley with respect and affection because they changed my life. I entered Mills as a pre-medical student and came out as an English literature major with sociology minor. Both professors were just two examples of the quality of Mills' Faculty- the true commitment to learning and to imparting knowledge in an environment that is supportive for young women to grow academically, to expand their intellectual potential and to believe that they can and will make a difference.

Throughout the past 36 years, I have never ceased to think of Mills and those long-lasting friendships I made - especially with Gwen Jackson Foster especially, who is my soul sister and who searched for me throughout my life and kept the link, even when I lived in Lebanon during the long years of armed conflicts. Dear graduates - friendships you make at Mills are lifelong treasures.

Yes, I owe Mills College a great deal besides the outstanding education I received. I owe Mills the opportunity for foreign students to be introduced to families in the Bay Area. I was lucky to be adopted by a most compassionate and loving family, Mr. and Mrs. Thomas McCarthy and their three daughters, who adopted me as their fourth daughter. To Papa and Mother, as I called them, I tell them that their memory lightens up my days, especially when I feel the world is suffocating me and the events around me are so painful and agonizing. They made me feel that human relations transcend all time and space and that real love and understanding are blind to colour, creed, sex and class. This experience only proved to me that Mills wanted its foreign students to feel at home and I carried this sense in every one of the five countries in which I lived.

As I was going through all these personal experiences, many changes were taking place in the United States and in the world in 1966. The anti-colonial movement was sweeping across the globe, and the civil rights movement was sweeping the United States.

In 1963, more than 200,000 peaceful demonstrators filled Washington to demand the passage of civil rights legislation. It was the largest protest of its kind in the history of the capital. On that day in August, the great leader, Martin Luther King Jr. filled the hearts and minds of people with his visionary words: "I have a dream."

Ladies and gentlemen, as we have witnessed, a dream is a powerful force that can bring about powerful change.

When I was a little girl, my parents had a dream for me -a dream about having equal opportunity as my brothers, that I should receive an education. My father, a devout Muslim, interpreted the command in the first surah of the Koran as instructions to all Muslims- men and women. The first word in the Koran is an order to "read". My government took his dream and his initiative and provided me with the scholarship to come to Mills College.

Here I found an institution that is based on a dream- a dream "to give girls a serious education"-as stated by the college founders.

One hundred and fifty years ago in the gold rush days of 1852, the Founders of Mills College set out to establish a college for women, an institution, they said, "that should meet a local need, but possess a continental standard of excellence".

Their dream was to build character in a new country where ideals were needed, and to open the minds and hearts of their students to the searching influence of great thinkers, poets, and musicians. They believed that "in no way can more be accomplished than in rightly educating those who are to become wives, mothers, and teachers, and hence shape the destiny of individuals and nations."

While this may sound quaint today in the year 2002, when our options as women are less restricted than they were in 1852, the path to leadership can be a winding one and, believe me, it is full of wives, mothers and teachers.

Ladies and gentlemen, we have come a long way over the years. As women who have been privileged with education at Mills College, we have more choices than ever before. Yet, when we look around the world, we realize just how far we still have to go. Today, just 13 per cent of all legislators globally are women, and girls and women continue to face considerable discrimination around the world.

Today, as we celebrate the Mills milestone of 150 years of educating women, we are celebrating Mills College as an institution that produced so many leaders at different levels of their societies. This achievement was possible because Mills was and is an institution that created an enabling environment for women to practise leadership and that equipped them with the necessary competencies to assume leadership in their societies.

Leadership begins with education and involves a lifetime of learning, as demonstrated by some of today's graduates. Education helps us to better understand each other and ourselves. It prepares us for the many challenges that lie ahead. It gives us a solid base from which to grasp the meaning of events and relationships. Education gives us the tools to comprehend the many processes and systems that surround us and form part of nature and society. At its best, education helps us to better understand the human condition and human diversity. It gives us an appreciation and respect of other cultures and civilizations and helps us to become informed, responsible, global citizens.

Education is an enemy of ignorance. Yet, when we look around the world, we see that 120 million children remain shut out of school, many of whom are girls. We see that more than 800 million adults are illiterate, the vast majority of whom are women. Around the world, millions of people are denied the basic rights and opportunities that many of us take for granted.

Ladies and gentlemen, these are challenging times for our world. For, although we are connected as never before through trade, finance and communications, we are also greatly divided.

Today, one fifth of humanity consumes four-fifths of the world's resources. Today, half of all people live on less than $2 a day, and the 10 richest individuals are richer than the 10 poorest countries.

Despite unprecedented global wealth, the gulf between rich and poor continues to widen. Although we are making ground-breaking scientific advances such as the mapping of the human genome, millions of people continue to die every year from preventable diseases. Despite the technological revolution, half of all people have never talked on a telephone, let alone hooked up to the Internet.

In November 2001, Martin Short wrote in The Financial Times that we should "think of the world in terms of a stretch limousine driving through an urban ghetto". Inside is the post-industrial world of North America, Western Europe, Japan, Australasia and the emerging Pacific Rim. Outside are all the rest of the world.

We are living in a world that is out of balance. There are great gaps in perception and well-being. And one of the greatest leadership challenges today is to find ways to bring the world closer together.

During my professional life, I have devoted myself to women's advancement and gender equality. While some progress has been made, much work remains to be done. In many countries worldwide, women still face considerable social, economic and legal barriers to exercising their rights.

We saw this most recently and most vividly in Afghanistan. The injustice, exclusion and humiliation that women in Afghanistan experienced in the name of Islam is directly opposite my experience of justice, inclusion and respect that is also based on Islam. But, Afghanistan is a unique situation and it tells us that when rulers deprive women of their basic rights and freedoms, and bar them from public and political life, they lead their country to ruin. Now, the women are showing how they, alongside men, can lead their country to recovery. The job of reconstruction will not be easy. But it must involve women at all levels to succeed.

Today, there is greater understanding than ever before of the critical role that women play in economic and social development as well as in the political sphere. Everything we have learned over the past few decades shows that when women are empowered-through laws that ensure their rights, health care that ensures their well-being and education that ensures their active participation - the benefits go far beyond the individual ? they benefit the family, the community and the nation.

For me, the voices of the women of Afghanistan hold the key to the future. Despite decades of war and brutality, they speak of hope. Their message transcends ideology and religion. It represents common aspirations that are shared by women and men from diverse cultures around the world. They want peace, they want to participate in their society and their government, and they want their basic human rights to be respected-they want education for themselves and their children, good health care, and economic opportunities. They don't want more; they want to be more and to mean more.

Ladies and gentlemen, at the centre of human progress is the quest for human dignity, human worth and equality. These universal values are enshrined in the Charter of the United Nations and in the first international agreement to define rights and freedoms for all-the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Article 3 states that everyone has the right to life, liberty and security of person. Article 25 deals with the right to a decent standard of living and basic social services. And article 26 of the Universal Declaration states: "Everyone has the right to education." This unprecedented document continues to be used all over the world to fight injustice and intolerance and to further equality and the full realization of basic rights and freedoms for everyone.

Almost two years ago, at the dawn of this new century, leaders from around the world gathered in New York for the United Nations Millennium Summit. The challenge was to set the new century on a more secure footing and to advance prospects for global peace and security and human well-being. The leaders agreed that "We the People" should use the first 15 years of this new century to begin a major onslaught on poverty, illiteracy and disease, and together they set specific targets-the Millennium Development Goals. The goals are to halve the proportion of people living in extreme poverty, to reduce infant and maternal mortality, to provide universal primary schooling, to halt and begin to reverse the spread of HIV/AIDS and to empower women and improve gender equality. They called for a world free from want and free from fear.

Ladies and gentlemen, today our success as leaders hinges on our ability to recognize how one action affects another, and how positive momentum is created and maintained. We must confront both opportunity and adversity with a sense of optimism and determination.

Today, as you walk out of the gates of this college and live your lives, the greatest thing you can do is to follow your dreams. Let them lead you forward. Let their light guide you along your way. You will experience difficulties; you will confront disappointments and setbacks. This is a part of life that we must all accept-and which we must view as an opportunity from which to learn and advance. But you must never lose sight of your dreams for yourselves and for a better world.

Everywhere I have travelled, from Africa to Asia to the Middle East and Latin America, I have found that people share many of the same dreams.

These are the dreams of peace, justice, opportunity and equality. These are the common dreams that unite us in our humanity. These are the dreams that will help us create a brighter future for us all.

Thank you.

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