On August 22, SIT Graduate Institute honored 29 students in Washington, DC Center class of 2015 with master’s degrees in sustainable development. The ceremony, held at the National Presbyterian Church, featured a keynote address from Rajiv Shah, a distinguished fellow at Georgetown University’s School of Foreign Service and former administrator of the U.S. Agency for International Development.
Shah praised the graduates for their dedication to improving life for the world’s most vulnerable people and also lauded their families and friends for supporting the students during their education and as they embark on a career that often puts additional pressure on ones personal life.
“We recognize that you are very much a part of this journey,” he said.
Shah asked the audience to consider what life was like in Washington, DC, in 1795, when the First Presbyterian Church, which would later become the National Presbyterian Church, was founded on Capitol Hill. While the country was about to take a huge step forward for democracy , with its first election and peaceful transition of power after the Revolutionary War, life was still difficult for most people. Many families “struggled to have enough food to eat all year” and endured “terrible” sanitation and “nonexistent” medical care. Child mortality rates were high and malaria was still a common occurrence in the capital. He noted this was, of course, in addition to the “grave injustice” of the ways America treated minorities.
Shah said today we can look back to appreciate that some elements of this time represented “big steps forward for the American ideal of equality, of peace, of prosperity,” while still recognizing “other elements seem just morally wrong and morally unjust.” However the country was founded upon the principle of human rights and we celebrate those who have fought throughout history against oppression and injustice. Shah said the graduates had made the same commitment by pursuing careers in sustainable development and international social justice, to be an advocate for those who don’t have a voice.
“And so today we honor you, because you know that it is wrong that a young child in Angola is as likely to die today as a young child here was 220 years ago,” he said.
Shah said despite the world’s continuing problems there has has also been remarkable progress, telling the graduates “…each of you enters this field at a time when the possibilities have never been brighter.” He noted the recent news that Africa has seen no new cases of polio in almost a year and estimates that, with the right policies, subsistence poverty could be almost eliminated within two decades.
“When you dedicate your life to changing the world, to serving the least fortunate, what I’ve learned is the thing that changes most is yourself.”
“We are on the verge of eradicating another disease,” he said. “We are on the verge of assuring that every child around the world, no matter where they’re from or what their economic circumstance is, lives past the age of five, survives, gets the chance to go to school and thrive, and you are part of that movement.”
Shah urged the graduates reach out and include people of different beliefs and backgrounds in their efforts because it will improve their chances of succeeding in bettering life for the world’s most vulnerable people. He recalled the Feed the Future Initiative, with which World Learning President and CEO Donald Steinberg was involved during his time as deputy administrator of USAID, that brought together Republicans, Democrats, faith-based leaders, students, and many others to advance the cause.
“The reason for that is people are basically good,” Shah said. “People want to believe if you know what you’re doing you can deliver results, you can advance the cause of justice.”
Shah added that the improved connectivity brought about by technology has set the stage for “the most lively and energetic decades in the field of development that we’ve ever experienced.” He said this connectivity allows people to see what is really happening around the world and “instills in us a desire to do something about it.”
“When a young girl is shot because she wants to go to school in Pakistan, that is not a hidden event anymore,” Shah said. “That is something that is a call to action. And while for most people that call to action is somewhat fleeting, for those of you in the first two rows, you’ve made that your career.”
Shah concluded his address by recalling difficult experiences he’s had in his career and the profound impact they have had on his outlook and work. He advised the graduates to expect the same of their own careers.
“When you dedicate your life to changing the world, to serving the least fortunate, what I’ve learned is the thing that changes most is yourself,” he said.