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As the current director of the Peace Corps and a former volunteer, Carrie Hessler-Radelet (CAS’79, Hon.’16) has long been a global citizen, witnessing deprivation, displacement, and trauma. But as she addressed those gathered at Marsh Chapel May 15 for the traditional pre-Commencement Baccalaureate service, Hessler-Radelet shared a message of healing and hope. After a benediction by Rev. Robert Allan Hill, dean of Marsh Chapel, and readings by Jean Morrison, University provost, and President Robert A. Brown, Hessler-Radelet took the podium to share heartening stories and to reassure graduates in the standing-room only chapel that “the world you are inheriting is a much better place than the world your parents inherited.
“Now, that is not to deny the fact that violence is all too real in our world or to diminish the importance of growing income disparity in our own country,” she said. “But I would urge you to take a fresh look at the incredible progress humankind has made by almost every measure of development over the past few decades and embrace the cause of humanity with optimism and enthusiasm.”
Hessler-Radelet was sworn in as Peace Corps director in June 2014, after being acting and deputy director since 2010. She began her career in international development as a Peace Corps volunteer, one of four generations from her family to serve, teaching secondary school in Western Samoa with her husband, Steve Radelet, from 1981 to 1983. She went on to a career in public health, focusing on HIV/AIDS and maternal and child health.
“Like you, I am here today because Boston University changed my life,” said Hessler-Radelet, who came to BU as a transfer student. “I grew up in northern Wisconsin, in a small upper-middle-class town where just about everyone looked just like my family and me. And I loved my hometown.” But she knew there was a “great big world” out there and that she had a lot to learn. She found that world at BU, “one of the most diverse and globally connected communities that I could have ever imagined. It was a place that not only encouraged me, but challenged me to step out of my comfort zone, to grow, intellectually and spiritually.”
She dived in, studying religion, comparative politics, international relations, Chinese language, and African studies. She attended lectures by Nobel laureate Elie Wiesel (Hon.’74), Andrew W. Mellon Professor Emeritus in the Humanities, “who reminded us that the opposite of love is not hate, but indifference.” It was at BU that Hessler-Radelet “began to see that my intellectual and spiritual development was tied up with my personal development.” She spoke of her BU years volunteering with low-income students, many of them deeply troubled, at a school in Charlestown, Mass. “I needed to apply what I was learning in the classroom in order to make a difference for others.”
While acknowledging the conflicts and violence dominating today’s headlines, Hessler-Radelet shared her belief that this is one “of the most promising, interesting, and important times of human history.” She chose to recount from her long career in public service the kinds of inspiring human stories that often escape news coverage, like South Sudanese refugee Peter Ter, orphaned as a child after his family was slain by Arab militants, who found his way to the United States after a meandering odyssey through several countries. “When Peter applied to the Peace Corps, he requested specifically to go to a Muslim country, because he did not want to live his life hating the people who shared a faith with those who had killed his family,” she said. “The only way he knew to, in his own words, seek reconciliation and to learn to love Muslims, was to live among them in service.”
The Peace Corps director put forth several challenges to this year’s graduates: “Number one: I challenge you to choose optimism. Winston Churchill said, ‘A pessimist sees the difficulty in every opportunity; an optimist sees the opportunity in every difficulty.’ If we are to address the world’s greatest challenges, we need to see the opportunities. Challenge number two: I challenge you to make relationships your priority. Whether we’re talking about family or diplomacy or business, the most important moments in life are defined by relationships.”
To illustrate the power of relationships, Hessler-Radelet offered a story from former Lieutenant General Karl Eikenberry, later US ambassador to Afghanistan. “He told me that when he was ambassador, there was a terrible, bloody battle in Helmand Province that had cost many lives. But in the end, the US-Afghani forces were victorious, and they were able to reclaim a key district from the Taliban. Ambassador Eikenberry decided to visit the reclaimed territory to establish relationships with the local chieftains, so he drove out to Helmand Province in a huge convoy, with his bulletproof vehicle and dozens of armed soldiers.” When he arrived, he was greeted joyously by the village elders. One approached the ambassador’s vehicle and peered inside. “Rick, Rick,” he cried in Pashtun. “Are you there? Are you there?” Through his translator, Eikenberry learned that Rick was a Peace Corps volunteer who lived and taught English in their village 40 years ago. “He was like a brother to me,” the headman said. “When I heard the Americans were coming, I was hoping it was Rick.”
“It was then,” Eikenberry said, “that I understood the transformational power of the Peace Corps.” The relationship of friendship and trust between this Peace Corps volunteer and this village elder clearly transcended time, geography, war, and politics, said Hessler-Radelet. “A relationship this deep could only have been built through lives shared, day in and day out, in mutual toil and celebration.
“Relationships matter,” she said. “They are the only things that last. Make them your priority.”
Her third challenge was “to make service your mindset. Service is not an activity,” she said. “Service is a mindset.” She reminded them that they don’t have to go halfway around the world to make a difference in someone’s life. “Whatever field you choose, whatever line of work, whatever your circumstances, you can find ways to help others. And when you define your lives with a service mindset, miracles happen.”
The Baccalaureate service concluded with a benediction by Marsh associate and graduating senior Jaimie Dingus (CAS’16).
Hessler-Radelet received an honorary Doctor of Laws at BU’s 143rd all-University Commencement ceremony Sunday afternoon.