The US is still the land of opportunity

Both of our daughters, Jessica and Emiliy go to Wesleyan University.  I am a huge fan of the institution.  The kids they have brought home a slew of friends that are all intellectually curious, confident and think globally.  From my view, the education there is academically challenging yet the arts are so strong that there is a esoteric vibe that runs through the school.  A unique place as every educational institution is.

Michael Roth is the President of Wesleyan.  This past weekend he wrote a piece in the book section of the New York TImes reviewing a book called College, What It Was, Is and Should Be by Andrew Debalnco. He wrote about the book but commented on something that I have always felt that college was about, a place where you grow through developing your own sense of responsibility, thoughts, community, learning from your peers and educating your mind.  The book looks at the history of how our colleges were originally versed in the views that I have always felt but have turned in something else and why.  Particularly as we are entering an era of haves and have-nots when it comes to getting a college education because of the costs this book is hitting on an interesting subject.

Roth writes that "selective college and universities ought to be shaping campus communities that maximize each undergraduates ability to go beyond his or her comfort zone to learn from the most unexpected sources.  To do so, and to deliver on the promise of our deals, we must maintain robust financial aid programs and end the street rise of tuition.  If we're to become more affordable adn more responsible, we must replace spending for cachet with investments in student learning."

I couldn't agree more with his thoughts.  I am going to read the book that he reviewed and I would suggest anyone who is starting a company to disrupt the education industry that this is a book worth checking out.  The author is a faculty member at Columbia University.

So why did I call this post "the US is still the land of opportunity"?  Everything above makes us all fearful that we will no longer be able to see people who come from nothing make a change in their lives through education in the US.  We built this country on those values.  Well, Wesleyan just graduated a person like that and his name is Kennedy Odede and he delivered the welcome speech at the commencement ceremony in May.  It is absolutely worth the read.

Today, I stand before you as the first person from Africa’s largest slum to graduate from an American university.
For most of my life, I never imagined that one day I would be standing here.
For me, Wesleyan is HOPE.

You, the class of 2012, and my time at Wesleyan have changed me forever.

I grew up in Kibera, the largest slum in Africa, where more than a million people live in an area the size of Central Park—without sewage systems, roads, running water, or access to basic rights like health care and education.

I was the oldest of eight children in a family that could not afford food, much less school fees. In Kibera, I dreamed of many things: food to eat, clean water to drink, safety from the violence, and relief from oppression that surrounded me.

Today, I want to tell you three stories about hope.

One day when I was seven years old, my mom and I set out early in the morning with $3 in her pocket that we had saved over many months. My mother wanted to enroll me into an informal school in the slum. As we walked through Kibera, I went on about learning to read, growing up to be a teacher or a doctor, and my mom told me, gently, not to get my hopes too high.

When we reached the school, I was smiling from ear to ear, so excited about the bright future ahead. The principal told us that while they did have open spaces, the school fees were $10 per year—not $3. My mom, a woman of great pride, begged and pleaded but had no luck.

As we left, I saw the children playing in their bright school uniforms, and as I looked down at my torn clothes, tears began to stream down my face. I wanted to be them so badly—I saw opportunity in front of me but knew that I could not be part of it. My mom told me that she was sorry. She had tried her best.
Love gives us hope, and none of us got here today on our own. Throughout our journeys many people have shown us this kind of love and dedication—which in turn fuels the hope and love that we share with the world. Today my brother, sister and best friend came all the way from Kibera to celebrate with us. I want to thank them for being a part of my journey.

My second story.

When I was 18, I had a job in a factory. My work started at 7 and ended at 5, with a 2-hour walk each way. I could not afford the 10 cents needed for transport.
I performed hard labor—dangerous work-for $1.50 per day. One day I realized, this was going to be my whole life.

When I arrived home to the slum that evening, I was horrified to discover that my friend Alvin had hanged himself—tired of living a life confined to poverty with only one possible goal: survival.

This was a moment that changed me. I did not want to waste my life.
With twenty cents from my job, I bought a soccer ball and started a movement of young people fighting for social justice in Kibera. While I was growing this movement, I met a Wesleyan student studying abroad in Nairobi. She thought I should apply to a school I’d never heard of, and without knowing what would happen, I said yes!

I was awarded the Bob and Margaret Patricelli scholarship.

My mom was so sad to see me leave—but then I translated the cost of a scholarship to Wesleyan into the numbers of cows that you could buy for the same amount.

As you can imagine, it was a lot of cows. Then, she almost picked me up and put me on the plane herself.
When I first arrived at Wes, I was totally confused. Luckily—I met all of you at the freshman orientation.
I did not know how to work a printer, use a shower, and could not understand how money could be stored on a little piece of plastic known as “Wes Card.”

During the first week of classes, I would furiously sprint from class to the dining hall, determined to be the first in line. One day, a classmate saw me and asked, “Kennedy, why are you running?” I explained that I wanted to get there before the food got finished. He said, “Here the food doesn’t get ‘finished,’ Usdan is open until lunch time ends.” What struck me the most about the class of 2012 was the kindness exhibited in explanations like this. Never before in my life had I felt valued. I always felt that growing up poor was something to be ashamed of, and at first I was scared to talk about my past. But then the class of 2012 showed me this kindness on many occasions.

I had arrived at an incredible place.

I said yes, AND my life changed.

I believe we will only live in a better world if we are willing to take risks to make it a reality, only if we are willing to say

My fellow graduates, I hope that we continue to say YES today, tomorrow and throughout our lives.

Finally, when we dare to hope, we create more hope in the world, which is my last story.

In my freshman dorm room at 200 Church, I founded the nonprofit Shining Hope for Communities with the help of another Wes student, Jessica Posner. Through Shining Hope we built the Kibera School for Girls—the slum’s first tuition-free school for girls.

Shining Hope grew because the entire Wesleyan community embraced it: from my mentor Professor Rob Rosenthal, who first told me, in true Wesleyan fashion, that I should “go for it,” to every Wesleyan student who has ever bought a bracelet.

Wesleyan students, professors, faculty and alumni fueled this change in my community, and SHOFCO has grown to build a health clinic, clean water, and community services that will reach over 30,000 people this year.
Together we are building hope across the world.

My dream is to attend a Wesleyan commencement 13 years from now, and sit where our families are today, to watch a graduate of the Kibera School for Girls accept a Wesleyan diploma, proving yet again that it does not matter where you come from—only where you want to go.

Hope! This is ALL our stories.
Wesleyan took a chance NOT just on me, BUT on ALL of us.

Wesleyan took our hopes—both for ourselves and for the world—seriously. Wesleyan told us that these hopes matter, that they mean something. Our teachers have given us the knowledge to ensure that we keep these hopes alive, even when the world responds with cynicism and challenges.

With our Wesleyan education, our dreams have the power to shape our communities, bringing the world to life through us.
Class of 2012, as we graduate today, our hopes are officially unleashed.

Congratulations Class of 2012— or as we say in Kenya, hongera!

I want to ask my fellow graduates for a promise. Please repeat after me:

“Today I promise
To use my Wesleyan education
To champion hope throughout the world.”

Thank you.




Comments (Archived):

  1. ellen

    I am in tears. The speech is incredible.

    1. Gotham Gal

      I cried too

    2. Cam MacRae

      A welling of the eye here too, but rest assured it’s a manly welling 😉

  2. Susana Guerra

    I cried and am still crying. I also see that I am not the only one. This has to be one of the most moving speeches I’ve ever read. Thank you for sharing it.

    1. Gotham Gal

      truly amazing how life takes strange turns.

  3. Cam MacRae

    In Australia the government (more correctly the tax payer) picks up the tab for tertiary tuition, but requires a student contribution of about US$7500 a year. This contribution is deferred until you earn US$44,912 pa at which point the tax office starts taking instalments at a rate of 4%. The government also pays a means tested living wage (roughly equivalent to unemployment benefits) to students from low income families. There is a lifetime limit of US$89k (a 2 year masters degree typically costs <US$30k) for postgraduate assistance — repaid in a similar way. There are equivalent programs in place for the trades.This system works because the higher education sector is highly regulated, something which seems diametrically opposed to the US way of thinking, but it does ensure a college education is available to all citizens who aspire to one.

    1. Gotham Gal

      if another system works better…we should be paying attention.

      1. Cam MacRae

        I don’t know that it’s the system per se, but rather deciding as a nation that education is a social good. 

        1. Gotham Gal

          Totally agree

  4. Susana Guerra

    I hope you don’t mind, I took the liberty of posting a link to this blog piece on Facebook. I’m posting my preamble comment here for you:Please take a couple of minutes to read through to the end of this link. It is well worth it!If you’re reading this it means you are on Facebook. That implies a lot of other things that most of us take for granted; you & I have a computer, laptop, pc, electricity, access to clean water, transportation, shelter, clothing, healthcare, regular meals. This means that whatever problems we have or think we have they are first world luxury problems. No matter how overwhelming and insurmountable we think some issue is, that fact is it is not!I read this and felt humbled & grateful for all that I have now, have ever had and will have in the future. I also felt really joy for this newly minted college grad.

    1. Gotham Gal

      i LOVE it!

  5. snooch

    Great stuff Jo! Thanks…

  6. Guest

    Wow.  What a great speech.  We have a lot of work to do!  He’s such an inspiration.  

  7. Lisa Mogull

    Simply beautiful.  Thank you for sharing this.

  8. James Ferguson @kWIQly

    This moved me. My wife was brought up in Zimbabwe (or Rhodesia as it was then).  We met ten years ago in England.  She had arrived in the UK (with maternal British citizenship ) a few months previously.  She arrived with her clothes and around £25 (about $40 US) and a British citizenship.I had no idea that my British citizenship was a thing people would die for, and I suspect that many readers here have no idea of their good fortune.Chance of birth determines our self-confidence, our attitude to risk, our preparedness to work and our strength of character.  A “high-birth” or one of privilege weakens us in many respects.I thought I was short of money – so I thought I knew what “nothing to lose means”  – my wife taught me what that means.I knew I was not a quitter and so could be proud – but she taught me that a survivor needs the humility to learn from mistakes.  “Nothing to lose” means “everything to gain”. An attitude of “I can afford to lose ” cripples creativity.So, I salute, Kennedy Odede, for what he has taken, for what he will give back, and mostly for the ability to show humility while being wealthy beyond measure. He has paid for his experience and young wisdom – I hope he finds a lot more to do with it and I am sure he will.

    1. Gotham Gal

      your wife had an incredible journey.there is no doubt as i travel around the world that i realize how fortunate i am just for being born in the usa. the opportunities that are available to me that are not available to many around the globe. particularly as we watch what is happening in syria and africa. makes all of us who are living in first world countries with freedoms that we take for granted truly take pause and thank our lucky stars.

      1. James Ferguson @kWIQly

        Amen – People struggled for those freedoms.Another thought pops into mind (it happens!)  – I saw a blog comment recently on the resourcefulness of prisoners of war. Those who, against the odds, make radios from scrounged bits of kitchen utensils, fake passports and disguises from food dyes etc etc.There is a book… which is as inspirational as any I have ever read.  Amazon writes “The Author, who as a senior member of Mrs Thatcher’s Government was tragically assassinated by the IRA, had the most distinguished of war records. Wounded and taken prisoner in the desperate fighting at Calais in 1940, he became a compulsive escaper and the first one of the very few to make a ‘home-run’ from Colditz Castle. Thereafter he rejoined the fighting serving in France and Holland before becoming a member of the International Military Tribunal at the Nuremburg War Crimes trials. There he was to meet the most notorious members of the Nazi hierarchy as they faced justice and, in many cases, death. For the quality of its writing and the breadth of its author’s experiences, They Have Their Exits is arguably the finest memoir to emerge from the Second World War, and one for which the sobriquet ‘classic’ seems wholly inadequate.”If you find such ideas inspiring – this will set your soul on fire – Fred might also enjoy it as the best of “entrepreneurialism” from the perspective of enforced Lean Start-ups.  (Maybe a holiday read for the new chalet !)

        1. Gotham Gal

          just purchased.

          1. James Ferguson @kWIQly

            Great – I do hope you enjoy it 🙂

        2. RichardF

           thanks for the book recommendation James.

  9. RichardF

    Kennedy Odede’s story is awesome and humbling.  Great post. Thanks

  10. Jim Forbes

    JoAnnThis is the  best thing I’ve read so far this year. thanks for posting it.

  11. Emily Merkle

    Beautiful. Thank you.

  12. JLM

    .An inspirational story and your interpretation of it that the US is still the Land of Opportunity is a story for our times.In spite of the problems we face and the frustration they generate, the US is still the keeper of the flame — the American Dream.Education continues to be the fuse that lights that flame.In this instance, it is even more compelling in that it is the dream of another continent.  Fitting for a country that was peopled by immigrants.Education is the antidote to poverty.I will have to read that book.Thanks..

    1. Gotham Gal

      Education is the antidote to everything

  13. aysha ali

    It’s liberating, when you have it all to fight for, no fear to hold you back just optimism for a better life and enthusiasm for all opportunities.Many inner city youths have the same struggles, improverished backgrounds. I wondered if taking them out of their environments would have the same positive effect?

    1. Gotham Gal

      Positive role models would be a step in the right direction

      1. aysha ali


  14. panterosa,

    GG,By coincidence my daughter @PantherKitty:disqus is at a school who is sister school to Kibera School for Girls and we send them uniforms, and they raised money for shoes by walking. It’s very cool and we are so happy to help. They Skype too which is awesome!

    1. Gotham Gal

      very cool

  15. William Mougayar

    Education. Education. Education. Choking story. Thanks for sharing it.

  16. Charlene

    Beautiful story! Thank you so much for sharing. 🙂

    1. Gotham Gal