‘I am free because of education,’ Toledo tells graduates

President Alejandro Toledo of Peru told graduating students to not take their education and standard of living for granted, and urged them to join a worldwide fight against poverty.

His escape from grinding poverty and election to his country’s highest office was a “statistical error,” since millions like him remain mired in poverty, President Alejandro Toledo of Peru told graduating students and visitors at the 112th Commencement.

Peruvian President Alejandro Toledo is humbled by the applause he received from the crowd gathered in Stanford Stadium for the university’s 112th Commencement. (Image credit: L.A. Cicero)

“Do not take what you have – education and a good standard of living – for granted,” urged Toledo, in an address that asked students to join a worldwide fight against poverty. “Look at the world out there. There are millions who can’t even dream of what you have as a matter of course.”

Access to education – first as an undergraduate on a partial soccer scholarship at the University of San Francisco and then at Stanford, where he earned three advanced degrees – transformed his life, he said. “I am free because of education,” said Toledo, the first indigenous Andean to be elected Peru’s president. “Poverty robs the freedom of people and steals human dignity.”

University President John Hennessy welcomed Toledo, the first Latin American and the first sitting president of any country to serve as Commencement speaker, and approximately 25,000 visitors to Stanford Stadium on Sunday. The university awarded 1,865 bachelor’s, 1,976 master’s and 889 doctoral degrees at the ceremony.

Compared with the tight security and protests that accompanied the high-profile address last year by national security adviser and former Provost Condoleezza Rice, this year’s Commencement felt like a Sunday picnic. (And, in fact, some graduating seniors spread out a tablecloth on the grass and ate breakfast during the gleefully chaotic Wacky Walk, a prelude that Hennessy called part of “storied” lore and practice.) A handful of activists quietly handed out literature calling for Toledo to free Lori Berenson, an American activist and writer serving 20 years in prison for allegedly aiding a revolutionary movement in Peru.

In his remarks, the 57-year-old Toledo chronicled his journey from the Andean highlands, where he was the eighth of 16 children, to the president’s office. Seven of his siblings died before they reached their first birthday, which is typical of the extreme poverty of Latin America, Toledo said. By age 6, the future president was shining shoes and selling newspapers and lottery tickets to help support his family. Toledo, the first in his family to attend high school, came to the United States to study with the help of two American Peace Corps volunteers he met in Peru.

At Stanford, where Toledo earned master’s degrees in education and in economics and a doctorate from the School of Education, professors pushed him to “stand up on my own intellectual feet” – a struggle for someone who had grown up in the authoritarian culture predominant in Peru at the time. Although his time at Stanford helped equip him for the job, “being president of a country is not easy, particularly president of a developing country,” where democratic institutions are not well established, said Toledo, who took office in July 2001.

In the week before his speech, the president met with striking teachers and had worked to resolve a mass kidnapping by leftist rebels of workers in a remote work camp, Toledo told students. (All 71 workers were released unharmed.) Toledo declared a state of emergency in late May following multiple work strikes.

For days, it had looked as if Peru’s political turmoil might derail Toledo’s visit, which was announced in early March. The Peruvian Congress voted late on June 12 to allow Toledo to leave the country to travel to the United States but didn’t clear the use of the presidential plane by Toledo for the trip until June 13, two days before Commencement. Administrators, including Jeff Wachtel, assistant to President Hennessy, and Alan Acosta, associate vice president and director of University Communications, along with Martin Carnoy, professor of education, worked to convince the Peruvian Congress to allow Toledo’s visit, Wachtel said.

In Peru, public reaction to Toledo’s appearance at Stanford was mixed, said Drew Benson, a reporter working in the Lima bureau of the Associated Press. “It is seen as an honor, but it has kind of gone against Toledo,” since many thought it was an inopportune time for the president to leave the country, Benson said. Peruvians also objected to the cost of the trip, he said.

Toledo, whose approval rating in Peru dipped to 11 percent Monday, used the Stanford speech to defend his policies as president. He pointed out that Peru’s economy expanded more than 5 percent last year, the highest rate in the region.

Eliane Karp de Toledo, the president’s wife and a Stanford alumnus, also spoke Sunday; she delivered a short address at the Department of Anthropological Sciences diploma and awards ceremony, held at the New Guinea Sculpture Garden.

“In everything that you do, think of the world as one,” said Karp, who was born in Paris and met Toledo at Stanford while earning a master’s degree. As Peru’s first lady, she is dedicating herself to emancipating and empowering indigenous Peruvians, she said. Describing her background as being in “anthropology, archaeology and linguistics,” she said she hoped that Andean issues would move from “anthropological considerations to political considerations.”

“I hope you will become important agents in the public sector, because this is where change is promoted,” she told students. Karp said she had particularly high hopes for the dozen Peruvian students at Stanford — five of whom received advanced degrees on Sunday. “I think we are going to prepare somebody for the next president. After the Andes, we will have someone from the Amazon.”

‘Stanford spirit’

In his remarks to students, Hennessy also focused on the role students could play in effecting international social change. He recalled the life of Amy Biehl, a member of the Class of 1989, who died almost a decade ago in South Africa, where she had gone on a Fulbright scholarship to help develop voter education programs. Biehl was attacked and killed in her car near Cape Town on Aug. 25, 1993.

Hennessy recalled the persistence that Biehl, an international relations major, demonstrated as she pursued her education at Stanford – after an electrical fire destroyed all her notes, she completed her honors thesis in two months. When Biehl decided to travel to an unstable region of the world, she “did not underestimate the risks of going to South Africa, but she believed that she could make a difference,” Hennessy said.

And Biehl did make a difference, he continued. The Amy Biehl Foundation, established in the United States in 1994, and the Amy Biehl Foundation Trust, established three years later in South Africa, currently provide education, recreation, environmental, health and safety, and employment programs throughout South Africa, he said.

“Amy Biehl’s life exemplifies the Stanford spirit. She was willing to take risks and to challenge the status quo,” Hennessy said. “She dedicated her life to making a real difference in the world.”

Toledo’s remarks were frequently applauded Sunday, but he drew cheers when he recalled that he had been in Berkeley during the days when “free love was the order of the day. I hope it still is,” he added.

The light touch extended to the Wacky Walk, where Stanford Events staff reported that it was easier than usual to enforce the safety guidelines for the “accessories” that students carry on the field with them. In the past, staff members have had to impound tiki torches, sticks and even barbecue grills, but this year, “students were getting really creative with foam,” said Carin Ross, director of ticket services. Robert Grumbo, a human biology major, and Geoff Maddox, a computer science major, fashioned knight’s helmets, shields and swords from foam, duct tape and silver auto dashboard reflectors. Other airy additions to traditional robes and mortarboards included lampshades, gauzy fairy wings, oversized balloons, inflatable palm trees and feather pillows. One student released hundreds of ladybugs – traditional symbols of good luck – onto the field.

Even the tanked job market – which was red-hot when graduating seniors were freshmen – seemed far from students’ minds. Michael Cutalo, who was wearing a signboard that read, “Will work for beer,” plans to take the medical school admissions test later this summer. He’s happy he stuck with human biology as a major against his parents’ advice, he said. “My parents wanted me to major in computer science and economics.”

Robert Martinez, a communication major from Forth Worth, Texas, wore a sign on his back that said, “Thank You, Affirmative Action.” Martinez, who is Mexican American, said he meant the message more as a joke than as a political statement.

“I’m a stand-up comic,” he said, adding that his parents are wholly supportive of his career aspirations. “They see that I’m always getting jobs.”