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Stanford Report, June 18, 2003

John Hennessy: 'The rights and privileges of education bring a responsibility'

The following is the text of President John Hennessy’s remarks, “Making a Difference,” delivered at the 112th Commencement, June 15, 2003.

Graduates of Stanford University, on behalf of all members of the Stanford family, I congratulate and commend you. You have made many contributions to our community of scholars during your time on the Farm, and you have our deep thanks.

A few minutes ago, as each group of graduates was presented to me for the conferral of degrees, I admitted you to the "rights, responsibilities and privileges" associated with a degree granted by Stanford University. Today, I would like to reflect on that phrase, "rights, responsibilities and privileges" -- why it is part of our Commencement and what are the responsibilities of a Stanford graduate.

At Stanford, we believe that the rights and privileges of education bring a responsibility to make good use of your knowledge, to change the world for the better and to help ensure that succeeding generations have the same opportunities you have had here at Stanford. Education is a gift that one generation gives to the next. Indeed, this university owes its existence to Leland and Jane Stanford's generosity and commitment to help future generations.

Today you join a long line of distinguished alumni who have made their contributions to a better world. One of those distinguished alumni was Amy Biehl. Some of you may know Amy's story. A member of the Class of 1989, Amy was a student in international relations. Just as many of you have made statements with your attire today, 14 years ago Amy's graduation cap proclaimed "Free Mandela!"

Four years later, not much older than many of you, she traveled to South Africa on a Fulbright Scholarship to help develop voter education programs. Amy was 26, and she had already visited five different African countries. Nelson Mandela had been released a few years earlier, the country's first multiracial elections were about to be held, and Amy was there to study women's roles in the creation of the new constitution. After completing her work in South Africa, she planned to return to the United States to pursue a doctorate in African affairs.

But on August 25, 1993, after driving friends home outside of Cape Town, she was attacked in her car and killed by four young men. It was a tragic loss -- for her family and friends, for the Stanford community and for South Africa. But as tragic as her death was, that is only a small part of Amy's story. Today I want to talk about why, 10 years later, we still remember Amy Biehl.

By all accounts, Amy was not someone you could easily forget. She had an insatiable appetite for experiences and ideas. She once described herself as "hell on wheels," in constant motion, always challenging the status quo. Once she set her mind on a goal, she would not be deterred.

Stanford was one of her goals. Amy declared her love for our university at a remarkably young age. The Biehl family had moved to Palo Alto. Amy, not yet 10, announced to her parents that Stanford was where she wanted to go to college when she grew up. I am sure the Biehls smiled and never gave it another thought -- at least not then. The family moved to Santa Fe, where Amy graduated from high school and was offered admission to a number of prestigious universities. Although several of those institutions offered Amy a scholarship, Stanford did not. It made no difference to Amy. She chose Stanford.

After her arrival at Stanford, Amy decided she wanted to be a member of the swimming and diving team. She had been diving for only a few years, and she would be competing with young women on a nationally ranked team. But Amy had set her mind to the task, and she worked hard. Her efforts paid off: She made the team; her performance improved; her team voted her co-captain in her senior year; and that year, they won the NCAA championship.

While she was at Stanford, Amy also discovered a love for the music and dance of Africa and, consequently, a love for its people. For her honors thesis on the negotiations for Namibian independence, she interviewed Chester Crocker, who was then the U.S. assistant secretary of state for African affairs, and former Secretary of State George Schultz, among others.

In her thesis acknowledgements, she noted "the unusual set of circumstances under which it was completed" and thanked her family, "who taught me the value of persistence." She later wrote in her Fulbright application:

As I neared the completion of my thesis in March 1989, an electrical fire destroyed our off-campus house, leaving me with nothing but a charred box of note cards to show for months of research. Determined to finish my paper, I headed back to the library and completed my thesis in May.

After graduating from Stanford and completing her research in Namibia, Amy worked for the National Democratic Institute for International Affairs (NDI) in Washington, D.C. While she was at NDI, she became interested in women's rights. With the support of a Fulbright Fellowship, she headed for South Africa. She did not underestimate the risks of going to South Africa at a troubled time, but she believed that she could make a difference.

Former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright worked with Amy at NDI, and four years after her death, in a service at a church in Cape Town, Secretary Albright said:

In truth, the way that Amy lived her life just as much as the way that she lost her life gave that life special meaning. She believed that all people have value; that the disadvantaged have special claim on the lives of the more fortunate; and that racial justice and racial harmony were ideals worth fighting for and living for and, if need be, dying for.

Ten years have passed since Amy's death, but her legacy continues. In 1994, the Amy Biehl Foundation was established in the United States, and its sister organization, the Amy Biehl Foundation Trust, followed three years later in South Africa. Through these institutions, numerous programs -- including schools, after-school recreation centers, environmental projects, health and safety programs, and employment opportunities -- have been initiated to help communities throughout South Africa develop their potential. In 1998, two Fulbright scholarships were named in her honor: one for a South African graduate student to pursue study in the United States, the other for an American to study in South Africa.

Amy's parents, Linda and Peter Biehl, carried her legacy forward. When Archbishop Desmond Tutu launched the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, the Biehls supported the 1998 decision to grant amnesty to the four young men who had been convicted of their daughter's murder. They believe that this is what Amy would have wanted. Two of the young men are employed by the Amy Biehl Foundation Trust and working to make a difference in their community.

Amy Biehl's life exemplifies the Stanford spirit. She was willing to take risks and to challenge the status quo. She demonstrated great personal vision, extraordinary perseverance and remarkable bravery. She took her responsibilities as an educated citizen very seriously. She dedicated her life to making a real difference in the world.

Today, I hope that you leave this campus with a strong reservoir of the Stanford spirit, a reservoir that will grow over the years. I hope this spirit inspires you as you make your contributions to the world, and I hope that it brings you back often to this special place where the Stanford spirit was born in you.

Thank you and congratulations!


SLIDESHOW: Commencement 2003

Peruvian leader implores graduates to help fight world poverty

Graduates engage in traditional 'wacky walk'