Class of 2012: Be Builders

You don't have to create the next Google to be a builder and make a major impact. Each and every one of us can make daily choices to build things up rather than tear them down.
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Wendy Kopp delivered the following commencement address to the Dartmouth College class of 2012 on Sunday, June 10, 2012:

Thank you President Kim, distinguished faculty, members of the Board of Trustees, graduates, families and friends. It is a tremendous honor to be here today.

Dartmouth is such a special college with its rich history, dedicated student body, and as I've been learning more recently, colorful customs. I'm impressed to see you all recovered enough from Senior Week to be here today -- it sounds like that is an accomplishment in itself!

As you sit on the Green, which has been the site of so many good times at Dartmouth, to take place in this last great college tradition, you must be feeling a combination of nostalgia and pride.

You've overcome a lot to get to this day, and in the process you've formed deep friendships and lasting memories. You've made it through bleak winters, freshmen housing, intense pong competitions, all-nighters and nasty bouts of senioritis.

Hundreds of you have survived the mind-numbing shock and devastating cold of the Polar Bear Swim, which coincidentally is exactly how I felt when I learned I'd be the following act to Conan O'Brien, who spoke at last year's commencement.

But in all seriousness, graduating from a college as esteemed and demanding as this one is no mean feat. So before I say anything else, let me first say congratulations class of 2012! You should be fiercely proud of what you have achieved. Those of you who are the first in your families to graduate from college, and others who beat the odds to reach this day, should feel particularly accomplished. Please take a minute to savor your success and thank all of the people who helped you get here.

As you look ahead to life outside Hanover, you're probably feeling a mixture of excitement and fear. This is an incredible moment when you can choose what to make of the rest of your life. You have immense talent and countless opportunities open to you, but you also carry the weight of high expectations and the pressure to be successful. And you face the added burden of graduating into a tough job market.

You might be expecting -- or dreading -- that I'm going to add one more lofty challenge to your plate by giving, in the words of one campus publication, "a predictable speech extolling the virtues of public service."

Well, you can breathe a sigh of relief. I'm not going to do that exactly.

I've given a lot of thought to what message I most want to leave you with. That question took me back through my own journey which began when I was sitting in seats like yours 23 years ago.

What struck me, looking back, is the vital role of the people who said 'yes' when most others said 'no.' As driven graduates who want to have an impact on the world, you will soon discover, as I did, that the world is slanted towards 'no.' It's easier to tear something down than build something up. It's easier to poke holes in an idea than think of ways to fill them. And it's easier to focus on the 100 reasons you shouldn't do something rather than the one reason you should.

There's a divide, and it's getting bigger, between the builders and the critics, between the fighters and the spectators. When you turn on the news or venture into the blogosphere, you see that the naysayers have the power while the people who are on the front lines charting a new course or implementing a big idea weather constant criticism.

To put it in layman's terms, there are a lot of haters out there.

You will find it will almost always be more comfortable to sit on the sidelines and critique the builders from afar. But at the end of the day, the people who make a difference, the people who shape history, are not the haters.

Now it probably seems easy for me to stand up here and exhort you to brave risks and be builders. After all, the big thing I tried after college was a success. But it very nearly wasn't. In fact, it almost didn't get off the ground.

There is an often-told story about the inauspicious beginning of Teach For America: When I told my thesis adviser that I was actually going to try to implement my idea of a national teacher corps he responded, "My dear Ms. Kopp, you are quite evidently deranged." Perhaps it was predictable that when I was 22, with no teaching experience and, well, no experience at all, there were a lot of people who thought my pursuit was deranged.

I myself was completely torn by the decision to start Teach For America. There was a voice in my head telling me not to do it -- to take a more normal path. I did have one thing going for me, which was that I had been rejected from all the other jobs I'd applied to. So for those of you who still don't know what your next step will be, and for your concerned parents, you may be the lucky ones even if it doesn't feel like it now.

For every person I approached who said "I believe in this idea, how can I help?" there were many more who were lukewarm or negative. But I don't remember much about those conversations today.

Teach For America made it, not only through its launch but through many dark years when we were constantly on the brink of collapse. We survived and came out the other side stronger because of the dozens of allies along the way who were willing to roll up their sleeves and dig into the long, hard, usually unglamorous work of tackling the many problems we had, rather than use them as an excuse to quit or not get involved.

I want to share just one of these stories, about the government accountant who saved Teach For America. About five years in, we were applying for a federal grant that was crucial to our survival. The agency in charge was reluctant to give us the money because they were worried about our terribly weak financial state; we were living hand to mouth, sweating every payroll.

Of course, from our perspective this was exactly why we needed the grant! But no matter how hard we tried, we failed to convince them that they should invest in keeping us alive. Finally they told us they were sending a financial director on loan from the Department of Agriculture to New York City to audit us and give them a final recommendation. Everyone we had encountered thus far had been critical of our situation and we assumed he was coming to put the last nail in the coffin.

I was surprised when a friendly man showed up at our office. He had no preconceptions and began by simply listening to us and reading through all sorts of documents about our cash flow.

Two hours later he leaned back and said, "You're going to be fine. You just need a little help." He spent his next two days showing us how to present ourselves to satisfy the grant-givers, and then he went back to D.C. to fight for us.

No doubt he saw all the same issues everyone else saw. He could have gone with the grain and simply said "No, this is too much of a mess." That certainly would have been a lot less work for him. But thankfully he was willing to ask instead how he could help.

His decision had a huge impact. This year 48,000 of the country's top college seniors and recent graduates applied to join Teach For America. Each year, thousands of first and second year corps members make a real difference in the lives of hundreds of thousands of students. And now, nearly 30,000 Teach For America alumni are fighting as leaders in and outside of education to close the opportunity gap.

In fact, this fall our corps will include 37 of you -- including among many other remarkable graduates Kiva Sam, who is here today and is joining Teach For America to go back to the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota, where she grew up. In high school Kiva was taught by another corps member who had a profound impact on her life and helped her earn a scholarship to Dartmouth.

I tried to contact our accountant-in-shining-armor several times after he left our office to thank him, but I was never able to track him down. I'm sad to say that I don't even remember his name. But if it hadn't been for this man whose instinct was to support rather bystand, I would not be standing here today, and Kiva might not be heading back to Pine Ridge to teach either.

You don't have to create the next Google to be a builder and make a major impact. Each and every one of us can make daily choices to build things up rather than tear them down.

Just how crucial these choices are was reinforced vividly for me recently when I endeavored to create a new venture. For several years I had been meeting inspiring social entrepreneurs from all over the world who had come across the model of Teach For America and were determined to bring it to address the pressing needs in their countries. Along with the founder of Teach First (the UK's adaptation), I wanted to start a global organization to respond to their requests for help. Teach For All would be a network of independent organizations all around the world that would learn from one another and accelerate each other's progress.

I was so confident that there would be many supporters and allies who would be excited to take on this challenge with me. It was understandable that I encountered a lot of resistance when I was a 22 but I assumed it would be different this time around.

I was shocked when I got at least as much pushback. Many of the questions were valid. Was it wise to divert our focus when the problems in the U.S. are still so massive? Was I too inexperienced with international affairs to lead this endeavor? Many people questioned whether, as a mother of four, it was advisable to do the world travel that would be required.

I became wracked with doubt. I'd like to be able to tell you that the reason I went forward was because of my own determination and faith in a brilliant vision of the future. But much of the credit goes to the few people who offered encouragement when I needed it most.

I had never met Fazle Abed, the esteemed founder of the global anti-poverty organization BRAC, but as I was deliberating, he spent three hours talking to me over dinner. Fazle is a father himself and I asked him, among many other things, whether he thought I could make an international endeavor like this work at this stage in my life. "Of course!" he said. You can do this and still have a strong family.

And he was right. Just a few weeks ago I took my son Benjamin on a trip to support the launch of Teach For Japan and to visit Teach For China. My travel schedule has its downsides, but leading Teach For All has also allowed me to expose my kids to the world -- to its greatest problems but also to the inspiring truth that we can make a difference against them.

In the five years since its founding, Teach For All has expanded to 24 countries and counting. It has been amazing to see the brightest, most committed young people in countries around the world drawn to this issue -- and to see them, inspired by their different cultures and contexts, pioneer new solutions.

The thing about saying 'yes' is that the risks are clear from the outset but the rewards aren't always foreseeable. This was certainly the case with Teach For All. We've learned in these early years that educational inequity is not only pervasive around the world but it is universal in its nature, which means the solutions to it are shareable from country to country. Teach For America has learned as much from our colleagues in places like India and Peru as they've learned from us. It is too early to claim victory certainly but from everything I've seen, I'm confident that not too many years from now, we will have a thriving global movement for educational opportunity.

The last few years of building Teach For All has reminded me about the crucial role of the open-minded, of the people who may have lots of reason to doubt but choose to encourage instead. The rare souls like Fazle Abed who say 'yes' have an outsized impact, and we need many more of them.

To be clear, there is an important distinction between "yes men" and people who say yes. Yes men and women will always agree with you because they seek their own advancement. People who say yes are not afraid to question, to poke and prod an idea, but always with an eye toward improving it and making it stronger.

I want to quote a very thoughtful young woman named Jamila Ma -- is Jamila in the audience today? She summed it up perfectly in the D a couple weeks ago: "I arrived at Dartmouth a cynic, but I'm leaving a skeptic. There is a world of difference between those two people, and I'm proud of that progress," she said. She continued, " That's another lesson from my government coursework -- there is no way but forward.... We have to believe in our own agency, because if we don't, then there is only defeat."

The reason all this matters is that there are immense problems in our world -- poverty and disease, racism, injustice of all kinds, violent regimes that are willing to do anything to preserve their power. These problems have devastating consequences. And they are completely within our grasp to defeat.

Consider for just a minute the problem I know best. In our country that aspires to be the land of equal opportunity, just eight percent of the 16 million children who grow up below the poverty line will get through college by the time they're 24. Unless things change, 14.7 million of them won't get the education that can give them a better life. And yet given the progress that's been made over the last two decades, we know for a fact that it this is a solvable problem -- because countless teachers and hundreds of whole schools have shown us that low-income kids can excel at the same level as their wealthier peers.

In places like my home of New York City, we're seeing dramatic change is possible for entire communities. Fourth graders in New York are performing a full year ahead of where they were ten years ago and the high school graduation rate has risen 15 points in five years.

Given all this progress, wouldn't you think that the builders would be winning? That lawmakers and the general public would be clamoring to learn what is working and how to spread it? And yet there are at least as many people looking for reasons to undermine and attack those who are on the front lines pushing to change things for kids.

We can live up to our nation's promise and give all children an excellent education -- and we can solve so many other problems -- If and only if the force of people who aid the effort becomes a lot bigger than the force of people who are actively resisting or sitting on the sidelines.

We have to check ourselves every day and ask, is the net force of what I'm doing building up or tearing down?

Before we shoot down an idea, we should pause to ask "Is there any way we can help make it work?"

One thing I can promise you is that nothing is more energizing or fulfilling than being part of a larger effort to leave the world better than we found it. So as you head off the Green today, I hope you'll join me in resolving to contribute to solutions to our biggest problems, to resist cynicism and be allies for progress.

Looking out at you I'm so optimistic because in the words of your alma mater, you are the sons and daughters of Dartmouth, you have the hill-winds in your veins. And the granite of New Hampshire in your muscles and your brains.

You were made to be builders. With open hearts and open minds, you can slant the world towards "yes."

Thank you, and good luck!

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