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'Man Who Would Cure the World' Speaks at Commencement

Humanitarian Paul Farmer, first Qatar graduates make for a special day

EVANSTON, Ill. --- Paul Farmer, “the man who would cure the world,” emphasized to Northwestern University’s new graduates the power of partnerships in overcoming failures of imagination -- failures he admitted he, too, has been guilty of in his pioneering work in global health.

“All of your most important achievements on this planet will come from working with others or, in a word, partnership,” Farmer said during Northwestern’s 154th commencement ceremony today, June 15.

The celebrated physician, anthropologist and Harvard University professor -- who is known worldwide for his work in combating global poverty and illness -- referred a number of times in his keynote address to the Chicago-area partnerships that overlap with Partners in Health -- the organization he co-founded and that indeed is one of the most powerful partnerships on this planet.

Finally, it was the Class of 2012’s day -- a day that definitely said summer as the temperature rose toward the mid 80s. From the moment the graduates began lining up in Ryan Field, thousands of loved ones, decked out in their Sunday best, cheered them on from the grandstand, like well-behaved paparazzi, cameras clicking madly.

The first graduates from Northwestern University in Qatar (NU-Q) -- from six continents and 17 countries and now fluent in the language of Wildcats -- received a special welcome from Northwestern President Morton Schapiro.  

“Accompanied by their dean, Ev Dennis, these pioneering students from across the globe have achieved remarkable successes over the past four years, paving paths for future generations of students to follow,” Schapiro said, to great applause.  

Representing a “purple dream” come true, 22 of the 38 members of the Qatar Class of 2012 joined the Evanston commencement ceremony. The dream started unfolding four years ago and 7,000 miles away in Doha as the students began to pursue bachelor of science degrees in journalism and communication. Historical on a number of levels, their educational experiences greatly benefited from the unexpected uprisings that shook the Arab world, which became subjects of their documentaries, plays and reporting.

(Qatar Class of 2012 coverage includes a feature on the inaugural graduates at the Evanston commencement ceremony, a video of the NU-Q Class of 2012 valedictorian, a peek at the provocative “Arab Awakenings” that NU-Q graduates staged last weekend in Evanston and the special feature on the earlier NU-Q graduation ceremony in Doha, titled “You Are the Story.”)

In her introduction of Farmer, journalism graduate Alanna Grace Autler pointed out that Tracy Kidder’s best-selling book “Mountains Beyond Mountains: The Quest of Dr. Paul Farmer, A Man Who Would Cure the World” was a recent One Book One Northwestern selection, giving Northwestern students a special familiarity with the great humanitarian.

“So we are especially gratified to hear him speak to us on this significant occasion in our lives,” Autler said.

Thirty years ago when Farmer was a college student working in a sleepy market town called Mirebalais for a young, harried Haitian doctor in a shabby facility, the assumption, he said, was “that the only health care possible in rural Haiti was poor quality health care.” That failure of imagination, he said, “inspired a life-long desire to see in Haiti a hospital worthy of its people.”

That dream recently materialized after the massive earthquake that devastated Port-au-Prince in January 2010 caused Farmer and his partners to rethink the building of a Mirebalais hospital and medical center. Supporters had sent thousands of donations for rebuilding Haiti’s facilities.

“We needed something bigger, many times bigger, like the [hospital] that Ann Lurie and other Chicagoans recently built not far from where we’re gathered today,” he said, referring to the recent opening of the Ann & Robert H. Lurie Children’s Hospital of Chicago. (Lurie is a member of Northwestern’s Board of Trustees and a major benefactor of medical research and facilities at Northwestern.)  

The new Haiti facility is a 205,000-square foot, 320-bed medical center, “three times the size of anything we’d ever attempted to build before.”

Farmer credits the success of that dream made true to strong imagination and partnerships. That follows Partners in Health’s growth from a one-building clinic in Haiti’s Central Plateau to a multinational organization operating in 12 sites throughout Haiti and 12 other countries around the world.

He stressed to the graduates at the conclusion of his remarks: “As you seek to imagine or re-imagine solutions to the greatest problems of our time, harness the power of partnership.”

And in a Northwestern tradition that began last year, the five recipients of this year’s Northwestern University Distinguished Secondary Teacher Awards -- Greg Devine, Rafael Arechabaleta, John Belcaster, Amanda Bright and Christine Jawork -- were recognized by President Schapiro.

Northwestern received more than 80 nominations of high school teachers from across the country from the graduating seniors. The teaching of the five secondary teacher award recipients -- whether of journalism, history, physics or African and Asian studies -- was best described by their nominators’ superlative-filled essays. On a day signifying one of the greatest accomplishments of their lives, the graduates basked in President Schapiro’s praise of the teachers who played such big roles in making the day happen. (Read the story on the secondary teacher award recipients.)

And Northwestern awarded honorary degrees to four 21st-century leaders, whose trailblazing contributions were summed up beautifully by their presenters. (See the sidebar with more biographical information on the honorary degree recipients.) The recipients, their presenters and portions of their citations follow:

Joan Ganz Cooney, co-founder of the Children's Television Workshop (now Sesame Workshop) and creator of Sesame Street

Presenter: Ellen Wartella, the Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa Al-Thani Professor of Psychology and professor of human development and social policy at Northwestern

“As the creator of Sesame Street, you have changed the face of television worldwide, proving that it can be a powerfully positive force in the lives of children.”

Paul Farmer, Kolokotrones University Professor and chair of the department of global health and social medicine at Harvard Medical School, chief of the division of global health equity at Brigham and Women’s Hospital and United Nations Deputy Special Envoy for Haiti, under Special Envoy Bill Clinton

Presenter: Ann Lurie, a member of Northwestern’s Board of Trustees and a major benefactor of medical research and facilities at Northwestern

“Your relentless work in bringing health care to the world’s poor has brought you prestigious honors and has inspired a best-selling book that, as a One Book One Northwestern selection, has inspired the entire Northwestern community.” 

Martha Minow, the Dean and Jeremiah Smith Jr. Professor of Law at Harvard Law School

Presenter: Newton Minow, prominent attorney, Northwestern journalism alumnus and widely cited former chairman of the Federal Communications Commission

“One of your former students at Harvard -- Barack Obama -- has credited you with changing his life. His is but one example of the extraordinary influence you have exerted through your widely heralded achievements in scholarship and legal education and worldwide efforts in public policy.” 

William Dix, professor emeritus of engineering at Stanford University

Presenter: David Seidman, Walter P. Murphy Professor of Materials Science and Engineering at Northwestern

“Through your seminal contributions to understanding the mechanical behavior of materials and your mentoring of numerous scholars who have gone on to illustrious careers, you have profoundly influenced a broad range of fields in science and engineering.”

On a much lighter note, graduate Tucker A. May, a theater major, had great fun with his message to parents and family members.

“Northwestern isn’t exactly what it used to be,” May said. “For instance, according to a New York Times article from February 1922, Northwestern once enacted a corporal punishment policy that actually allowed the Evanston chief of police to spank misbehaving students. Spankable offenses included swearing in public, taking someone else’s auto for a joy ride and being rowdy in an ice cream parlor -- all of my favorite Northwestern activities today.”

The crowd's laughter did indeed affirm that May had made the right choice in majoring in theater, a choice that he proudly talked about in his message. 

Earlier in the ceremony, President Schapiro also had his own fun addressing the graduates’ family members and friends -- first asking parents and step-parents, then grandparents, siblings, spouses, children, aunts and uncles, cousins, other family members and friends to stand and be recognized.

“Not a single graduate would be here today without the support and encouragement of so many of you in the audience,” he said.

The benediction that concluded the historical commencement ceremony included a recitation from the Koran by Associate University Chaplain Tahera Ahmad.  

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