Baccalaureate Address by Dr. Rajiv Shah, USAID Administrator, at Tuskegee University

Friday, May 11, 2012


[As prepared for delivery]

I consider it a true privilege to visit this university. Generations of leaders and scholars from this university overcame towering obstacles and deep injustices to shape a better future, and it’s truly humbling to address students who uphold that tradition.

But I also consider it a privilege to speak before your class in particular, the Tuskegee class of 2012.

Four years ago, you probably arrived on campus a little nervous and a little excited, but with a real appreciation of the significance of this institution.

You chose to attend a school that wouldn’t just give you a great education, but would instill in you a legacy of service and innovation. It’s a decision that showed extraordinary passion and vision.

You should be proud of that. As you graduate tomorrow, I hope you remember the path that first brought you to Tuskegee—and tap into that same enthusiasm to make a meaningful impact on the world around you.

often think about the path that brought me to service—and it wasn’t straight or traditional.

For nearly a decade, I studied hard to become a doctor, taking every exam and fulfilling every requirement I would need for a degree in medicine. But deep down I knew I wanted to do something else—something I felt could make a profound difference in the world.

After spending years finishing medical school, I took a leap—putting aside my decision to become a doctor to take a job with Al Gore’s presidential campaign. It was a tough choice—it meant turning my back on a secure future in favor of an uncertain path.

And while that campaign didn’t end how I had hoped, I came away with the confidence to follow a career in public service. When a friend called and told me that Bill Gates and his wife were starting a new foundation dedicated to advancing innovations in health, education and development, I jumped at the chance to join.

I figured Bill Gates had a pretty good track record when it came it startups.

Since then, I’ve been privileged to work in the field of development, focusing on various challenges—from helping ensure life-saving vaccines reach kids who need them most to encouraging private sector companies to invest in developing world agriculture.

But in all these years, one experience stands out.

It was the time I spent working with a local physician in a rural community in south India. It was the summer after I graduated from college—the summer you’re heading into now.

As I went from village to village—meeting children and dispensing medications—I had the chance to encounter people and see a way of life I had always known existed but had never seen up close.

I knew there were kids in the world who didn’t get enough to eat and wouldn’t ever have the chance to go to school—but that summer, visiting their homes, living by their side, kicking around a soccer ball with them, I realized what I wanted to do with my life.

The poverty and inequality I witnessed that summer in India isn’t unique. We know it’s a reality for hundreds of millions of people living across the world, from remote rural villages to swelling urban slums.

The struggle against inequality has been a thread woven throughout American history, whether it’s within our borders or across our shores. At the center of that struggle were a set of determined individuals and remarkable institutions, working hard to counter the injustice and inequality that gripped our nation and our world.

Tuskegee is one of those institutions—shaped for more than a century by students and professors who have harnessed the power of innovation, science and technology to improve our world. And for 47 years, it was home to one of those determined individuals: George Washington Carver.

On his 10-acre experimental station, Dr. Carver developed cutting-edge crop rotation techniques that continue to influence agricultural best practices to this day.

In his well-known bulletins, he described turning a particularly unprofitable patch of sand and clay into dark, rich soil that could easily yield a profit of more than $100 per acre.

Although Dr. Carver was principally concerned with helping poor tenant farmers increase their incomes—and independence—in the post-bellum South, his work laid the foundation for the growth and transformation of our own nation.

Agricultural development has preceded nearly every industrial revolution the world has ever seen, from Britain and Japan to China and Brazil.

Our history was no different. Thanks to individuals like Dr. Carver and land-grant universities just like Tuskegee, agricultural progress helped launched our nation’s trajectory into a modern industrial economy.

But Dr. Carver’s work also stood for something larger. It represented a fundamental American tradition of tackling seemingly impossible problems through science, technology and innovation.

But that’s not just an American tradition; that’s a Tuskegee tradition.

Today, Tuskegee’s world-class programs in aerospace, mechanical, electrical and chemical engineering are figuring out new ways to expand access to clean energy or deliver life-saving medicines.

You have a partnership with the National Science Foundation to increase scientific achievement in local middle schools and train the next generation of world-class innovators.

You’re working with Walmart to help small local farmers tap into global supply chains.

And here at the Center for Plant Biotechnology, you’re training American scientists and their counterparts from across the developing world to continue the work of Dr. Carver.

Tuskegee’s own emphasis in science, technology, engineering and math has been reflected in the strong leadership of President Obama. Even in a tough environment, the President has continued to prioritize smart investments in STEM.

Empowered by the President’s example and direction, USAID is intensely focused on harnessing this same approach—using the power of science, technology and innovation to generate groundbreaking solutions to some of the most intractable challenges in development.

Challenges like global hunger. Every night, nearly one billion people go to bed hungry. And every day, 200 million children suffer through the pain of chronic undernutrition.

But with research into new seeds that can withstand droughts, thrive in floods and withstand a changing climate, we can transform agriculture—enabling farmers to grow more food, while boosting their incomes and lifting millions out of poverty.

Challenges like preventable child death. Across the world, more than 7 million children die every year before any of them have the chance to celebrate their fifth birthday. And more than 40 percent of these deaths occur within the first month of a child’s life.

But with new scientific advances in global health, we can help women give birth safely and their infants take their first crucial breaths—helping to end preventable child death and ensuring that this moment is one of joy no matter who you are or where you live.

Challenges like global education. Today, nearly 75 million children don’t attend school. And 60 percent of those in the developing world who do—nearly 200 million girls and boys—are learning so little that they struggle to read basic words.

But with new technologies in education, we can bring the world’s libraries to mudbrick schools and rural villages around the world—helping to improve the reading skills of 100 million children over the next three years.

And challenges like access to energy. Globally, one in five people lack the electricity to light their homes, meaning their children have to study by candlelight. Twice that number rely on dirty sources of fuel like coal or charcoal to cook their food.

But with innovations in affordable, clean energy, we can light thousands of homes, clinics and schools around the world—proving, as President Obama says, that we don’t have to choose between economic growth and environmental protection.

Many people will tell you that these problems are simply too big to overcome. But I don’t want you to think that these immense challenges are too difficult or too complex for simple technologies and scientific breakthroughs to overcome. In fact, one of the most powerful development tools in existence is sitting in your pockets and purses right now—hopefully in the off position.

Today, thanks to cell phones, poor farmers can use text messages to compare prices and sell what they grow at higher prices. Community health workers can use phones to collect information and track disease outbreaks in real time. Protestors can use them to document and share videos of electoral violence. And mobile banking can give billions without a bank account the chance to save money for the very first time.

Technology can’t solve every problem we face, but new tools can change the reality of what’s possible. As Tuskegee graduates, you have a tremendous role to play. You have the potential to use your education and expertise to look beyond our borders and confront global issues of hunger, poverty and growth.

In fact, in the last few years, some of our best ideas have come from young graduates like yourselves. Through our Development Innovation Ventures Fund, we’re investing in a team of young graduates who started a company called Egg-Energy to help provide off-grid electricity to homes across Tanzania.

They call it the “Netflix Solution.” Low-income families rent out portable, rechargeable, affordable batteries to power their homes for five nights at a time.

In Tanzania, where 90 percent of people lack access to electricity—but 80 percent live within 5 kilometers of the power grid—this could be a unique solution to a pervasive problem in development.

That’s the purpose of our Innovation Venture Fund—to support entrepreneurs who have a great idea and need the resources to test it. If they can prove through rigorous evaluation that their idea works, we can also provide funding to help them bring their solutions to scale.

That isn’t the only way we’re reaching out to young innovators. Last year, we launched a series of global competitions called Grand Challenges for Development that encourage scientists, researchers and entrepreneurs to generate game-changing solutions to particularly difficult problems in development.

Our first Grand Challenge—called Saving Lives at Birth—attracted more than 600 ideas to help mothers give birth safely in remote or impoverished settings. One of those applicants was a young graduate in bioengineering who had designed a simple, affordable alternative to an expensive machine that helps resuscitate newborns suffering from respiratory failure.

In Western hospitals, that machine costs up to $6,000, and it requires specialized training and a stable source of electricity. Using a Nalgene bottle and household aquarium pumps, the young innovator helped build an easy-to-use, battery-run resuscitation device at one-fortieth the cost. With a USAID grant, her team took that device to Malawi, where they had it on hand when a non-responsive infant girl arrived at a local hospital. Within minutes, the device had saved her life.

These solutions didn’t come from professionals who’ve been in the field for three decades. They came from engineers and scientists and students just like you. And astoundingly, they arrive from everywhere—from entrepreneurs, universities and research labs across the developing world.

That’s the world you’re graduating into—one in which no country has a monopoly on ideas or breakthroughs; a world in which students from anywhere can make a difference everywhere.

Our country has long been at the frontier of technological innovation, solving problems that people long thought were impossible. As President Obama has said: “We do big things.”

We are the country that stopped polio in its tracks, planted its flag on the surface of the moon, helped rid the world of smallpox and launched a Green Revolution that prevented wide scale starvation throughout Asia and Latin America. Our nation, more than any other in history, has continually pushed the boundaries of science in service of improving human welfare.

But both President Obama and Secretary Clinton have also spoken about how America’s global leadership is not predestined. In a highly competitive, tightly bound global economy, each of us must earn the right to lead. It doesn’t matter whether you graduate tomorrow as an economist or a mechanical engineer, a history major or an architect. Any career you pursue or skill you hone can be put in service of those in need.

That’s why I feel so honored to address your class today, because I know you already understand this. For many of you, it’s what brought you to Tuskegee in the first place. Stay connected to that passion. Stay connected to Tuskegee’s legacy—and harness it to help answer our President’s call to overcome the greatest challenges of our time.

Congratulations Tuskegee Class of 2012—for what you’ve already accomplished, and for the remarkable achievements you’ll bring to our future.

Thank you. 

Tuskegee, Alabama

Last updated: September 19, 2017

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