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VCU December Commencement

Dec. 14, 2013
Stuart C. Siegel Center

Thank you, Provost Warren.

Board Rector Ginther, Board Vice Rector Royall, members of the Board of Visitors, colleagues, graduates, families and friends.

Good morning to all of you!

About 2,800 students are earning degrees today. I am so proud of you. We see in you the spectacular diversity that defines our university community. You have come from across the world, and you will go on to change the world.

We also see what you all have in common, and that is a relentless determination to succeed. I am going to tell you two quick stories about that.

The first story is about using knowledge as your greatest weapon in any struggle.

Jason Newton is receiving his Ph.D. in biochemistry from VCU’s School of Medicine. But the fact that he’s here today is surprising — even to him. You see, Jason is a staff sergeant in the Army Reserves. He enlisted in the wake of the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks and spent more than a year in places like Fallujah and Al Asad in Iraq.

When he came home, he balanced his American patriotism with his academic preparation, defending his doctoral dissertation early so that he could re-deploy this fall. Staff Sgt. Newton is supposed to be in Afghanistan right now. But his commanders told him, “We need doctors more than we need platoon sergeants,” and they ordered him to stay behind.

Jason feels guilty about that.

What he’s doing instead, however, may save the lives of his comrades in harm’s way. In Iraq, Jason watched medical helicopters evacuating wounded soldiers and grew inspired to help.

When he returned from the frontlines, he joined a VCU team that is helping heal victims of traumatic injuries. He and his faculty mentors are finding ways to make blood clot faster so that people are less likely to die from blood loss. He is also helping develop an innovative synthetic blood product that can be infused into wounded soldiers directly on the battlefield as they await the helicopters.

About 40 percent of combat deaths may be prevented with innovations that Jason is helping to pioneer.

In balancing his deployment and research, Jason often worked 110 hours a week. But he said, quote, “It was easy for me to work like that when I was thinking about what I was actually doing … knowing that I’m helping to save people that I care about.”

After graduation, Jason will continue to save lives as part of the Army’s medical research team.

Please join me in thanking and congratulating an American hero and a new VCU alumnus: Jason Newton.

Our second story is about finding your way, even when all seems lost.

Maker Marial is receiving his master’s degree in public administration from the Wilder School. This is the culmination of a long journey. Maker grew up in Sudan, where only 25 percent of children ever attend school. In his case, that was not in a classroom, but under a tree. Instead of a blackboard and chalk, his teachers used animal hides and cassava roots.?Maker had no computers — or even notebooks — so he wrote his assignments in the sand.

His education suddenly stopped, however, when civil war came to his nation. His village was attacked, and Maker ran for his life, leaving everything behind — including his family.

He was 9 years old.

Maker eventually walked more than 400 miles, without shoes or clothes, to a refugee camp in Ethiopia, where he stayed until war forced him to wander again — this time to another camp, thousands of miles away in Kenya.

He lived there until he was 22.

Finally, though, some good news: a charity wanted to bring Maker to the United States. He settled in Richmond, earned his GED, then his associate degree, then his bachelor’s. Today, the former Lost Boy of Sudan — whose education began in the shadow of a tree — now has a master’s degree from VCU.

Maker wants others to have the chance to be educated, too. So he built a school in his village, where almost 200 students are enrolled. Among those he has helped educate is a young man who is helping to write the constitution for the new nation of South Sudan, born from that terrible civil war. Another serves in parliament.

Maker said, quote, “My aim was just to finish eighth grade, to be able to read and write, then join the rebels and fight for my country. I’m still fighting for my country, but in a different way.”

Please join me in congratulating a man who’s building a nation by building young leaders: Maker Marial.

There are 2,798 more stories to tell. These are your stories.

The question today is: what will your next chapter say? What will you do with your education? Which innovations will you pioneer? How will you help your fellow human beings?

I know we can count on you to do just that. I know you will use your VCU education to change not only your life, but to change the world.

On behalf of the entire VCU community, including our faculty, staff, students and alumni, congratulations. I know you will always be proud of your alma mater, will help fly the VCU flag and will forever be connected to your VCU family.

We wish you well!

Thank you.