By Kellye Coleman
Global leaders gathered in Elon University’s Alumni Gym today to discuss global issues and challenge students to step up now to bring about change and make a difference.
“We face a tough future,” said panelist David Gergen, who encouraged students not to wait to be the leaders of tomorrow, as they often seem to be told. “You can be the leaders of today.”
Gergen, former adviser to four U.S. presidents and current director of the Center for Public Leadership at Harvard Kennedy School, was one of several panelists to address the Elon University community during it’s Spring Convocation for Honors on Thursday afternoon.
The event titled, “We can be better: Courageous voices confront our greatest challenges,” sought to address complex national and international issues, from politics and public education to religious civility and the environment.
To do this, the university invited several talented and driven minds to Alumni Gym to participate in an open discussion moderated by Brian Williams, anchor and managing editor of NBC Nightly News. The hour-long discussion was filled with humor, challenge, and inspiration.
Return to Values
Williams opened the discussion by asking Eboo Patel, founder of Interfaith Youth Core, when the glass would be half full when it comes to religious tolerance and acceptance. For Patel, it is all about values.
“I think the first thing we have to do is get back to those values of faith and nation,” he said, maintaining that “America’s patchwork heritage” makes it the starting point for change, tolerance, and acceptance.
Societal values were discussed during several portions of the event. For David Walker, former U.S. Comptroller General, head of the U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO), and founder, president and CEO of the Comeback America Initiative, the return to values and principles is the key to economic stability in this country.
“This country was founded on principles and values, and we’ve strayed from these values,” he said, highlighting stewardship as one of those critical values.
According to Walker, as a budget shutdown currently looms, “we sail towards an iceberg that could sink the state. It’s like arguing over the bar tab on the Titanic.” Leadership, or according to Walker “adult supervision,” is what is needed.
Promises must be kept sacred
David Levin, co-founder of the Knowledge is Power Program(KIPP), believes that leadership can be developed through education. KIPP is a national network of public schools in low-income areas that seek to raise the college graduation rate for those areas. According to Levin, KIPPS’s motto “Work hard. Play Nice” emphasizes their commitment to character and academics, and essentially “drives everything we do.”
An introductory video of what KIPP is all about (by KIPPSchools):
According to Levin, society have failed students when it comes to education. “We as a society are not taking our promises to our children as sacred,” he said, KIPP seeking to raise the expectations of children in low-income areas.
“We as a society are not taking our promises to our children as sacred.” – David Levin
KIPP’s goal is to push students to learn while making them “feel that they belong to something,” evidenced by the “All of us will learn” signs scattered throughout its 99 schools in 20 states.
“Once kids like what they do, anything is possible,” said Levin, who, according to Williams, would be the child Albert Einstein and Adam Sandler would produce if they “hooked up.”
“I mean that in the best way,” Williams said in response to the laughter of the audience.
Williams’s witticisms did not diminish the importance of the topics discussed, such as the United States’s reliance on foreign oil. “It’s not about addiction to oil. It’s about addiction to easy solutions,” said Shirley Ann Jackson, president of Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute.
Jackson says the country must focus on innovation, consistent regulation and a sound infrastructure. “Energy security is national security,” she said. “We have to be smart about it.”
Commitment to change
According to Gergen, the United States is facing a difficult future, because “we have become so addicted to not facing issues when they appear.” In his opinion, the country faces difficulties in education, our dependence on foreign oil and economic hardship because early signs of problems accumulated over time.
“We didn’t fix it when we could have fixed it, and now we’re paying the price,” he said. In order to address these issues “we have to put the country first.” Gergen says this requires commitment to change and gradual progress on the part of the younger generation. “It takes a long time to get hard work done,” he said. “You’ve got to make it the work of a lifetime.”
Along with this commitment, Jackson believes branching out from government is important. “I think we need a partnership across sectors,” she said, stating that leaders in business, academia and the non-profit sector must be involved.
Put down the cellphone
Williams confessed to having an attachment to his phone, iPad and iPod, using his connection to technology as an example of the focus many individuals have on connecting through media. When asked if a connection to technology has led to an “erosion in our sense of team,” Patel emphasized the need for college students to disconnect from “things.”
“We need unplugged time,” he said. “The single-most important thing you can get out of your education is deciding what is important to you,” something he believes can only be discovered if cellphones and laptops are turned off every once in a while.
“The single-most important thing you can get out of your education is
deciding what is important to you.” – Eboo Patel
Levin agreed. Turning to our mobile devices “gives us an out from listening to others who are different,” he said.
Find what you love
Additionally, students were challenged to take part in change. Throughout the discussion, panelists returned to the fact that college students have a part to play.
For Walker, passion is necessary. “Once we can rally, we can do anything, ” he said. For Levin, it’s all about being trustworthy, asking “what promise are you going to make to whom, and are you going to keep it?”
Patel has found that discovering what moves an individual is the key. Having received his doctorate degree from Oxford University, he was expected to pursue tenure at an esteemed university. However, he knew he wanted to pursue a focus on interfaith education, awareness and discussion.
“You have to find what you love to do, and find a way to give it away,” he said. According to Williams, this is the time for Elon students to do so. “Imagine what you can do with that Elon energy. The stakes are high. It’s up to passionate individuals to seek change.