North Central College - Naperville, IL

Peace Corps Director Aaron S. Williams addresses North Central College Commencement

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June 9, 2012—Peace Corps Director Aaron S. Williams delivered the address Saturday, June 9, at the 147th Commencement of North Central College.

Williams noted it was the final Commencement for North Central College President Harold R. Wilde, who is retiring at the end of 2012 after 22 years as president.

“North Central College is fortunate to have had a President with such a long and exceptional tenure,” Williams told the audience. “While I’m sure everyone is sad to see you go, we know that you are leaving behind an incredible legacy.”

The Peace Corps director also congratulated the College on its Sesquicentennial.

“What a great milestone this institution is celebrating—150 years. Every member of the North Central College community should be honored and proud to be part of such a rich history,” he said.

Williams is the 18th director of the Peace Corps, which recently celebrated its 50th anniversary. Since its founding in 1961, the Peace Corps has sent more than 200,000 volunteers and trainees to 139 different countries. Williams is one of only four directors in Peace Corps history to have previously served as a Peace Corps volunteer.

“I worked in a small town in the Dominican Republic, helping a group of rural schoolteachers to earn their high school degrees,” he recalled. “And I learned a lesson that has guided and inspired my work ever since: When people join together in common cause, we can achieve extraordinary things.”

North Central College and the Peace Corps share many connections. College Trustee Esther Benjamin ’90 is associate director for global operations for the Peace Corps, where she oversees Peace Corps programs in nearly 80 countries. Dorine Andrews ’71 is chief information officer for the Peace Corps. Williams was introduced by Associate Professor of Accounting Gerald Thalmann, who was chief accountant for the Frigate Bay Development Corporation while serving with the Peace Corps in the West Indies.

“One of the things I learned in the Peace Corps is that sometimes it’s easy to see what needs to be done to fix things,” Thalmann said. “But the longer you’re there, you realize the easy fix would never work. People would tell me, ‘We don’t need food or that sort of thing—we need your help to remove the obstacles that keep us from helping ourselves.’”

Williams congratulated graduating senior Emily Rademaker ’12, president of the Student Governing Association, who will begin service as a Peace Corps Volunteer in South Africa this year. Other members of the North Central family have served as Peace Corps Volunteers. Dean of Students Kimberly Sluis ’99 served in Ghana, West Africa.

“In addition to having an expanded view of the world—a greater sense of what’s out there—I think that Peace Corps also proved to me that I could make a difference without extraordinary resources,” Sluis said. “North Central is a place where you don’t just learn about the world, but you also begin to define the impact you wish to have in that world.”

Area Hall Director Kate Schmidt ’09 served with the Peace Corps in Ukraine.

“Serving in Peace Corps gave me a larger perspective of the world,” Schmidt said. “I think more critically about American policies and relationships with foreign countries from a more global view.”

Williams echoed those themes in his Commencement speech.

“Whatever path you choose—whether it runs through Naperville, New York or Nepal—remember that the most important place in the world is wherever you are,” he told the audience. “That’s not an invitation to be self-absorbed—in fact, it’s just the opposite. It’s an exhortation to throw yourselves into your surroundings with all the passion and purpose you’ve demonstrated over the past four years.”

Wilde noted some of the accomplishments of the class of 2012. The class has 692 graduates, with 581 students earning bachelor’s degrees and 111 achieving advanced degrees.

“You were responsible for record numbers in conference participation, research projects and College Scholars,” he said. “You garnered national recognition in forensics, debate, SIFE and at WONC. You’ve traveled abroad in record numbers and found ways to make the world a better place, both here and abroad—working with orphans in Haiti and addressing poverty in Kenya.

“Your class represents the very best of this 151-year-old institution and this institution, in turn, is a far better place for your time here.”