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William H. Gates Sr. - Gates Millennium Scholars Regional Leadership Conference

October 8, 2004
Prepared remarks by William H. Gates Sr., co-chair

Good evening.

Thank you, Dr. Lomax, for that wonderful introduction. It’s a pleasure to be among so many bright young people. I do feel compelled to give you freshmen fair warning that you might face some interesting situations now that you’re known as Gates Scholars.

For me, suddenly having a well-known name has been one of the downsides of my son’s success. It comes up all the time. I’ll be on the phone ordering a pizza, and the person says: “Name!”

I say, “Bill Gates.”

Then there is this long pause. And the question comes: “The real Bill Gates?”

If you can think of a snappy answer, I’d be happy to hear it.

One of my daughters experienced something like this while buying some skis. She handed the clerk her credit card, he glanced at the name and said: “Are you related to… uh… to him?”

She was in kind of a hurry so she decided to say no. The clerk said, “I didn’t think so. You’d have bought better skis.”

Of course, if I’m going to talk about my family, I should have said at the start that the organizations here tonight have fulfilled one of my family’s dreams—to help some of the brightest young minds make the most of their talent. I believe I am the first member of the Gates Foundation to welcome you new Scholars into the GMS program. I’ve met a few of you tonight. I bet I’m not the first—and I know I won’t be the last—to say I am inspired by your enthusiasm and impressed by your talent.

This leadership conference would not be possible without the leadership of Margot Tyler, the executive director of GMS. And it would not be possible without the dedication of the advisory board and the four partner organizations. Thanks to each of you for selecting—and supporting—such fine Scholars. Just look around this room. Each young person here is brimming with dreams that are about to take flight in our nation’s top universities. I’m proud to be a part of GMS. I’m proud of you Scholars.

Tonight I want to talk about you. I want to get you thinking about the next four years—thinking about what you want to accomplish and even more important, who you want to become. But first, let me tell you briefly how Bill and Melinda decided it was so important to invest in your future.

Bill and Melinda started their foundation because they believe that all people’s lives—no matter where they live—have equal value.

Whether a child is born into wealth or poverty, she deserves a chance to be healthy, get an education, and find the information she needs to make the most of her life.

I want to take a minute to describe how this core belief manifests itself in the work of the foundation. My intent is not to boast about what we’re doing. Rather, I want to plant some seeds about a few critical issues that I hope will inspire a lifetime of work for some of you.

The foundation’s Global Health program had its genesis about 10 years ago. Bill and Melinda were stunned by a report that documented that millions of children in the developing world were dying every year from preventable diseases like tetanus and measles. So we’re working with other organizations to develop and distribute vaccines worldwide so children stop dying from diseases we’ve already cured.

We support the scientific work that leads to important discoveries—say, a new drug for malaria or tuberculosis. Then we work to see that these discoveries are tested, developed, and adopted in the places that need them most. I have a strong suspicion that a few of you might one day help us find new ways to cure malaria, or TB, or even AIDS. I’m encouraged to hear how many of you are planning careers in science or medicine. We need more researchers, more epidemiologists, and more physicians safeguarding the health of those who are least able to care for themselves.
 
In addition to global health, the foundation has worked with librarians and other partners to install 47,000 computers with Internet connections in nearly 11,000 public libraries in all 50 states. Now we’re helping to sustain public access computing in the United States. And we’re supporting other countries in their own efforts to give everyone free access to digital information. I hope some of you will consider a career in library science. This is an essential field in today’s Information Age. With so many new discoveries and so much data—those who can master this information are indispensable.

In our own backyard, the Pacific Northwest, we have teamed with social service providers and local government to give vulnerable families the housing and skills they need to be successful. This is another field that needs talented social scientists and public servants who can find solutions to such things as domestic violence, drug abuse, and homelessness.

We can’t solve any of these problems without brainpower—so one of our top concerns is education. We live in a country that is committed to equal opportunity. Yet almost half of the African-American and Hispanic students who start high school do not finish.

Our public education system continues to steer low-income African-American and Hispanic students away from college prep courses and college attendance. Schools assume these students would be better served in home-ec and vo-tech.

Only six percent of young people from the lowest economic quartile will earn a four-year college degree. Six percent. Some of you have worked very hard to be a part of this six percent and I admire your effort.

But what about the 94 percent? What hope do they have for a stimulating career, or even a salary that can support a family? What hope to they have of breaking the cycle of poverty that enveloped their childhood?
 
High schools are the biggest, most neglected problem in public education. And high schools are where we can make the most difference. We believe that every student in the United States can graduate from high school ready for college or a challenging career.

Today, barely one-third of all students do. You know the stories behind those numbers. Stories of overcrowded classrooms, overwhelmed teachers, and distracted students.

It doesn’t have to be that way. There are great schools around this country—and they have three things in common. They have a new version of the Three R’s: rigor, relevance and relationships. Courses that challenge all young people, not just the honors students. One-on-one relationships with caring adults who have a stake in their success. Motivating curricula that relate to students’ lives and aspirations.

We’re partnering with school districts and experts in education to start new schools and to transform large, failing high schools into new ones where these New Three R’s take root. More than 1,400 new and redesigned small schools will open within the next four years. We hope it’s the start of a movement that brings the New Three R’s into every American high school.

Ultimately, we want to lift graduation rates and ensure that all students are ready for college. It’s an ambitious goal. And it won’t happen without your help. Some of our Scholars are already planning careers in education. Please think about joining them. Our country desperately needs visionary teachers and administrators who can find new ways to engage all students and prepare them for college.

As you know, being prepared for college is only half the battle. There’s that small matter of tuition and books; and having food to eat and a place to sleep.

Just this year more than 400,000 students are not going to college solely for financial reasons. And behind that huge number is a young adult—often of color—who has dreams just like you. Someone who might have been your classmate.

This is why we started the Gates Millennium Scholars Program. I know all of you are intimately familiar with GMS because you have worked hard to become a part of this prestigious group.

GMS is about providing opportunity—the chance for you to get the education you need to grow as professionals and to grow as leaders. We want to see you—and 20,000 others like you—develop into men and women who will make your communities better, healthier, and more equitable places.

The fact is, high achieving, ambitious people like you are sorely under-represented in engineering, education, math, science, and libraries. These fields need your perspective and your passion. This is why GMS will cover the cost of earning a master’s or a Ph.D. in these areas. Previous Gates Millennium Scholars are taking us up on this offer. Ninety percent of them intend to get an advanced degree. I hope 100 percent of you will too. We believe in you. We’re impressed by you. Above all—we need you—and we don’t want anything to stop you from going as far as your talent can take you.

The next four years of your life, in my judgment, is a critical period that has everything to do with who you’ll be when you’re my age.
 
College is a time of learning, to be sure. But the kind of analysis you will do is much deeper than understanding organic chemistry or Russian literature. During this intense period of time you will build critical-thinking skills, a set of values, and a network of friends. All of these are assets that you’ll carry with you for the rest of your life.

That’s why I’d like to ask you a few questions. Questions about who you are as a person, what you value, and the kind of leader you want to become. Don’t worry. I’m not going to call on anyone. In fact, I’ll stay in the hot seat and answer some of these questions myself.

So here’s the first question: Can you be trusted?
When I was your age I had an experience where a friend of mine told me something very personal and important to them and I promised that I would not say anything to anyone else about it. I didn’t keep my word. The news was so juicy that I couldn’t resist the temptation to be a big shot and tell somebody else about it. I lost a friend. But I did learn an important lesson: Even social promises are to be kept.

You cannot afford to be a person who’s not trustworthy. It’s simple to say, but sometimes it’s harder to do than you might think. And I know you have all had those temptations and you will in the future.

Question number two: Do you tackle the most important thing first?
I have to say that this has been a hard one for me. I still allow myself to be distracted before getting to work on a project. Over the years, I think I’ve made a bit of progress, but I’m still a procrastinator. And that has cost me. I can think of circumstances where I haven’t been as prepared as I should have been because I started too late.

Recently, I had a speech to give on a rathers complicated subject. I waited too long to get prepared and my performance was sub-standard.

I’m very happy to say that my children did not inherit this rather costly characteristic. They tend to get at the things that they have to do and get at them early. It’s a wonderful quality that I hope all of you will adopt as well.

Here’s the third question: How do you feel about the school library?
It’s a funny question, I suppose. But I just want to testify that I love the library. I find it exciting to get the answer to a question. I am curious and I exult in learning from what I read.

There’s no question that a major element in becoming an educated person is the urge to know the answer and the urge to understand. Each one of you has that urge and I encourage you to follow your curiosity as far as it will take you—especially when it takes you to the library.

Here’s another question: How do you feel about sharing?
How do you feel about the things you own? If you’ve ever been a baby sitter or a parent, there’s one phrase that may be irritating to you. And that phrase is, “It’s mine.”

Yet one of the things that makes this evening, this weekend, and the next several years possible for you, is that my son and his wife do not feel that everything they have is their own. Bill and Melinda feel a strong sense of responsibility to give a vast majority of their wealth back to the global society that made it possible.

This is not just a question of riches. We all have valuable assets that have nothing to do with money. We have time. We have energy. We have affection. And we’re surrounded by people who need to have those things shared with them.

Last month I met a GMS Scholar who is helping his classmates share what they have with the world and he’s here with us tonight. Hani, could I ask you to stand?  Thank you for coming tonight.

Hani Elias is a senior at Harvard this year. A few years ago, Hani became concerned about the people in developing countries who suffer from poverty and disease. He knew college students would want to help if they could first, see the need; and second, receive the training to do something constructive. Hani created an organization called CollegeCorps and it connects undergraduates with humanitarian groups in developing countries. This summer, CollegeCorps sent its first group of 11 students from Harvard, MIT, and other Boston schools to serve in places like hospitals, human rights centers, and micro-credit organizations. These students were a big help and they had profound experiences.

I’m impressed with CollegeCorps. I’m even more impressed with the man behind CollegeCorps. Hani is balancing a Harvard course load with the demands of a start-up organization. He’s raising money and managing a budget. He’s screening candidates and building a board. And he’s talking with university officials and the United Nations to help more undergraduates serve abroad.

Change and progress in our society come directly from people who have Hani’s kind of commitment. People who perceive a need, who commit to cause a change, and who have the skill and energy to make it happen.

If you haven’t been there, you will be. You are all smart, imaginative people and throughout your life you will see some hardship that needs to be addressed. Many of you have experienced hardship that needs to be addressed. And you may well be the author of some significant change in this world because you had the imagination to see the need, the courage to find a solution, and the commitment to see it through.

This marvelous journey begins tonight. In the next four years you’re going to learn a lot about the kind of person you want to be and the kind of role you’re going to fill in this society of ours. I hope you’ll think about these four questions along the way:

  • Can you be trusted?
  • Do you tackle the most important thing first?
  • Are you curious? Do you have an urge to understand?
  • And finally, how do you feel about sharing?

We have high expectations. But we also have solid promises. We expect all of you to graduate and we promise to fund your education. Don’t forget that my son comes from the business world. He likes good investments. And we believe that an investment in your education will help you lead this nation in a way that is fair, insightful, and respectful of the value each of us have as humans.

You’re on the brink of something splendid. During the next four years, you’re going meet wonderful new friends—some of whom will last your entire life. You might even meet your spouse, as I did.

You’re going to explore fascinating subjects. You’re going to learn how the world works. And you’re going to start discovering the unique part you will play in the whole thing.

I can say that the span between freshman orientation and college graduation was the best time I ever had. So, don’t be intimidated by our high expectations for your academic success. We’re only asking you to do what comes naturally for you—learn, study, and succeed. And I’m just adding one more expectation: Make the most of your youth by doing the one thing youth does better than anyone else—have a lot of fun.

Thank you.

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