Press Room




Sue Desmond-Hellman
Georgia State University Commencement
Georgia Dome, Atlanta
May 7, 2016

Faculty, friends, families, and – of course – Class of 2016.

Congratulations! You did it!

I am so excited to share this moment with you all.

But I must say that it’s an honor which makes me feel pretty humble, since I’m aware that it puts me in quite intimidating company.

So many distinguished people have stood here before me looking out over the hallowed turf of the Georgia Dome.

People such as President Carter – a Nobel Peace Prize winner…

…CNN’s fearless Christianne Amanpour…

…and Chris Hughes, a co-founder of Facebook.

Thank you for adding me to the list.

It’s some time ago now, but I still have a lot of fond memories of my time as a student in Reno.

Memories of late night cramming sessions; of worrying too much and eating too little; of friends, naturally; and teachers – you never forget a good teacher, right?

And I think the main reason why I remember those days with such affection is because I realize now how my education gave me one of the most precious gifts any person can receive…

…the gift of opportunity.

And – whatever you studied here – that is the enduring value of your Georgia State experience.

You got through, sure.

But you got so much more.

You are now – dare I say – poised to Pounce.

You are prepared to prosper.

Georgia State has prepared you to prosper by enriching your lives, lifting your confidence, and arousing your curiosity.

Now you don’t just know the answers to questions, you know the power of asking questions too.

And today, I want you to start asking one more question - a question I ask myself every single morning: “What if?”

“What if….?”

This simple, but powerful, question helps shape my attitude to life.

I always dreamed of becoming a medical doctor and I was so excited after all my schooling and training when I finally qualified as a cancer specialist - an oncologist.

It was what I had worked so hard for.

But something troubled me.

Too often the treatments I was giving to my patients actually made them feel worse - and I hated making people feel so awful.

So I asked myself whether there was a better way.

What if, for instance, we could develop a drug that didn’t make people’s hair fall out, or deplete their immune system, or make them sick to their stomach?

That was when I got to work on a new treatment for breast cancer that did just that.

Along the way, of course, there were plenty of cynics and critics who questioned whether it could be done, or should be done.

And there were times when it was hard and when we had setbacks and when we wondered if we’d ever get there.

But we knew what we were doing was right and we kept on striving until finally, years later, we did it.

And when we did, it was like a miracle.

Everything changed in cancer treatment.

And now – as head of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation – I’m challenging myself to imagine everything changing in global health and development.

What if we created a world where every person has the opportunity to live a healthy, productive life?

…a world where more children and young people survive and thrive…

…where the poorest, including women and girls, are empowered to transform their lives…

…a world where we combat the infectious diseases that decimate communities and countries?

At the foundation we ask these big, bold questions every day.

And every day, thanks to the professionalism and perseverance of extraordinary individuals who dream big, we’re getting closer to knowing the answers.

This same desire for progress is also what led your families to dare to ask, “What if?”

Many of you are here today because they were determined to give you an opportunity they maybe didn’t have themselves – to give you the chance to do better than them.

It may be you are the first in your family to go to college.

Or the first to study overseas.

Or the first to do postgraduate work.

Those achievements don’t happen by accident.

And they don’t happen just because of you.

They happen because your parents and your families believe in you, because they love you, because they want you to succeed.

That’s why they put just as much time and energy into this as you did.

Maybe they worked extra shifts to help pay tuition, maybe they looked after the kids to allow you to study, maybe they sat up late to encourage you when you felt like giving up.

And now they are sitting here – prouder of you than you can possibly imagine.

Listen, today is your day. No one’s going to deny you this moment. And certainly not your families.

But do…

…amid all the congratulations and the celebrations…

…do remember the selflessness of all those who ultimately made it possible for you to be here.

And what about this fantastic university?

You, the Class of 2016, has had the benefit of one of the best educations in our country, from one of the most inspiring institutions in our country.

Ten years ago, Georgia State challenged itself by asking: What if we built on what all the evidence tells us – that education is a bridge to opportunity like no other?

And what if we did our part to extend that bridge to more students?

And tried new and novel approaches to helping more students across that bridge?

And kept experimenting until we got more students to the other side?

Well, something utterly remarkable happened.

Conventional wisdom was turned on its head as Georgia State improved student success through being an inclusive institution, not an exclusive one.

Today, GSU is among the most diverse universities in America.

And whether you look at it by race, ethnicity, or income, there are no gaps in graduation rates here.

Only a handful of universities in this nation can say that.

But none of them can say this: For the last four years Georgia State has awarded more bachelor’s degrees to African-Americans than any other non-profit college or university in America.

When it comes to finding out what works for students and what’s possible when an institution transforms itself, our foundation turns to Georgia State.

That’s because your university is a powerful example of how – with the right strategies and the right support – students from any background and from every background can succeed.

You are proof of that. And you should be proud of that.

So what about you?

Now it is your turn to ask, “What if?”

You are graduating at a time when the world is faced with great challenges.

And no one has a greater stake in the outcome than you.

We need to overcome the burden of poverty and disease, the tragedy of conflict, and the dangers of climate change.

But this is also a time of expanding opportunity.

And I am optimistic for the future because your generation is better-equipped to stretch the limits of human possibility than any that has gone before.

You are the ones that will build a world that is more equal and more peaceful, that is healthier and greener.

Whatever your chosen field…

…whether you’re an architect or an app designer, an engineer or an entrepreneur, a teacher or a technician, a scientist, doctor, teacher, lawyer, journalist…

…you will have the chance to make your mark.

So ask yourselves “What if?’ – and astonish us with your answers.

It's your future.

Make the most of it.


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