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For Immediate Release
Office of the First Lady
May 20, 2006
Mrs. Bush's Remarks at Roger Williams University Commencement Ceremony
Roger Williams University
Bristol, Rhode Island
10:53 A.M. EDT
MRS. BUSH: Thank you all very much. Thank you so much, Dr. Nirschel. Thank you, President Nirschel, for your very kind introduction. Thank you for this honorary degree. I'm so proud to be part of the Roger Williams University now with this degree.
Thank you -- I want to acknowledge your Chairman of the Board of Trustees, Ralph Papitto. Thank you very, very much for helping award this degree. And I especially want to acknowledge my friend Paula Nirschel, the wife of President Nirschel, but the founder of the Initiative to Educate Afghan Women. (Applause.)
Thanks also to the distinguished faculty and alumni, parents and families, for your very warm welcome. But most of all, thank you and congratulations to the Roger Williams University Class of 2006. (Applause.)
Today, we honor 900 graduates from six schools, 40 states, and 25 countries. We thank your parents and families and teachers whose love and support has brought you to this day. And of course, we celebrate your university. I'm delighted to be here for Roger Williams's 50th Anniversary. I learned that one way you're commemorating this milestone is through your "Little Roger" photo contest. I went on your website, and I was impressed to see how widely traveled Little Roger is. He's seen the stars in Hollywood. He celebrated St. Patrick's Day in Ireland. He's journeyed to the depths of the Grand Canyon, and to the top of Seattle's Space Needle. I saw Roger in Pisa, Italy, and in Petra, Jordan. Little Roger even accompanied President Nirschel to the summit of Mount Kilimanjaro.
But looking through the photos, I noticed that there was one place Little Roger hadn't been. (Laughter.) Here's Roger on the South Lawn of the White House. (Applause.) Later, Roger made his way to the Rose Garden. (Laughter.) In the evening, Roger was our guest at the state dinner for Australia's Prime Minister John Howard and his wife. He was charming and diplomatic. He was a perfect anniversary ambassador. (Applause.) But that night, as he left the White House, he had his photo with his favorite White House residents, Barney and Miss Beazley. (Applause.)
As Little Roger visits sites around the world, at home, Roger Williams students reflect on how far this university has come since February 1956, when local business leaders chartered Roger Williams as a small two-year junior college, focused on engineering and finance, operating out of the Providence YMCA. Now, 50 years later, Roger Williams is a full four-year university. You occupy a 140-acre campus here on the beautiful Bristol waterfront. You're renowned for the strength of your academic programs, and students from around the world compete to be educated here.
The Roger Williams community can be proud of all you've accomplished, but you should be even more proud that over the last 50 years, your university has never forgotten the values that make it great. Your school is dedicated to the spirit of Roger Williams, who founded Rhode Island on the principles of extending freedom to every member of society, and of treating others with generosity and respect. Those ideals thrive here at Roger Williams University, especially the generosity and respect that you show others.
More than any other generation of Americans, the Class of 2006 is tasked with resolving challenges that lie far beyond your doorstep, even far beyond America's borders. Because our world is so small, you can't ignore a tsunami in Southeast Asia, or a genocide in Darfur. And as everyone at Roger Williams knows, you can't neglect millions of people around the world living under tyranny.
Fortunately, sharing your gifts with others comes naturally to students at Roger Williams. Service to the community is one of your core values, and you live it every day. You teach children in Appalachia. You build neighborhoods through Habitat for Humanity, and share joy and friendship with the disabled through Best Buddies of Rhode Island. Through your Bridge to Success program, you tutor middle and high school students, and you help them pursue their dreams of a college education.
Young people across the United States need positive role models like you as mentors, coaches and teachers. Many in the Class of 2006 will dedicate their lives to America's young people in our classrooms, and as a former teacher, I applaud your career choice. (Applause.)
Others of you will dedicate yourselves to Americans living on our Gulf Coast, a region especially hungry for your energy and enthusiasm. Devote a vacation to hurricane recovery efforts, helping rebuild homes, schools and lives, or consider making a long-term commitment to revitalizing the Gulf Coast by building your future there.
You'll find that the benefits of this service extend far beyond Louisiana and Mississippi. Just ask Youmna Deiri. Right after Katrina struck, Youmna and a group of Roger Williams students traveled to New Orleans, where they spent a week rebuilding an elderly woman's house. What she remembers most about that trip, Youmna said, is how it united diverse volunteers with a sense of common purpose. Youmna is Syrian, and her fellow Roger Williams volunteers included young Muslims and Christians from India, Morocco and Jordan. They were hosted in New Orleans by the Campus Crusaders, a Christian group.
Despite their different backgrounds, the Roger Williams volunteers received a warm welcome, and were immediately put to work.
Youmna's experience on the Gulf Coast reminded her how in the face of great human need, and I quote Youmna, "everything else falls away. Our differences of religion, culture, country of origin, fade into the background." That lesson, Youmna says, is one she'll take with her throughout life.
Youmna is just one example of how Roger Williams students are already improving the world. Over the last four years, you've made extraordinary contributions with the help of three other young women, Nadima Sahar -- (applause) -- Arezo Kohistani -- (applause) -- and Mahbooba Babrakzai -- (applause) -- the first graduates of the Initiative to Educate Afghan Women, and members of the Roger Williams Class of 2006. (Applause.)
In the weeks that followed September 11th, Americans were shocked by the pictures that emerged from Afghanistan. Especially haunting were the images of Afghan woman denied their rights -- the right to work, even the right to be educated. Seeing those pictures, American women realized that we had taken these rights for granted. And during those weeks, as I traveled around our country, I was impressed by how proud American women were to stand with the women of Afghanistan, and how eager they were to help in any way we could.
It wasn't long before I met Paula Nirschel, one American woman who turned her desire to help into action. In 2002, Paula founded the Initiative to Educate Afghan Women. American women know that Afghanistan's future success requires widespread education among Afghans. By educating promising young Afghan women in American colleges, the initiative is making sure Afghanistan's future leaders will extend the freedom and opportunity in their new democracy to all Afghans, including women and girls.
As Farahnaz Nazir, founder of the Afghan Women's Association, said, "Society is like a bird. It has two wings, and a bird cannot fly with a broken wing."
Educating women will also help make sure that all Afghans can actively participate in their country's democratic future. As Mahbooba explains, "It's not just one woman who learns -- it's her children, her husband, her entire extended family."
Today, thanks to the initiative, 20 Afghan women at 12 universities are enjoying the benefits of an American college education. This year, six of the women, including the women here today, will graduate. (Applause.)
Many of these women never imagined that they would earn a college degree. One recalls that she wanted to learn English as a girl, and couldn't because of the Taliban. But when this woman went to the market, she noticed that her purchases were wrapped in newspapers, sometimes printed in English. For this student, her only access to an English language education has been the words that she secretly taught herself from the wrapping paper. Now she's a college student in the United States. (Applause.)
Mahbooba, too, says she never thought she'd attend college in America. Her family had always prized learning, but when the Taliban came to power, they knew that the joys of education would never extend to their daughter. So she remembers that her parents faced a difficult choice: abandon their daughter to ignorance, or flee Afghanistan. Her family left everything and everyone they knew for a new life in Pakistan so that she could be educated.
Maybe that's why these women all describe their Roger Williams experience as a dream come true. And over the last four years, they've made the most of this opportunity. All three have distinguished themselves academically, and they'll graduate with honors. This fall, they begin graduate work in public policy at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst.
These women have also enriched Roger Williams through their activities outside the classroom. To learn more about business, one of them and nine other students spent a quarter managing $100,000 of Roger Williams endowment money. They had an 8.5 percent return on their investments, beating Standard & Poor's for that quarter. It's no wonder she wants to become Afghanistan's finance minister. (Applause.)
Arezo has been recognized by many honor societies, and has written for Roger Williams's Journal of Civil Discourse. She hopes to represent Afghanistan as an ambassador.
And Nadima became vice president of Roger Williams's Mock Trial Club. As a girl in Afghanistan, Nadima was denied the protection of law. But here at Roger Williams, she won awards for her cross-examination skills. She wants to be the president of Afghanistan. (Applause.)
Someday, the world will know these women as accomplished Afghan leaders, but today, the Roger Williams Class of 2006 knows them as classmates, teammates, roommates and friends. You've laughed with each other, and you've learned with each other. You've warmly welcomed them, and generously shared yourselves with them. And what they learned of America from you will help build a lasting friendship between the people of the United States and Afghanistan. "It helped to break down misunderstandings," Arezo said. "That's part of what we'll take back with us."
As you've inspired and taught them, they've also inspired and taught you. Your classmate Andrew Ziskin explains their influence well. After graduation, Andrew is receiving a commission in the United States Army. When he was a senior in high school, Andrew felt called to serve America by the events of September 11th. He said, "I wanted to do my part to protect family, my friends, and the way we live. But getting to know Nadima, and hearing her story, gave his service a new meaning. "Being in class with Nadima made me more determined to help spread freedom," Andrew said. "I could see the benefits of ending tyranny."
Because the Roger Williams family was so dedicated to helping these women, they say there will always be a little piece of Roger Williams in Afghanistan. In fact, I hear that there are even plans for Little Roger to meet President Karzai. (Applause.)
Today we thank Paula for her terrific work in establishing the initiative, and President Nirschel for opening Roger Williams to these bright young women. And we congratulate the entire Roger Williams family for your service to your fellow students, and through them, to the people of Afghanistan. In the words of your student body president, Mike Witik, and I quote, "In an indirect way, we're shaping the future. Little Roger Williams University, in tiny Bristol, Rhode Island, is having a big impact on the world. (Applause.)
Class of 2006, with your dedication to others, you will always have a big impact on the world, and you'll find happiness along the way. Congratulations to each one of you. Thank you so much for giving me the chance to share this special day with you. May God bless the Roger Williams Class of 2006. (Applause.)
END 11:11 A.M. EDT
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