President Daniels speaks about the importance of small contributions to shared endeavors
In remarks to the Class of 2023, he shares the story of the immense collective effort needed to help 88 people escape Afghanistan during its chaotic collapse in August 2021
Remarks prepared for delivery by Johns Hopkins University President Ronald J. Daniels at the universitywide Commencement ceremony on May 25, 2023.
To our alumni and trustees; to our faculty and staff; to all our parents, family members, and friends; to our soon-to-be-revealed distinguished speaker; and most especially to our graduates... welcome under perfect skies and with bursting hearts to the 147th Johns Hopkins University Commencement for the great, great Class of 2023!
To our graduates: Congratulations.
I suspect that there has never been a graduating class that didn’t feel that getting to this moment wasn’t a monumental achievement.
This place is-dare I say-demanding.
We are a different kind of party school.
But as much as this day is a moment of achievement, there is no denying that your class has confronted and surmounted a set of challenges that truly sets you apart.
Despite COVID, despite forced exile, despite a host of restrictions and regulations on your return, you did it.
You excelled in so many different endeavors and succeeded in crafting a full and rich Hopkins education.
And, in turn, the university recognized your trials and tribulations by depriving you of Sterling Brunch, making you wait three full hours for Meek Mill to show up at Spring Fair, and then abruptly changing the name of the FFC for no good or apparent reason. This is the applause line for your university central administration. Too soon?
In thinking about your commanding record of achievement, we must first start with your many individual successes: the courses completed, the exams written, the prizes received, and soon, very soon, the degrees earned.
But today is also a time to recognize your collective achievements-the things that you did together: the performances of musicals and plays; the weekly tutoring sessions of Baltimore City school children outside Levering; the undefeated season of our women’s soccer team; and your class’s support for the owners of the Jordanian Halal Food Truck when they needed it the most.
It is these latter set of achievements, the product of shared endeavor, that I want to touch on with you today.
Now, these moments of collective achievement can arise in a number of different ways.
Sometimes they occur when one solitary individual whose vision, eloquence, and courage will inspire others, even whole nations, to action. Hold that thought.
At other times, however, collective action happens more spontaneously-provoked not by a single magnetic leader, but by a cascade of interconnected decisions made quietly, often without inducement or prospect of recognition, by people simply doing the right thing at the right moment.
Let me share a story that illustrates this point. And I haven’t told it before.
It starts in August 2021.
During the withdrawal of American troops from the country after a long and difficult war.
As you recall, every day brought new, harrowing images of school bombings, public executions, and abandoned posts as the Taliban, sensing a long-awaited pathway to power, began aggressively seizing province after province.
Then Kabul fell.
The only site still under U.S. control was the airport which was being used to rapidly evacuate American citizens, interpreters, and other vulnerable individuals.
With the Taliban’s ascendance came the prospect of retribution. And there was the fear of the Taliban targeting those-even Afghan nationals-connected in any way to a foreign entity.
That included Afghans who had worked for our university.
You see, for almost two decades, Hopkins operated public health programs in Afghanistan.
Suddenly, the Afghan people who had worked with colleagues across Hopkins to support public health education, infant immunization, and prenatal care were confronted with the grim and very real prospect of being tortured or executed.
In early August 2021, emails started to trickle in from colleagues requesting our aid. After the Taliban captured Kabul, the trickle became a flood.
We felt a strong moral obligation to help, but we were unsure precisely how.
We are a university.
Our forte is fighting disease, solving complex equations, and interpreting texts, not extracting foreign nationals from a collapsing state.
The risks were high, and the odds of success were low. Kabul was in pandemonium. The airport was a fortress. And in the eyes of many here in the United States and abroad, the 88 people we were trying to help were low-priority evacuees.
We called everyone we knew for help and advice.
We sought to enlist their support by making the plight of these 88 people more concrete and more human.
We said that their ages ranged from five months to 77 years.
That they were mothers, fathers, sons, daughters, and grandparents.
That they were doctors, researchers, and security guards.
That even in the midst of chaos, this group of our former employees, family members, and others had shown remarkable resolve by organizing themselves and agreeing to travel together in the extraordinary but increasingly elusive hope of securing safe passage.
One call I remember very, very vividly from that time was to an old friend, at the time a senior U.S. government official.
After I detailed the situation, he said-tersely and unequivocally-there was no way these people would be leaving Kabul. The country is unraveling, and there simply isn’t the capacity to get them out.
Our team was discouraged but undaunted.
At every juncture, the response from anyone who knew the plight of these 88 was clear: If our former colleagues and their families were willing to risk their lives to leave Afghanistan, then we had to do our part to get them out.
What then unfolded was a complex series of individual undertakings that coalesced into something really magnificent-a single, unified mission to save these 88 people.
The chair of the Bloomberg School’s Department of International Health, with full support of the dean, sent numerous emails organizing the effort and pleading for support.
Our lawyers processed refugee applications and helped plan the evacuation, forgoing sleep for days and days, without making a single mistake.
Other Hopkins colleagues working in maternal and child health secured seats for all 88 people on several of the last flights out of Afghanistan.
And the Honorable Christine Fox, who is sitting on the stage today as an honorary degree recipient, drew upon her vast military experience to lend advice and counsel, and ultimately facilitated a direct link to U.S. military personnel in Kabul.
And, of course, our trustees did not hesitate to endorse and fund these efforts.
Amazingly, at every turn, more people of common purpose, in a far-flung network, stepped in without any need for cajoling or persuasion.
The ex-Marine with a two-man Afghan team on the ground in Kabul who secured a tour bus for all 88 people and guided it through the streets for three agonizing days.
The military personnel in and out of uniform, including JHU alumni, who helped make crucial connections at critical moments.
And, of course, the 88 people who did not leave that bus in the sweltering heat for 68 hours as their food, water, baby formula, and gas ran terrifyingly low.
Eighty-eight people whose desperation grew as the prospect of safe passage seemed ever more remote, and the fear of Taliban reprisals ever nearer.
At any moment, they could reasonably have given up. But they never did.
I am still in awe of their fortitude.
It was these people who on August 28 finally got word that their bus-against the odds-would be permitted to move into the airport compound.
For two excruciating hours, the bus crawled through the heavily fortified site, which two days prior had been the site of a suicide bombing that killed nearly 180 people, including 13 U.S. service members.
First, the bus moved through the Taliban checkpoint.
Then the NATO checkpoint.
Then the U.S. inspection.
But they had finally made it.
Our group was among the last to be evacuated from a collapsing Afghanistan.
That night, a Hopkins colleague sent a WhatsApp message to the entire far-flung band that had been helping and watching, waiting and hoping, for good news from Kabul.
It said, simply, "This was an across the globe effort of humanity. We witnessed the best of people in the worst of situations."
Most of the people responsible for the safe passage of the 88 were largely unknown to one another. Yet for several days, they coalesced into a harmonious entity that was devoted to one singular goal-to save 88 lives.
And when it was over... it was over.
For reasons of security, there was no group picture, no press release, no Instagram post. Everyone returned to their jobs and lives.
Although I cannot tell you the names or show you the faces of the people who escaped, I assure you they are now in the U.S. and on track to becoming permanent residents.
If you asked me right now whose contribution was most important-the ones who really made it happen-my honest answer would be, "I don’t know."
Every text sent, every document filed, every number called, every dollar raised, every risk taken, and every reassuring word uttered was essential to the success of this endeavor.
So, I share this story today because it illustrates a simple but powerful point: As Hopkins graduates, your lives will be full of opportunities to undertake individual acts of consequence.
And as much as we hope, we count on you seizing these moments to the fullest, please don’t lose sight of the opportunities also to participate in collective endeavors in which your role, no matter how seemingly small or inconsequential, could well be just as important as were the many individual contributions made in that fateful August of 2021.
Graduates, we know you will meet that moment when it comes.
Congratulations and Godspeed!
Johns Hopkins University