Lisa G. Szarkowski encounters a lot of heartbreaking situations in her job. But she wants to make sure graduates of Wheaton College, her alma mater, understand that even with graduating with student debt and no job, they are far more advantaged than most of their peers in the world.
Szarkowski is the vice president of humanitarian emergencies and executive communication for the U.S. Fund for the United Nations Children's Fund. She was Wheaton's commencement speaker on Saturday.
The 1990 graduate of Wheaton has worked on UNICEF's coordinated emergency team responses for major disasters -- both manmade and natural events.
Szarkowski spoke at length about her work with child refugees, touching on the consequences of the ongoing conflict in Syria as well as other impoverished nations in Africa and the Middle East. But Szarkowski explained how the children she works with also inspire her, and she reminded the graduates how lucky they are:
We must stop viewing the world's children as objects of pity and charity. The world's children are here to advance humanity. We need to step out of their way and let them do their job. They are resilient and open-minded and willing and eager beyond any words can express. When we give children what they hunger for, when we protect them and listen to them and let them develop to their full human potential, the world will know more peace, stability, health and prosperity.
In closing, I have two messages. One is from me and one is from children. From me, please don't ever let anyone or anything take your empathy. The world will present you with plenty of occasions to be offended, wounded, outraged, defeated and exhausted. When we lose empathy, we become less human. We detach from other people. We start to think selfishly and often shortsightedly. This applies to your personal relationships, your community and the world. We must keep our hearts and minds open. I'm the first to admit this is scary and painful at times. But the upside is that you will have a fully human experience. You will understand that you are part of a larger human family that is far more alike than it is different. My wish for everyone in this audience is next time you see something that moves you, even if it's half a world away happening to someone you will never meet and never know, that you allow yourself to feel for that person.
In my travels of late, I asked children if they could send a message, any message, to you, what would it be? And here is the winning theme: You are lucky. Yes, you with the student loans and no jobs, you are lucky. A girl in Chad, in the West African nation of Chad, is more likely to die in childbirth than to see school past eighth grade. She is more likely to die in childbirth than to get to the eighth grade and beyond. So that's the benchmark of what I consider lucky and privileged. And each one of you who is about to graduate today is inordinately more advantaged than many of your peers in the world.
Watch the full speech in the video above.