On Sept. 13, Drake students took their turn at the podium in the Cowles Library Reading Room to share with a crowd of about 200 stories of service-learning projects they have undertaken in the past year. But this was no ordinary public speaking experience—seated next to the podium were former U.S. President Jimmy Carter and his wife, Rosalynn.
The Carters visited Drake University on Sept. 13 to give the 29th Bucksbaum Distinguished Lecture in the Knapp Center; they attracted an audience estimated at 6,000. But earlier in the day, they joined the group in Cowles to hear about the initiatives being undertaken on campus surrounding a topic close to their hearts—social justice.
“Looking at the Carters sitting next to us, they seemed like warm, friendly grandparents,” says Anna Schmitt, a senior law, politics, and society and international relations double major. “But when I thought about how he was once the leader of the free world and all the work he has done for human rights, it was intimidating.”
All the students who spoke were able to take part in service initiatives thanks to the Slay Fund for Social Justice. Started by a generous gift from Brent, ED’70, and Diane, ED’70, Slay, the Fund is designed to support programs advancing social justice at Drake. The Slays have been involved with the Carter Center for a number of years, and were the driving force to bring the Carters to Drake for the lecture.
Through the Slay Fund, students have been involved with various service learning projects, from conducting research on governmental and citizen responses to disaster after Hurricane Katrina, to interning for local nonprofits over the summer. They all thanked the Slays for their help and shared what they took away from their time working on important social issues.
Schmitt shared her experience of traveling to Rwanda. Assisted by the Slay Fund, she participated in a small group immersion into the history and contemporary memory surrounding the genocide in that country.
“The most important thing I took away from Rwanda was the power of the individual,” she says. “If we are all bystanders, who is going to take action? We are all capable and can make a difference if we really want to.”
At the end of the presentations, the Carters praised the students and the University.
"You represent a treasure," President Carter told students. "Not only for yourself and your own community, but you represent a treasure that ought to be shared with the surrounding communities."
Mrs. Carter, with tears in her eyes, echoed her husband’s sentiments confiding, “I’m very emotional about what you all are doing.”
Later that night, the Carters delivered the Bucksbaum Lecture. They discussed the work they have done through The Carter Center, which they started in 1982.
The Center leads efforts to resolve conflict, promote democracy, protect human rights, and prevent disease. Other initiatives of the organization include advancing health and agriculture in the developing world and engaging in conflict mediation in many countries, including Sudan, Bosnia, and North Korea.
President Carter received the Nobel Peace Prize in 2002 for what the Nobel Committee called “his decades of untiring effort to find peaceful solutions to international conflicts, to advance democracy and human rights, and to promote economic and social development.”
The couple also took questions from the crowd; topics ranged from foreign policy to the U.S. education system. But in the end, President Carter shared one thought that drove home the reasons social justice and human rights around the world are important issues for students to explore:
“It’s good for all of us to stop and think, ‘how would I survive on 50 cents a day? What would be left for self respect, for hope, for dignity?”
-By Alyssa Cashman