William Gates Sr. tells students “You will change the world”

WALLA WALLA, Wash.— President George Bridges presided over the 126th Commencement Ceremony at Whitman College on Sunday, honoring the graduating class of 385 students under blue skies and seasonably warm weather.

Speaker William Gates Sr., co-chair of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, in his opening remarks praised not only the graduates but their parents. “I never could get my son to finish college. How did you do it?”

Gates, unlike 2007 speaker Jeffrey Sachs, did not exhort the graduates to change the world. “You will change the world because you are who you are,” he told the class of 2008.He stressed instead the importance of their personal priorities that should include raising their families well; making and keeping good friends; finding a way to pay the rent, and being part of the small but important acts that become the “public will” thatmake life on earth better.

The movement for global equality, he said, could be this generation’s civil rights, and whether an individual chooses to participate by serving in a public capacity or to remain in the background and support the billions of small acts of citizenship that will eventually create change. “Change comes,” said Gates, “when the right thing to do becomes the conventional thing to do…We’re all in this together, and we must learn to live together as brothers or we will perish together as fools.”

Poverty, he said, is a human issue. “People are suffering and we should save them. Not because they will buy from us or help us in any way, but because it’s the right thing to do.” Each person, he said, has an infinite value beyond our needs and we simply ought to help them.

A standing ovation after Gates’ talk was followed by President Bridges’ announcement that Gates had declined the usual monetary honorarium, and instead a new scholarship in his name will be established for students with significant financial need.

President Bridges presented Gates and Margaret Chesney ’71 each an Honorary Doctor of Humane Letters degree. Chesney, a world leader in AIDS research and prevention studies, is the associate director of the University of Maryland Center for Integrative Medicine and a professor in the School of Medicine at the university.

Distinguished teaching awards were presented by the president to:

  • Deborah Wiese, assistant professor of psychology,
    the Suzanne L. Martin Award for Excellence in Mentoring;
  • Allison Calhoun, associate professor of chemistry,
    the George Ball Award for Excellence in Advising;
  • David Schmitz, Robert Allen Skotheim Chair of History,
    the Robert Y. Fluno Award for Distinguished Teaching in Social Sciences;
  • Jean Carwile Masteller, professor of English,
    the Thomas D. Howells Award for Distinguished Teaching in Humanities;
  • Robert Fontenot, professor of mathematics,
    the A.E. Lange Award for Distinguished Science Teaching; and
  • Robert Tobin, Cushing Eells Professor of Humanities,
    the Tom Edwards Award for Excellence in the Integration of Teaching and Scholarship.


The college awarded distinguished high-school and middle-school teaching awards to Jean Heard Bazemore, principal and founder of Northcoast Preparatory and Performing Arts Academy in Arcata, Calif., and Sheila E. Stuhlsatz, Spanish teacher at Kalama Middle/High School in Kalama, Wash.


CONTACT: Lenel Parish, Whitman College News Service, (509) 527-5156