michelle-obama-volunteering

A morning with Michelle Obama talking international volunteering

Cedric Hodgeman

On May 16th, Raul and I were invited by our friends at the George Washington University Law Clinic to attend the GW graduation on the National Mall here in Washington. It was a chance for us to help celebrate the tremendous accomplishments of the 2010 class. First Lady Michelle Obama was the graduation speaker. She delivered an inspiring speech that articulated the importance of community service and echoed the ideals on which UBELONG is built.

Against the spectacular backdrop of the Capitol, she began her address by noting that now, more than ever, we must look beyond our borders and view ourselves as part of the global community. As she told the graduates:

“You understand things that perhaps your parents and I even [didn’t] always have to consider when our world was still separated by walls of concrete and communication. That we are no longer isolated from what happens on the other side of the world. That it’s in our best interest to look beyond our immediate self-interest, and look out for one another globally. That so many of today’s challenges are borderless, from the economy to terrorism to climate change, and that solving those problems demands cooperation with others.”

She then reflected a fundamental piece of the UBELONG mission, that international volunteering, in facilitating people-to-people interaction, can be a powerful catalyst for breaking barriers and encouraging problem-solving and understanding. She noted:

“When we just make that effort to engage with one another, when we share our stories, we begin to build familiarity that often ultimately softens mistrust. We begin to see ourselves in one another. We begin to realize that the forces that bind us are so much more powerful than the forces that blind us. And because many of you already serve around the world, this class knows firsthand that each one of those interactions in the world has the power to start a chain reaction. Every child that learns to read can teach another. Every girl taught that she has power inspires dozens of others. Every school built improves thousands of lives.”

Next she described the effects that volunteering can have on volunteers themselves. First she addressed the professional benefits:

“Serving abroad will make you stronger, more competitive, a more valuable asset for a career in the public or private sectors. Just talk to any of your colleagues who have spent some time abroad. And one of the first things they’ll tell you, for example, is that you’ll never learn a language or develop self-reliance as quickly as you will when you’re on your own in a foreign country!”

And then she extolled the personal benefits of international volunteering in a manner that really highlighted the transformational power of volunteering. As Raul and I have discovered from our own personal experiences, volunteering abroad is as much about physical travel as it is about the mental journey that it brings. Volunteering empowers you to step out of your comfort zone, discover new horizons and share your energy and talent to make a difference. New experiences enrich your perspectives and stretch your mind. And, when all is said and done, the greatest impact that you make in volunteering is probably really on yourself. As Obama noted that morning:

“Engaging with the world doesn’t just change the course of other people’s lives -– it may change the course of yours, too. You may just find that pivot point that you’ve been looking for, or maybe one that you didn’t even expect at all.”

To learn more about Michelle Obama’s speech, you can watch the speech on Youtube.

Cedric Hodgeman

UBELONG Co-Founder & Mentor

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