Each June, the Stanford president stands before a sea of capped-and-gowned graduates and struggles to find something inspiring to say as our best and brightest minds march off into the world. Commencement speeches, of course, are the subject of much ridicule, with the only universal consensus being that shorter is better.
But if the truth is told, delivering commencement remarks is an awesome responsibility, precisely because it comes at a critical moment in people’s lives and such moments should never be squandered. When I became president three years ago, I wrestled with the question of what I could possibly say to adequately discharge that responsibility. Over time, though, I have found the answer to that question was simpler than I first imagined. What better way to consider the possibilities and responsibilities of our graduates than to talk about a Stanford alumnus or alumna who has exemplified the exhortation I always give students: “Make a difference.”
In June 2002, I talked about the late John Gardner, ’33, MA ’36, an educator and social activist whose work improved the lives of millions of Americans. Last month, I talked about a Stanford alumna whose life was much shorter than John Gardner’s but who shared his passion for life and commitment to improving the world.
Amy Biehl was a member of the Class of 1989, a student in international relations. Four years after she graduated, she traveled to South Africa on a Fulbright scholarship to help develop voter education programs. She was only 26 but had already spent time throughout Africa. Amy was in Cape Town to study women’s roles in the creation of a new constitution for the post-apartheid society. After completing her work there, she planned to return to the United States to pursue a doctorate in African affairs.
On August 25, 1993, after driving friends home outside of Cape Town, Amy was attacked in her car and killed by four young men (see Red All Over). It was a tragic loss for her family and friends, for the Stanford community and for South Africa. But as tragic as her death was, that is only part of Amy’s story. When I spoke to the new graduates last month, I told them why, 10 years later, we still remember Amy Biehl.
By all accounts, Amy was not someone you could easily forget. Once she set her mind on a goal, she would not be deterred. Studying at Stanford was one of her goals. Amy set her sights on Stanford as a youngster living in Palo Alto. Her family moved to Santa Fe, N.M., and many years passed; but when the offer of admission came, Amy proudly accepted.
While she was at Stanford, Amy discovered a love for the music and dance of Africa and, consequently, a love for its people. She completed an honors thesis on the negotiations for Namibian independence.
After graduating from Stanford, Amy worked for the National Democratic Institute for International Affairs (NDI) in Washington, D.C., where she became interested in women’s rights. With the support of her Fulbright scholarship, she headed for South Africa. Former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, who had worked with Amy at NDI, remembered her in a church service in Cape Town:
In truth, the way that Amy lived her life just as much as the way that she lost her life gave that life special meaning. She believed that all people have value; that the disadvantaged have special claim on the lives of the more fortunate; and that racial justice and racial harmony were ideals worth fighting for and living for and, if need be, dying for.
Ten years have passed since Amy’s death, but her legacy continues. In 1994, her parents, Linda and Peter Biehl, established the Amy Biehl Foundation in the United States. Its sister organization, the Amy Biehl Foundation Trust, followed three years later in South Africa. These institutions have initiated numerous educational and empowerment programs to help young people, families and communities in South Africa develop their potential. In 1998, two Fulbright scholarships were named in Amy’s honor: one for a South African graduate student to pursue study in the United States, the other for an American to study in South Africa.
Amy Biehl’s story exemplifies the Stanford spirit. She demonstrated great personal vision, extraordinary perseverance and remarkable bravery. She embraced life with vitality and love. And she reminds us all that a Stanford education is a precious gift that can be put to work to make the world a better place to live.