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Public Service--a Stanford Tradition

Eunice Kennedy Shriver exemplified the drive to make a difference.

Photo: Glenn Matsumura

By John Hennessy

Fifty years ago, children with disabilities were not welcomed in summer camps and had few opportunities for growth and development. Today, approximately 3 million people in 180 countries train and compete in the Special Olympics. Those changes in attitudes and opportunities are the result of a worldwide movement pioneered by one woman: Eunice Kennedy Shriver, '44.

Public service—working to make a difference—is a Stanford tradition. Indeed, Stanford was founded as an act of public service: After the death of their only child, Jane and Leland Stanford sought to transform their personal grief and help other people's children. Among the stated purposes, the University was "to promote the public welfare by exercising an influence on behalf of humanity and civilization."

That charge has shaped Stanford, and in recent years, the University has sought ways to heighten awareness and to formalize and expand the range of opportunities.

Each year, as I welcome our newest graduates into the ranks of alumni, I have made it a Commencement tradition to recognize a member of our community who exemplifies the Stanford spirit. This year, that distinguished alumna was the late Eunice Kennedy Shriver.

Eunice Kennedy came to Stanford as a transfer student in 1941, the same year her sister Rosemary was institutionalized. Her deep affection for Rosemary inspired Shriver's lifework. She believed that children with intellectual disabilities had much to offer, and she became their champion. After she established the Special Olympics in 1968, Chicago Mayor Richard Daley said, "Eunice, the world will never be the same." And it has not. Shriver opened doors for people with disabilities and transformed attitudes throughout the world.

She was just one of our many alumni, faculty and students who have demonstrated a passion for service. This year two students received Dinkelspiel Awards for Distinctive Contributions to Undergraduate Education in recognition of their public service. Alisha Tara Tolani, '10, a founding member of the Coalition to End Violence Against Women, was recognized for her many contributions to the health of our student community. Karen Patricia Warner, '10, played a key role in organizing the 2009 Stanford Service Summit, as well as advancing the efforts of the Haas Center for Public Service, FACE AIDS and Dance Marathon.

This year is also the 25th anniversary of the Haas Center for Public Service at Stanford. After a quarter-century, its reach is global, encompassing innovative campus and community partnerships. The number of courses with a public service component has increased from 17 to almost 400, in anthropology, civil and environmental engineering, earth systems, economics, education, medicine, public policy and urban studies. In the past few years, the Haas Center has broadened its reach to embrace a wide variety of international service-learning opportunities, offering students firsthand experience with the challenges faced by communities outside the United States.

Stanford also leads in social entrepreneurship. This past year at the Hasso Plattner Institute of Design, for example, Joshua Cohen, the Marta Sutton Weeks Professor of Ethics in Society and professor of political science, philosophy and law, co-taught with Terry Winograd, professor of computer science, a course with the interesting title Designing Liberation Technologies. The course focused on ways to use information technology (primarily low-cost cell phones) to improve the health of poor people in Kenya. The Stanford team collaborated with the University of Nairobi and the Nokia Research Center Nairobi to develop six new applications that assist people in finding clean water, getting health-care advice and accessing other health services. There are not many universities where an ethics professor and a computer science professor are teaching courses on technology creation for the developing world, but it does happen at Stanford.

Faculty members often inspire students. For 30 years, Paul Wise, pediatrics professor and senior fellow at the Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies, has worked to improve health care for the people of Guatemala. This summer Stanford medical students and undergraduates chosen by FSI joined Wise in San Lucas Tolimán. As he explained to Stanford Report, "It takes the students about three minutes to figure out the health problems we're seeing are diseases of poverty." For student perspectives and insights on the challenges of delivering medical care in a developing country, I encourage you to read the FSI blog.

These are just a few of the many ways the Stanford community is working to address the world's social problems. Just as Eunice Kennedy Shriver changed people's attitudes by showing them what is possible, so too can we. It is the Stanford way.

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