"Politics is not what brings peace," said Greg Mortenson, founder of the Central Asia Institute that has built 61 schools in remote and mountainous regions of Pakistan and Afghanistan and co-author of the New York Times Bestseller "Three Cups of Tea," about his courageous journey. "People bring peace. And one of the most important things we can do to bring peace is to educate all children."
"If you fight terrorism, that is based on fear, but if you fight illiteracy, it is founded on hope," Mortenson said.
Mortenson, who lives just a few blocks from MSU, was the invited speaker to the university's first-ever freshmen convocation. MSU Provost David Dooley, who introduced Mortenson, told the crowd of more than 1,000 who gathered in the MSU Fieldhouse for the event that Mortenson was selected for his heroic story and his dedication to education.
"(Mortenson's) life is about ... the value of education and that one person can really make a difference, even in a world with more than a billion people," Dooley said.
Mortenson said that his journey, which has garnered notice in Parade Magazine and countless media outlets in recent years, was rooted in failure more than a decade ago. Mortenson, who has degrees in both chemistry and nursing, was an avid mountaineer who vowed to summit K2 in Pakistan in 1993 honor of his beloved and late sister, Christa. But instead of summiting the famous peak, he ended up lost, exhausted and wandering in a remote region of Pakistan where he was helped by a Pakistani porter from the small village of Korphe.
"It is said that only when it is dark enough can one see the stars," Mortenson said, quoting a proverb often referred to during his speech. "Failure is not the end of the world. It can be the beginning, because I felt as if I had failed."
While in Korphe, where one out of three children die before their third birthday and literacy is about two percent, Mortenson promised a group of children that he would return and build a school. A broke emergency room nurse, Mortenson had no training in how to raise money nor how to build a school, but three years later the school in Korphe was dedicated through Mortenson's efforts. In ensuing years Mortenson and his organization have raised millions and built 61 schools in the remote area of Muslim Central Asia.
"You start small and plant seeds of hope, one seed at a time, one penny at a time," Mortenson said. He said his organization provides free resources and materials, but members of the recipient communities provide sweat equity and coordination.
Mortenson said the resulting schools, particularly schools that are for girls, are important tools to fight terrorism.
"If you educate a boy, you educate a person. If you educate girls, you educate a community," Mortenson said.
Mortenson added that the Taliban recently has destroyed 260 schools in the area, mostly girls schools, because the Taliban believes "ideologically it's better to control people through illiteracy."
"You can't have democracy unless you have education and land ownership," Mortenson said.
Returning to the proverb about darkness enabling one to see the light of stars, Mortenson guaranteed that the students at the convocation would all have dark times during their years of education.
"But you will see the star, and you are the star," he said. He encouraged the students to take care of themselves during their education, to seek counseling, spiritual and physical help when they needed it from the resources available.
"Go out and change the world," Mortenson said. "And go Bobcats."
Following Mortenson's speech, Jake and Jenni Fleming, recording artists and MSU graduates teamed up with Mortenson's young daughter, Amira, and the Bozeman Children's Chorus to sing "Three Cups of Team," a song written by Jake Fleming that was inspired by Mortenson.
MSU President Geoff Gamble told those at the convocation that statistics show that one-third of entering freshmen won't graduate.
"I challenge you to change that statistic," Gamble said. "Embrace the opportunities that are available to you. Risk failure to achieve beyond your dreams. Dare to make a difference for someone else."
ASMSU President Tegan Molloy, a fifth-year senior from Littleton, Colo., also addressed the group, detailing opportunities available through the Associated Students of Montana State University. Molloy quoted Haji Ali, the headman in the town of Korphe that Mortenson said taught him life's most important lesson.
"Slow down and make building relationships as important as projects," Molloy said.
The MSU Office of the Provost, Vice President for Student Affairs, the MSU Leadership Institute, ASMSU and the MSU Alumni Association sponsored MSU's inaugural convocation.
Greg Young: (406) 994-6057, firstname.lastname@example.org