“If your dreams do not scare you, they are not big enough,” Liberian President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf said during a speech at the Gonzaga University Presidential Speaker series last Sunday. Whitworth students who attended the event held at the McCarthey Athletic Center said they were profoundly impacted by her words.
“I think when you have someone like her who’s done a lot of great things and especially being who she is...being the first female head of state in Africa, being a Nobel Peace Prize winner-these are things that are amazing and that people should aspire to,” junior political science major James Eccles said. “I think people are more likely to be inspired to aspire to those things if they meet her face to face. I think that’s incredibly important.”
Sirleaf’s perspective on Africa impacted senior communication major Addy Koneval, she said.
“She told this intricate and interesting narrative about West Africa that’s different than our preconceptions about what Africa is,” Koneval said.
“If asked to describe my homeland in a sentence, I might say something like this: Liberia is a wonderful, beautiful, mixed-up country struggling mightily to find itself,” Sirleaf wrote in her autobiography, “This Child Will Be Great: Memoir of a Remarkable Life by Africa’s First Woman President.”
One of the struggles Liberia has faced is with the 2014 Ebola outbreak that infected over 10,000 people and killed nearly 5,000 in Liberia, according to the Center for Disease Control.
People were confused, frightened and did not know what to do against an enemy that they couldn’t see, hide from or understand, Sirleaf said.
The initial lack of response from other countries to come to West Africa’s aid prompted Sirleaf to write a letter to the world, asking for help.
“It is the duty of all of us, as global citizens, to send a message that we will not leave millions of West Africans to fend for themselves against an enemy that they do not know, and against whom they have little defense,” Sirleaf said. “The time for talking or theorizing is over. Only concerted action will save my country, and our neighbors, from experiencing another national tragedy.”
The president’s perspective on the Ebola crisis in Liberia and West Africa as a whole, specifically the involvement of the United States in the crisis impacted Eccles, he said.
“We turned our back on West Africa and didn’t really care about it until it seemed like it might affect us personally and I think that is a dangerous, dangerous mindset to have in the world that we live in today,” Eccles said. “I think it’s important to hear someone that was there experiencing that firsthand to say, ‘Hey, where were you? This is a global community and you’re a part of it. You should be doing better.’”
During her speech, Sirleaf reminded the crowd that although she is many things, the first female president to ever be democratically elected in any African nation, a Nobel Peace Prize winner, an avid advocate for women’s rights, education and peace, she is also a grandmother and that has an impact on her presidency.
“I like that she draws on the strength of being a grandmother to run the country,” senior history and Spanish major Hannah Tweet said.
“She started out as a mother of four. Her grandmothers on both sides spent their entire lives illiterate. Her mother was the first one in her family that was literate, but she still worked an incredibly hard life of labor,” Eccles said. “For her to rise above that, I think is a pretty profound message: that people should get involved and don’t let perceived barriers prevent you from doing so.”
Liberia celebrates 12 years of peace this year, Sirleaf said. When asked about her excitement for the future of Liberia, Sirleaf said that she hopes for world peace, “a peace that allows human dignity to prevail.”
Sirleaf has been abused, imprisoned and exiled, according to her autobiography. During her imprisonment, she did not know whether she would live or die, Sirleaf said.
“The way that she downplayed her personal trials, like going to prison, is a testament to the strength and resilience she has,” Tweet said.
What mainly resonated with students is her advice about dreams, the same advice she gave to Harvard students during her commencement address in 2011.
“I think her closing comments that if your dream doesn’t scare you, then you’re not dreaming big enough... means that the barriers that scare us should not stop us,” Eccles said.
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