Inauguration guests speak informally with students

For Wheaton College students, the plethora of special guests at the inauguration of President Dennis M. Hanno on Friday meant the opportunity to speak and engage with leaders and experts from around the world.

At two special events taking place after the inauguration ceremony and luncheon, students got the chance to hear more from two distinguished guests: first, from Senator Joe Donnelly, D-Indiana, and later from Deogratias “Deo” Niyizonkiza, this year’s recipient of the Otis Social Justice Award.

A small group of politically minded students gathered in the Holman Room of Mary Lyon Hall at 2:30 p.m. to hear more from Donnelly, a former college roommate of Hanno’s. Through a forum moderated by the Roosevelt Institute and its president, Sarah Estrela ’15, the Indiana senator answered questions on topics ranging from college affordability to sex education in schools.

Donnelly also emphasized the difference between public perception and workplace reality when it came to congressional performance.

“The large majority of the Senate is right in the middle,” said Donnelly, insisting that the vast majority of U.S. senators are not, in fact, spewing the rhetoric we see every day on television, but instead working towards common sense, middle-ground solutions.

Donnelly expressed faith in the effect that citizens can have on the electoral process. The senator noted the primary question that we ask now when the public elects its leaders is, “can you help us be better?” 

Refuting the cynical but increasingly conventional view, especially among members of his party, Donnelly argued that voters — not big businesses and banks — have the most influence in the policymaking process, noting that he would not base policy on the needs of a big bank if it meant ignoring the owners of his hometown bank, who elected him in the first place.

Donnelly also encouraged the students present to get involved in the political process, noting that ascension within political fields is often just a matter of showing up.

“If you get involved,” said Donnelly, “you organically move up very quickly, because there is a desperate need for talent on both sides.” 

Later that afternoon, Niyizonkiza’s discussion attracted students interested in public health, the primary field in which Niyizonkiza works. In 2006, he kick-started Village Health Works, an independent and community-driven health clinic in Kigutu, Burundi.

A theme of Niyizonkiza’s various speeches throughout the day was the idea that we are all members of humanity and thus have a duty to protect and care for one another, something not evidenced by much of the history of his birth country of Burundi, which has been plagued by the ethnic conflict and genocide. 

Part of Niyizonkiza work, he said, has been to help these differing people realize communal interests, like public health.

When asked how he overcame the often-overwhelming nature of his work, he emphasized the importance of not losing the focus of the goals one is trying to achieve.

“When you save one person’s life, that life is going to save a family,” Niyizonkiza said. “And that family will save a village, and that village will save a nation, and that nation will save the world.”

“Convince yourself nothing is impossible,” he added, noting that the difference people can make at a small, local level is really quite a large one.

“Let us remember … we are all members of humanity and [let us] act,” said Niyizonkiza.

Niyizonkiza was awarded the Otis Social Justice Award earlier that afternoon. For more on the award and Niyizonkiza’s speech, flip to Page 6 for Features Editor Alexandra Natale’s ’16 rundown.