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U.S. Sen. Russ Feingold
Delivers ‘Charge to the Class’

 MAILED:  Dec. 20, 2003

EAU CLAIRE — U.S. Sen. Russ Feingold challenged University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire graduates Saturday to seek out and connect with people from around the world, helping to define and shape the current and future world.

“I am not suggesting that you all launch careers as diplomats,” Feingold told UW-Eau Claire graduates Saturday morning. “But I am suggesting that you all make a deliberate choice to engage with some part of the rest of the world, in some way, beyond our borders, at the individual, human level.

“Build a society of Americans that does not turn away from the challenges of this new millennium in fear, but instead reaches out to help build a more secure, more just world.”

Feingold, whose daughter, Jessica, graduated from UW-Eau Claire in May, delivered the “Charge to the Class” during UW-Eau Claire’s morning commencement ceremony Saturday in Zorn Arena. About 650 candidates for graduation participated in the morning and afternoon ceremonies.

America needs more people committed to reaching out across political boundaries, to communities of different cultures and to communities of different faiths, Feingold said, noting that support for the U.S. in much of the world, and in most of the Muslim world, is in “dangerous decline.”

“Your challenge in this new era is to personally and collectively engage with the wider world, to turn that mistrust into understanding, to show the people of the world who Americans really are,” Feingold said, adding that if Americans don’t work to define themselves to the people of the world, the terrorists and their supporters will continue to try to make America a scapegoat for other nation’s ills.

Feingold said he supported the U.S. war in Afghanistan and efforts to destroy the al Qaeda terrorist network. But the nation must go beyond military engagements and foreign policy choices, he said, noting that Americans must take action that is based on hope, not fear.

“Our students and our scholars, our businessmen and women, our artists and our doctors and our nurses are all ambassadors when they go abroad, and each of them can teach and learn from others in their travels,” Feingold said.

The Senator said when he was young he was inspired by President John F. Kennedy’s challenge to “Ask not what your country can do for you — ask what you can do for your country.”

“Many young Americans of my generation answered President Kennedy’s call to service by joining the newly formed Peace Corps, traveling abroad to work and live in foreign lands and to build bridges of understanding and goodwill,” Feingold said. “Decades later, I have been struck by the lasting impact that this organization, and the young people who have fueled it, have had around the world.”

“Peace Corps volunteers reach across the political and cultural divide, connecting with people as individuals,” Feingold said, noting that while traveling in Tanzania he was impressed by the overwhelming enthusiasm Tanzanian legislators had for the Peace Corps. “(Peace Corps volunteers) treat others with respect by learning about their cultures and their lives, and they put a human face on America, which would otherwise be simply a distant powerful land. They help dissolve resentment against our country that might flourish in their absence.”

But the Peace Corps is just one way young Americans can make a difference in world relations, Feingold said. It was young Americans who in the 1980s initiated and supported the anti-apartheid movement, eventually becoming a political force that Congress could not ignore, he said. The powerful grassroots movement pushed Congress to act, and Congress responded by passing the Comprehensive Anti-Apartheid Act and eventually overriding a presidential veto of those actions, he said.

“The young Americans who fought apartheid took the time to acquaint themselves with inspirational figures like Bishop Tutu and Nelson Mandela — and they convinced their government, which joined an international coalition in pressuring South Africa, and thereby helped to change the world,” Feingold said.

Young Americans also had a hand in ending the Cold War, Feingold said. “After decades of tensions, it was efforts like student and cultural exchanges that helped to build renewed trust and understanding between these two countries,” he said.

“It is these human connections that can help to make a difference between fear and trust, between propaganda and honest dialogue, between desperation and hope, and finally, between insecurity and stability,” Feingold said. “At no time in history have we ever needed these connections more.

“So I ask all of you to make these connections in your own way. Every time you seek out the voices of people from different cultures, you show your respect for them and their way of life. Whether you travel abroad, or decide to learn a new language, or simply go to a museum to learn more about other cultures, yours is an act of respect for others, a gesture of goodwill, a reaffirmation of what is best in our national character.”


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 Judy Berthiaume, Director
UW-Eau Claire News Bureau
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Updated: December 22, 2003