Rita Markley – Champlain College Distinguished Citizen of 2013
Champlain College Convocation, August 23, 2013
COTS Executive Director Rita Markley’s keynote address
(Champlain College has honored Rita with the 2013 Distinguished Citizen Award.)
I am so honored to receive this award and be here with you today.
(And what a great occasion excuse to wear these fabulous oversized sunglasses. Just in case you’re wondering, I did not inherit these from Jackie Onassis. I know how rumors get started so I thought I’d clear that up … I had eye surgery a few weeks ago, and these shades are required for another three weeks.)
This recognition is especially meaningful to me because it’s being presented by President Finney, whom I admire greatly, and because Champlain College sets such a high bar for civic engagement. Time and again, this college has played a pivotal leadership role in addressing the most critical challenges in our community.
During the worst of the Great Recession, when the economy was in a tailspin and the number of homeless families was skyrocketing beyond all precedent, we turned to Champlain College for help. Our emergency shelters were full, and there was no place left to go, no refuge, for the most vulnerable.
As winter approached that year and the nights turned cold, there were families living in cars, abandoned buildings and tents along the Intervale. Children were getting ready for school from gas station bathrooms along Shelburne Road. They were doing their homework by flashlight in the backseats of station wagons. We had no precedent for the enormity of this sudden, dire need.
So, we asked Champlain College to give us a building – and oh, by the way, we need it to be really big –to use as overflow shelter until the crisis abated. An outlandish request, right? And I made it without hesitation.
That’s what distinguishes this institution and this community from so many other college towns. It wouldn’t dawn on me not to reach out to Champlain or to pick up the phone and call President Finney. But that’s unusual.
Most academic institutions would form a study committee to consider such a request, carefully assessing the risks and the liability involved. There would be lawyers and reams of paper shuffled back and forth. And 63 vulnerable homeless children would have suffered inhumanly bitter nights that winter without a safe, warm refuge.
Champlain College understood immediately what was at stake, and there was no dithering; within a week, we had a positive answer. Instead of viewing the loan of the building, which was large, to COTS as a burden, the college reached out with technical assistance on permitting and navigating red tape with Burlington, AND offers to create internships for early education and social work majors to help us at the new overflow shelter.
I think that’s one of the features that uniquely characterize Champlain College: the view that service is not just an obligation (of responsible citizens) but a vital part of learning. Champlain also embodies the understanding that meaningful civic engagement sometimes involves taking chances; it often means saying yes when it would be much easier to walk the other way.
Even more broadly, though, Champlain College has greatly enhanced the economic and social vitality of this community by identifying emerging trends and work-force needs, by launching cutting-edge programs in everything from game design to digital forensics, and by partnering with a broad range of business and nonprofits to pursue strategic opportunities that benefit all of us.
I want to congratulate you, the incoming freshman class, for becoming part of an institution with such a uniquely entwined history of excellence, innovation, and service.
Please take time in the next few weeks to consider how you will carry this legacy of service and innovation forward.
When you are listening to graduation speeches four years from now, what will you want to remember about your experience here?
You have an extraordinary opportunity to be part of shaping a better world, a world where everyone has the chance to reach their fullest potential regardless of race, gender, religion or income.
Cheers to you all for being accepted to Champlain College! This is your time; embrace every moment.
I wish you the very best in creating a future full of infinite promise, greater balance, and deeper connection. No small order, eh?
And, here’s another thing: Do not be afraid to shake up the world, to ask the questions that nobody has the guts to ask. And, be kind — be kind to each other. Take the time to be kind.
Thank you so much for this award and for celebrating community.
I hope see a lot of at COTS in September.