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Remarks at Lafayette’s Scholarship Recognition Dinner. By Angel Mendez ’82

Angel Mendez, senior vice president, worldwide manufacturing, of Cisco Systems, Inc., spoke at Lafayette’s biennial Scholarship Recognition Dinner celebrating the close ties that develop between the alumni, parents, and friends who have created scholarships at Lafayette and the students who benefit from their generosity. Lafayette’s permanent endowment currently includes more than 400 named scholarships. More than half of Lafayette’s students receive assistance through the College’s scholarship program.

I want to thank Arlina [DeNardo, director of financial aid] and Dan [President Daniel H. Weiss] and the Marquis Society for this invitation. It’s truly an honor. I have the pleasure of speaking to you tonight on behalf of the donor community. In that role I want to accomplish two things in my speech tonight. First, I want to thank you for all your gifts. And, second, I want to share with you some perspectives on the importance and the impact of your generosity and the opportunity it creates.

We all ask ourselves the same questions, don’t we? How can we make the most positive difference? How can we help the most? One of the answers, I believe, is to create opportunity, and one of the best ways to create opportunity is to help a Lafayette education become available to young people who couldn’t otherwise afford it. This is life-changing and world-changing work that we’re all doing, and nothing less.

I can think of no better way to illustrate this than to tell you about my own experience as a Lafayette student and financial-aid recipient. I’m a product of opportunity. It’s something for which I’ll always be grateful.

I started my life as a refugee. I was born in Cuba, where my parents fled the Communist regime and brought me to Puerto Rico by way of Miami when I was five-years old. [Shows photo of Cuban passport.] To the best of my knowledge, I have the distinction of being the only Lafayette College trustee who is actually on parole! (The parolee status was given to all Cuban refugees at the time for bureaucratic reasons that I honestly still don’t understand.)

My family found a good but modest life in Puerto Rico, and I had a strong and loving upbringing, thanks to my parents. Neither of them had been to high school, never mind college, but they worked very hard to make a better life for me and our family. I never once felt poor around my parents, though looking back at those times now it is pretty clear that we accomplished a lot with very little.

I was encouraged to excel in school and sports. I was the youngest and smallest member of my neighborhood Little League team, although somehow I managed to hold a starting position at second base. I played baseball through high school and had big dreams, but at a very young age I was quite the realist. (I knew a Leopard college baseball career would not be in the cards. That much I was certain of.) It became clear pretty fast that I’d better focus on my studies. I had an interest and an aptitude in science and math in high school and I began to get on track for a technical and engineering career.

The life-changing event for me came when I made contact with Lafayette, which was proactively recruiting at my high school since the time I was a sophomore. Without Lafayette’s outreach, scholarship, support – and specifically without the help of Barry McCarty [retired director of financial aid], who’s here tonight – I never would have made it to Easton, and I can’t know for sure now what my path in life would have been. To Barry I will be eternally grateful. I will never forget how Barry and Pam took the time to teach me and a couple of other students from the islands how to barrel down a snowy Bethlehem hill for our first toboggan run. I learned something really important from the McCartys: it’s damn cold here in the winter.

But seriously, the real lesson learned from my friendship with Barry is that every single one of us can make a large impact. It’s hard not to look back with nostalgia on the days I spent at Lafayette as a much younger man: the opportunity I was discovering, the diversity of people I was meeting, and even the sharp changes of the seasons were all very new and exotic to me. But this is hardly a time for looking back.

The world is changing so incredibly fast now, and so much is happening right here at Lafayette to prepare students for a future that no one could imagine 20 or 30 years ago. As an executive in a global internet company, I work every day to keep pace with the opportunities that our technology helps create. The amazing advances in digital communications and technology, along with a global economy, are making the world smaller and more interconnected. Population and demographic trends are also driving economic and political change. Consider these facts:

China and India lead the U.S. in annual college graduates by more than six to one
By the year 2020, China will be the world’s largest English-speaking country
Six entirely new cities and 22 airports are now under construction in Saudi Arabia
India’s gross domestic product is growing at four times the rate of the United States
By 2010, the amount of technical information will double every two days
The English language has five times more words than in Shakespeare’s time, including words like webmaster, internet, and wiki
More than 230,000 people have signed up for today
A hundred million videos were watched on YouTube, and 50,000 more were added just today
Those of us in the business world are not the only ones to see the opportunity for growth and progress amid all this change. I want to recognize Dan for his leadership and a strategic plan that envisions a special role for Lafayette in meeting the truly unprecedented challenges that face all of our educational institutions today. It’s not just that education itself is more critical to the future of our children and our country than ever before. The strategic plan recognizes that we need to make changes in the education we provide.

First, we need to accent the global nature of knowledge. We need to expand our vision of what students need to know to contribute and compete in an interconnected and interdependent world. That means developing knowledge of languages, cultures, political and economic systems different from our own, as well as understanding the technology that is intimately tying different societies together.

Second, we need to promote diversity and make sure that a Lafayette education is available to anyone who qualifies academically. In a connected world, in a world where demographic trends are sometimes working against us, it’s absolutely critical that we expand educational opportunity to students representing all of the diverse cultures and life-experiences that you find within our society – even, perhaps, refugees on parole.

Which brings me back to my initial question. Providing opportunity and expanding opportunity across all segments of our society is one of the best things we can do. Many variables predict success. We can’t even start a journey without opportunity.

Let me give you one more example. A young woman from Vietnam named Ly Le, a junior here at Lafayette, recently wrote a thank-you letter to an alumnus who helps support her education. Let me share with you some excerpts:

Eager and determined as I was about my education in the United States, I was constantly worried about the funding needed to pursue a degree in the States. Just when the door of hope and opportunity was about to shut in front of my expectant eyes, I came across a list of liberal-arts colleges that are committed to providing generous financial aid to help international students open a new chapter in their lives, and Lafayette College was one of them. At Lafayette I’ve immersed myself in every opportunity I can grasp, to mature both academically and socially. Pursuing a degree in economics and business, I have had the opportunities to take not only challenging economics classes but also many other thought-provoking classes that spark my intellectual inquisitiveness. All my experiences have reassured me that the challenges, however daunting, always served to enrich my experiences and help me grow up more responsible, diligent, and proactive. It would have been impossible without your kindness and generosity. Once again I want to thank you for supporting the life and hope of not only a student, but also a generation of young student leaders who are the inspiration for a better world.

One more thing to say about the difference you make with your generosity. These kids we’re helping are the future heroes of a changing world. When I decided to start a scholarship named after my daughter, I did it mostly to give back to the College and to my community. Ly Le’s words make me realize that there’s a lot more at stake. As we look ahead to the future, her words also force us to ask a few tough questions of ourselves.

How can we lead better? How can we contribute? How can we make our college more relevant, more capable, and more distinctive? How can we provide opportunities to others, so that they can, in turn, experience the joys?

The challenge is the inspiration, the appreciation, and the knowledge to change the world. If we can answer these questions, as I’m sure we can, the returns for us as individuals and for all of us in the Lafayette College community, will simply be magnificent.

Once again I want to say thanks to Dan and Arlina and the entire donor community. I want to thank Lafayette College for the opportunity provided to me and to so many others. Thank you for helping us not just change the world, but change it for the better.

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