WuDunn: For own sake, make empathy a priority

Sheryl WuDunn tells Rice graduates that sharing, caring are the real measures of success

Sheryl WuDunn implored the Rice community to appreciate the value of empathy not only for those they can help but also for the good they do themselves at the university’s 103rd commencement May 14 in the Academic Quad.

Sheryl WuDunn

Sheryl WuDunn presented Rice’s 2016 commencement address. (Photo by Tommy LaVergne)

The former New York Times reporter won a Pulitzer Prize in 1990 with her husband, Times columnist Nicholas Kristof, for their coverage of the democracy movement in China and its aftermath. After leaving the Times, where she also served as a business executive, she turned to banking and raises capital for entrepreneurs in new media, media technology, health care and social enterprises.

But her passion, one she has relayed time and again as an in-demand speaker, is for raising consciousness about the issues faced by oppressed people not only in developing countries but in America as well. Her concerns are reflected in four books co-authored with Kristof, including the best-selling “Half the Sky: Turning Oppression Into Opportunity for Women Worldwide” in 2009.

Three graduates make the Owl sign.

Rice’s newest alumni display their Owl sign. (Photo by Tommy LaVergne)

WuDunn told the graduates that no matter how well their education has prepared them for the world, they will continually face uncomfortable compromises.

“We have to get our priorities right and figure out what we care most about,” said WuDunn, now a senior managing director for Mid-Market Securities and co-founder of FullSky Capital. “Trade-offs will come in all shapes and sizes and often they will sneak up on you. Some will be small: I work the weekend, and it will get me a promotion. Some will be larger: I move overseas for a job, a great job, but I leave family and friends behind.

Three students excited after graduating

Graduates celebrate after commencement. (Photo by Tommy LaVergne)

“Or harder. Do you fire a good friend to save your company? Some will test your mettle. I’d like to see how you would have handled a challenge that my husband and I encountered when we first arrived in China.”

WuDunn told of befriending a Chinese national. “Let’s call him Hongjun,” she said. “We had a mutual friend who had been put in prison, and so one day my husband and I were speaking with Hongjun, and we asked gently about this mutual friend.

“Hongjun’s ears perked up and he said, ‘Did you know him well? Did you see him often?’ His inquisition put me on guard.”

President David Leebron

President David Leebron welcomed students and their families and guests to commencement. (Photo by Tommy LaVergne)

WuDunn later learned from another acquaintance that Hongjun was a spy for Chinese state security. “‘Don’t trust him with any information,’ the acquaintance said. ‘He’s been asking about a book that you are writing.’

“Well, we hadn’t told anyone about our book. Only someone tapping our phones would’ve known about it. Then a few months later Hongjun asked us to write a recommendation for a prestigious fellowship at an American university. Not Rice, I’ll have you know.

“Here’s the dilemma. If we refused, Hongjun might then figure out that our mutual friend had tattled on him being a spy. Our friend would get in trouble. Yet should we really help send a Chinese spy to America?”

Their solution, she recalled, was to write a muted letter of recommendation and later call the university “when we knew our phones weren’t tapped” to explain their suspicions. “Not surprisingly, he didn’t get the fellowship, and we betrayed someone we had considered a friend.”

It occurred to WuDunn that going abroad may have been Hongjun’s way to break free from the shackles of China security. “It doesn’t sit well with me, still, after all these years,” she said.

“Here’s what I want to suggest,” she said. “In navigating these tradeoffs, you make empathy one of your priorities. That is, thinking of others. Getting into their heads. Their struggles. And maybe even helping them.

Professor Keith Cooper '78, chief marshal for commencement

Keith Cooper is stepping down as chief marshal for commencement after nine years of service in the role and 10 commencement ceremonies. He reflects on his favorite commencement memories here. (Photo by Tommy LaVergne)

“It doesn’t mean when you deal with matters of the heart, like empathy, that you should neglect your head, either. By all means, keep that on. This is not a recipe for being exploited.”

WuDunn said she recognizes that progress has been made. “The world is becoming a much better place … during even your young lifetimes so far. Less poverty, less child and maternal mortality, more widespread education, less violence. But there is still injustice. Unfairness. Brutality. Don’t forget to lend your ear, your mind, your resources to the less lucky in this world.”

She said accomplishments and acquisitions only bring so much satisfaction. “At that point, happiness is more about your interactions with others and how you help those who need it. That’s where empathy comes in and becomes altruism.

“Ah, you think that empathy, altruism, it’s all for sissies. All you macho men and women out there, think of the people whom you like and whom you are drawn to and ask why. They probably showed some kindness to you, went out of their way to explain something to you. Helped you navigate a difficulty in some way. Even possibly saved you from some harm. That is altruism.

Four graduating students walk out of the Sallyport arm in arm.

Exiting the Sallyport after commencement is a Rice tradition. (Photo by Tommy LaVergne)

“There’s also a lot of research in neuroscience, in social psychology, in economics about the roots of happiness,” she said. “And the funny thing is, if you want to be happier, one of the simplest ways to pursue that is to help others.

“When you feel a little down, go help someone,” WuDunn concluded. “It’s called a ‘helper’s high.’ Contributing to a cause larger than yourself is one of the few things that can elevate our set point for happiness and bring happiness into our lives.

“Skeptics know that we may not be able to solve the problems of global poverty or climate change or injustice or space colonization. Fair enough. But we can help individuals. And that’s a legitimate way of changing the world. It’s also a way of changing you.” (A video of the commencement address is available online.)

Rice President David Leebron presented the 2016 Sheryl WuDunn Commencement Award for Social Justice to Anne Wells, who earned a bachelor’s degree in Latin American studies and premedicine. The award is presented to the graduating student whose work best serves the humanitarian issues represented by the speaker. (Read more about Wells in Rice News.)

fireworks display with students in commencement robes watching.

Fireworks concluded the undergraduate convocation Friday night in the Academic Quad. (Photo by Jeff Fitlow)

Jazz Silva, past president of the Student Association, and Lynn Fahey, past president of the Graduate Student Association, also addressed the gathering about their time at Rice.

Rice conferred 1,952 degrees to 1,897 students, some of whom claimed double or triple majors, including 965 recipients of undergraduate or undergraduate professional degrees and 932 recipients of master’s or Ph.D. degrees. Separate ceremonies were held May 13 to individually recognize the recipients of bachelor’s, master’s, doctoral and business degrees, and then all degrees were conferred during the plenary commencement May 14 in the Academic Quad.

(Photos by Jeff Fitlow and Tommy LaVergne)

About Mike Williams

Mike Williams is a senior media relations specialist in Rice University's Office of Public Affairs.