In November 1972, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf—then an up-and-coming assistant minister of finance in Liberia—returned to her old high school to deliver a graduation speech.
As she stood before the prospective graduates of the College of West Africa, Sirleaf gave a commencement address that was both nontraditional and life altering.
“Most graduation speeches are an opportunity to look back fondly on one’s days at a school, to commend the students for their achievement and extol their academic excellence before urging them to go out and do some vague, undefined good in the world,” she later wrote in her autobiography.
“But I was not interested in that.”
In lue of a traditional commencement address, Sirleaf criticized her government’s lack of urgency and inefficiency in bringing social change to the people of Liberia.
She also warned the graduates of the consequences of increasing economic stratification, imploring the graduates to reject materialism and seek national unity.
Sirleaf—who would eventually rise to the highest political office in her war-torn nation—later described this moment in her autobiography as “an important turning point, one at which I set my feet upon a path from which there was no turning back.”
On May 26, nearly forty years after that first pivotal graduation speech at her old high school, Liberian president Ellen Johnson Sirleaf will be the principal speaker at Harvard’s 360th Commencement.
BECOMING ‘MA ELLEN’
Born in Monrovia, Liberia in 1938, Sirleaf’s ascent to the presidency was never easy.
At the age of 17, she married James Sirleaf and moved with him to the United States to complete her education.
The couple would have four children and later divorced.
Sirleaf went on to earn an accounting degree from the University of Wisconsin and an economics degree from the University of Colorado at Boulder.
After returning to Liberia to work in government, Sirleaf would complete her formal education at the Harvard Kennedy School, where she was an Edward S. Mason Fellow.
Paulina Gonzalez-Pose, who is director of the Edward S. Mason Program at the Kennedy School, said she thinks Sirleaf’s government experience prepared her for the program.
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