A publication for the faculty, staff, administrators, and friends of California State University, Chico
May 14, 2009 Volume 39 / Number 6

  Photo of President Zingg behind his desk

From the President's Desk

Hope Is a Message and a Community

By so many measures—an overflow audience, community-wide excitement, and broad local support for his efforts to promote community-based education in Pakistan and Afghanistan—Greg Mortenson’s lecture in Laxson Auditorium on April 21 was, perhaps, the most anticipated and important chapter in the University’s Book in Common program. It was obvious that the selection of Mortenson’s book, Three Cups of Tea: One Man’s Mission to Fight Terrorism and Build Nations—One School at a Time, was a wonderful choice not only to support the University’s First-Year Experience Program, but also to promote engagement throughout our community with the issues it addresses and the message it delivers.

For this is a book that is more than an adventure story, as enthralling as it might be. It is a book with a powerful message. And its place on the New York Times bestseller list for over 100 weeks underscores that both the story and the message are compelling and inspiring.

The story has a simple outline. On an unsuccessful attempt in 1993 to summit K2, the world’s second highest mountain after Everest, as a tribute to his sister, who had died a few months earlier of epilepsy, Mortenson became disoriented and stumbled into a Pakistani village where he was nursed back to health. One of the first experiences he had in Korphe village as he began to find his strength and become familiar with his surroundings was encountering a large group of children sitting on the ground doing their school lessons. A young girl among them looked up at the stranger and asked him, “Could you help us build a school?” He promised that he would in gratitude to the kindness and care he encountered in the village, and the adventure began.

Sixteen years later, over the course of which he has made almost 40 trips to rural Pakistan and Afghanistan, built 78 schools, and established two nonprofit organizations to support his work, the Central Asia Institute and the Pennies for Peace program, Mortenson arrived in Chico to tell us his story. There are harrowing elements to it, to be sure, including his kidnapping, two fatwes (religious edicts) issued against him seeking to banish him from Pakistan, and hateful attacks from some in the United States who, particularly after Sept. 11, 2001, saw his work in that part of the world as treasonous. But underlying all of his work, and transcending a story of personal courage and resolve, is a message of hope. This is the key to understanding the success of his book and the triumph of his work.

An anecdote about the subtitle of the book reveals much about Mortenson and his vision. The subtitle in the paperback edition, which most of us have read, is “One Man’s Mission to Promote Peace … One School at a Time.” That was not the original subtitle in the hardback, first edition of the book. Contrary to his wishes, his editors chose another, namely, “One Man’s Mission to Fight Terrorism and Build Nations—One School at a Time.”

This is not a subtle distinction. Mortenson did not set out to fight terror, essentially an act motivated by fear, but to promote peace, an act grounded in hope. His focus on children, especially girls in societies where their education is vital to such matters as reducing infant mortality rates and influencing the values and outlook of subsequent generations, reflects his most fundamental belief that people will bring peace, not politics. This is a message as relevant for a village in the Hushe Valley of Pakistan as it is for a barrio in LA or a refugee camp in Uganda.

Mortenson’s book resonates with so many because it encourages people to realize that the notion that anyone can make a difference and the belief that there is hope through education are neither tired clichés nor archaic pieties. We at Chico State are motivated by such understandings every day. But it is nonetheless gratifying to find our work affirmed by someone who not only shares our mission, but champions it so beautifully in the eloquence of his words and actions.

Paul J. Zingg, President