Pulitzer Prize winners encourage audience to seek 'solutions for change'

Elon University’s Fall Convocation and Baird Pulitzer Prize Lecture on Oct. 2, 2014, featured Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn, husband-and-wife journalists who shared ways for people to make a difference in battling global challenges like poverty, sex trafficking and lack of educational opportunities.

It’s easy to feel helpless in the face of the world’s greatest problems.

No single person is going to solve poverty or income inequality. No single person is going to stop terrible diseases that sweep through impoverished regions. And as two of the most accomplished journalists of their generation acknowledged on Thursday in a visit to Elon University, no single person is going to expand educational opportunities to all children.

That doesn’t mean individuals can’t take action, they said, even if it’s nothing more than volunteering in their communities, making small donations to reputable charities, or simply advocating for change.

For Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn, the first husband-and-wife team to win a Pulitzer Prize and authors of the new “A Path Appears: Transforming Lives, Creating Opportunity,” too many avenues exist for those who are privileged to make excuses for not addressing social ills.

“There are so many ways to engage in a cause that are not about writing checks,” Kristof said during Elon University’s Fall Convocation in Alumni Gym.  “They’re about volunteering. They’re about advocacy. You do have those tools.”

Kristof and WuDunn headlined a program that offered an opportunity to share more about their critically acclaimed book, “A Path Appears,” which is the foundation of a four-hour series of the same name scheduled to broadcast this winter on PBS.

“One of the central axioms of life these days is that talent is universal but opportunity is not,” Kristof said.

Over the course of an hour, the couple examined statistics on global income inequality, discussed research into early childhood education, and explained how just a few dollars can improve or even save the lives of people in impoverished nations confronting life-threatening diseases.

“The greatest inequality isn’t really in money. It’s in opportunity,” said WuDunn, who also praised the students, faculty and staff involved with Elon University’s Center for Access and Success, which the couple visited prior to Convocation. “That’s what we talk about in ‘A Path Appears.’”

WuDunn explained how she and Kristof chose the name for their book based on a quote from Chinese essayist Lu Xun. “Hope is like a path in the countryside. At first there is nothing, but as more people walk back and forth, a path appears,” WuDunn said. “It’s about solutions for change, making a difference. Each of us has the capacity to make a difference in the world.”

Kristof and WuDunn won a 1990 Pulitzer Prize for their New York Times coverage of China’s Tiananmen Square democracy movement and have co-authored three best-selling books: “Half the Sky: Turning Oppression into Opportunity for Women Worldwide”; “China Wakes: The Struggle for the Soul of a Rising Power”; and “Thunder from the East: Portrait of a Rising Asia.”

The visit was a return to Elon for Kristof, who was the keynote speaker at Spring Convocation in 2010 when the university installed its chapter of Phi Beta Kappa, the nation’s oldest and most prestigious academic honor society.

The Pulitzer Prizes, awarded annually since 1917, are the nation’s most prestigious awards in journalism and the liberal arts. The Baird Pulitzer Prize Lecture Series brings recipients to campus each year with guests who have included David McCullough, Dave Barry, George Will, Anna Quindlen, Thomas Friedman, Taylor Branch, David Halberstam and Maureen Dowd.

The Baird Pulitzer Prize Lecture Series was made possible in 2001 with an endowed gift from James H. and Jane M. Baird of Burlington, N.C., who were the first presidents of the Elon Parents Council. Their son, Macon, is a 1987 Elon graduate and their son-in-law, Michael Hill, earned his Elon degree in 1989.

Kristof is often called the “reporter’s reporter” for his human rights advocacy. He won his second Pulitzer in 2006 for what the judges called “his graphic, deeply reported columns that, at personal risk, focused attention on genocide in Darfur and that gave voice to the voiceless in other parts of the world.”

Kristof graduated from Harvard College with Phi Beta Kappa honors and won a Rhodes Scholarship to Oxford to study law. He later studied Arabic in Cairo, Chinese in Taipei, and Japanese in Tokyo. Kristof has lived on four continents, reported on six, and traveled to more than 150 countries. During his travels, he has caught malaria, experienced wars, confronted warlords, encountered an Indonesian mob carrying heads on pikes, and survived an African airplane crash.

After joining The New York Times in 1984, Kristof served as a correspondent in Los Angeles, Hong Kong, Beijing and Tokyo. He has covered presidential politics, interviewed everyone from President Obama to Iranian President Ahmadinejad, and was the first blogger on The New York Times website.

WuDunn, the first Asian-American reporter to win a Pulitzer Prize, is today a business executive and best-selling author. She currently works with entrepreneurs in new media, media technology and social enterprise at a small investment banking boutique in New York City. She also runs TripleEdge, which focuses on socially driven investing.

In addition to the Pulitzer Prize and the Dayton Literary Peace Prize for Lifetime Achievement, WuDunn has won other journalism prizes, including the George Polk Award and Overseas Press Club awards. She received a White House Project EPIC award, the Asian Women in Business Corporate Leadership Award, the Pearl S. Buck Woman of the Year Award, and the Harriet Beecher Stowe Prize, among numerous other awards.

WuDunn earned an M.P.A. from Princeton University’s Woodrow Wilson School and an M.B.A. from Harvard Business School. She graduated from Cornell University, where she was a member of the Board of Trustees from 2002 to 2013. She is now a member of the Board of Trustees at Princeton University.

“Together they have championed global engagement and modeled for us what it means to be citizens of the world,” Elon University President Leo M. Lambert said in his welcoming remarks to open the program. “They have taught us that often the best solutions to the most complex problems are not grand in scale.”

Convocation also featured the official presentation of a Maude Sharpe Powell Professorship to Mary Jo Festle, a highly accomplished teacher and scholar recognized for contributions to her students, her discipline and Elon University. Festle is the fourth Elon faculty member to hold the professorship, which may be awarded to a faculty member from any field of study to support research and student mentorship.

James B. Powell and his siblings, John S. Powell, Thomas E. Powell, II, and Sophia Maude Powell Wolfe, established the Maude Sharpe Powell Professorship in 1985 in memory of their mother. James Powell is an Elon Life Trustee and his wife, Anne Ellington Powell, is currently a Trustee.

Gabie Smith, interim dean of Elon College, the College of Arts and Sciences, introduced Festle. Lambert bestowed her with the professorship medallion.

“Receiving this is a great honor for me, especially when there are so many deserving faculty here,” Festle said in her acceptance remarks, which included gratitude for the Powell family’s gift. “I feel very fortunate. I work with such smart and dedicated students, faculty and staff.”