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NOTIONS: Why you can feel good about the world's future

April 14, 2008

Let me introduce three remarkable young people.

Jessica Gabrian grew up in a St. Louis suburb. She earned good grades, excelled at volleyball and won an athletic scholarship to William Woods University in Fulton, Mo.

Early on, there was a hearing-impaired student in one of Jessica's classes. There was also a sign language interpreter.

Always a visual learner who talked with her hands, Jessica grew fascinated with the beauty of American Sign Language (ASL). She was "instantly hooked." She decided to become an interpreter.

During her senior year, Jessica enrolled in a course that would culminate in a trip to Kenya. She and her fellow students studied the region's history, culture and politics. One day, a speaker told them about genocide in Darfur, Sudan.

Because of Kenya's political upheaval, Jessica's trip was canceled. But moved by her newfound knowledge of Darfur, Jessica signed up for a conference through which college students would learn how to mentor high school students in peace activism.

There, Jessica met 1997 Nobel Peace Prize Laureate Jody Williams of land-mine treaty fame. Jessica was inspired by what one woman could do to change the world.

Matched with Williams as a mentor, Jessica made Darfur her cause. She lobbied universities, state government and pension funds to divest any holdings that might benefit the perpetrators of genocide. She got friends and family to do the same. She made speeches, passed out literature and raised money.

And oh, by the way, she was a leader of her Alpha Chi Omega sorority, co-captain of the volleyball team, led a campus-wide recycling program, staffed the university's summer orientation program and directed the ASL club.

Then, when she enrolled in graduate school at Gallaudet University last fall, she continued her peace efforts in Washington, D.C.

"As a freshman, I had no idea I'd be involved in anything but volleyball," Jessica said. "Within a month of joining my sorority, I was saying 'What can I do?'"

Will McAuliffe wants to do something, too. While studying political science at the University of Notre Dame and notching journalism awards for his school-newspaper columns, Will grew concerned about capital punishment.

"Our current system runs the risk of executing innocents," he said. "We need to take a step back and re-examine the death penalty."

To back up his argument, he rattles off case after case in which U.S. states have put citizens on death row, only to discover-sometimes too late-that they convicted the wrong person.

Will's now a year out of college. Instead of pursuing some lucrative career, he's living modestly in downtown Indianapolis and launching a not-for-profit advocacy organization. He built a Web site. He's forming a board of directors. And networking like crazy.

His goal: Secure a moratorium on state executions until we can ensure there are no flaws in the system and no innocent people at risk.

Sarah Chatham's not out to save the world. A month away from graduation, she's merely celebrating one life that's been saved-hers. And she's celebrating the healthier attitude born of a life-threatening experience.

Two years ago, Sarah was sailing along, studying art at her mom's alma mater, happily ensconced in her mom's sorority.

But as second semester got under way, she grew tired. She had trouble breathing. She struggled to walk to class or up the stairs.

At home near Springfield, Ill., for spring break, she went to the family doctor. There were X-rays and blood work. And when the results arrived, Sarah was shocked: she had non-Hodgkin's lymphoma.

So while finishing the semester with a 3.7 G.P.A., she added chemotherapy to her course work. She lost her hair. And while she sometimes felt shamed by judgmental people who pointed and stared, she went with the bald look. And took self-portraits with her camera. And exhibited them at the hospital and on campus.

And she laughed when some of her sorority sisters made overnight chemo a silly sleepover, and the dreaded needles not so bad.

Two years later, Sarah's cancer is in remission, she's president of her senior class at William Woods, and she's eager to launch a career as a portrait photographer-one who captures emotional depth, not superficial "say cheese" snapshots.

Last week, an Indiana University freshman whose class I had spoken to, e-mailed me. Her name is Madeline. She was choosing next year's classes and wanted some advice.

"I just feel lost," she said. "Did you ever wonder when you were my age what you would do once you graduated from college? Or if the major you were pursuing was really right for you? ... Were you ever indifferent about what you were doing or where you were going with your career?"

Yes, Madeline. And it happens still.

Then I meet 20-somethings like you, Jessica, Will and Sarah. And I see in your searching, your passion, your trials and triumphs a world of hope and inspiration.

Thus enlightened, I'm lost no more. The future will be in good hands.



Hetrick is chairman and CEO of Hetrick Communications Inc., an Indianapolis-based public relations and marketing communications firm. His column appears twice a month. He can be reached at bhetrick@ibj.com.
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