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Former President of Ireland, Mary Robinson, visits Penn State

by on March 21, 2013 11:03 AM

UNIVERSITY PARK — Last Wednesday at Eisenhower Auditorium, former President of Ireland Mary Robinson challenged those in the audience to determine what their individual duties are to the community.

“The more you give … the more you, yourself, are enriched,” she said.

Robinson’s March 13 speech, “The Future of Ethical Leadership in a Global Society,” was sponsored by the Schreyer Honors College, the Presidential Leadership Academy, the Student Programming Association and the University Park Allocation Committee.

The first female to serve as President of Ireland, Robinson was elected in 1990 for a seven-year term. She resigned shortly before the end of her term upon being named the United National High Commissioner for Human Rights, a position she held from 1997 to 2002. Robinson founded and served as president of Realizing Rights: The Ethical Global Initiative, a multi-year effort focused on placing human rights at the forefront of globalization and in developing countries, according to a press release by event organizers.

Her story

To a group of Penn State students, faculty and community members, Robinson shared the story and journey of her life’s work, and why global ethics is a cause close to her heart.

Leadership, she said, can be perceived in a variety of ways: business, women’s rights and morality. Growing up with two older and two younger brothers, Robinson said she had an early interest in human rights.

Robinson said her parents told her she had just as much opportunity as her brothers. However, while growing up, “the place of the woman was in the home.”

While all of her friends were getting married, Robinson had other interests, she said. While debating entering a convent, she spent some time in Paris, and after some thought, she decided to study law.

Robinson’s grandfather instilled in her that “law was a kind of instrument for social change,” she said.

She determined then that she wanted to use law to make a change, Robinson said, so she entered Harvard University.

“Young people were doing things,” she said.

The students, she said, cared for equality and other issues, prompting her interest even more.

After graduating, Robinson returned to Ireland with new levels of determination and drive.

“I felt that I was going to be doing something at the time as a young person,” she said.

In 1969 an election was held within the Irish Parliament, Robinson said. There were six open seats in the Senate for Irish universities. Despite these positions traditionally being held by “older male professors,” Robinson was elected at age 25. Her mandate at that time, she said, was to “make some changes in Irish law.”

Robinson drafted a short bill promoting family planning, she said, a topic that wasn’t well-received in Ireland at the time.

“I had touched a kind of raw nerve on Ireland,” she said.

Robinson received a lot of negative feedback about the bill, she said, and was nearly regarded as a “hate figure.”

She and her husband burned the hate mail she received, which she later regretted, she said, because those letters were evidence of the times. That period marked a lesson for her in political leadership.

“If you feel strongly about it, be true to yourself,” she said. But at the same time, “expect to pay a price.”

Later, in 1990, Robinson was nominated for President of Ireland, she said.

“I was surprised and not particularly excited,” she said, explaining that the position is not an “executive presidency” in Ireland.

Robinson decided to accept the nomination, but only if she could run as an independent.

During her campaign, she traveled around the country to “listen to people and find out what was happening,” she said.

After getting elected, Robinson said in her inauguration speech that she “wanted Ireland to be an international symbol of human rights.”

As the first woman president of her country, she wanted “to do it differently,” she said.

Robinson today

Earlier this month Robinson released a memoir, “Everybody Matters: My Life Giving Voice” to bring together some of her experiences and to encourage people, she said.

“How could I have known … where my life would bring me?” she said.

Through her life’s work, Robinson has been able to share her core philosophies, she said, which is that everybody matters, and everybody can make a difference.

“That’s what human rights is all about,” she said.

In 2009 Robinson was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by President Barack Obama in recognition of her significant contributions to the nation and the world. She now chairs the Council of Women World Leaders and is president of the Mary Robinson Foundation – Climate Justice, a center for thought leadership, education and advocacy on the struggle for global justice, according to the event program.

Robinson additionally has been named a “Hero and Icon” as one of TIME magazine’s 2005 top 100 men and women “whose power, talent or moral example is transforming the world.” In 2006, Robinson received Spain’s Prince of Asturias Award in Social Sciences prize for her work as a global human rights campaigner, according to the program.

Penn State responds

Will Begley, a student member of Penn State’s Presidential Leadership Academy, said he came to Robinson’s lecture to learn about her experiences all over the globe, and to hear her perspective about the world.

“(She has) a great impact on global communication,” she said.

Justin Cook, a student and chair of the Scholar Advancement Team within the Schreyer Honors College, said he first met Robinson at a SHC reception before the presentation, but attended her lecture to hear her speak longer and learn “how she progressed through her career.”

Cook said what interested him most about Robinson’s lecture was how young people today can correct the climate situation in the future, as well as the impact of climate changes on developing nations and the use of fossil fuels.

“That definitely hits home,” he said.

Dr. Christian M.M. Brady, dean of the Schreyer Honors College, said Robinson has spent her life serving as a positive role model and a world leader.

“A visit from such a global leader provides all members of the Penn State community – students, faculty, residents – an opportunity to hear firsthand from someone whose advocacy and leadership can challenge us to press for the resolution of problems that threaten the many regions of the world to the detriment of us all,” he said in the press release.

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Staff Writer at The Centre County Gazette
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