Tea for 1,400: Greg Mortenson visits Union College

On Sept. 22, Union College’s Leadership Symposium presented speaker Greg Mortenson, co-author of New York Times bestseller Three Cups of Tea who was nominated this year for the Nobel Peace Prize by several members of the United States House of Representatives.

Following a failed attempt to climb Pakistan’s K2 in 1993, Mortenson has devoted his life to establishing education and literacy programs in remote areas of Pakistan and Afghanistan. Through the nonprofit Central Asia Institute, the impact of Mortenson’s work has spread beyond the volatile regions where his programs have educated more than 34,000 children, including 24,000 girls.

Greg’s work is centered around an African proverb he learned growing up in the shadow of Mt. Kilamanjaro (Tanzania): “Educate a boy, and you educate an individual. Educate a girl and you educate a community.”

His father founded Kilamanjaro Christian Medical Center and ruffled protocol at the time by predicting that within 10 years local leaders would run the hospital, not white medical missionaries. Dempsey Mortenson’s prediction came true and this concept of helping local people invest in themselves has propelled his son’s life of service.

On the New York Times bestseller list since its paperback release in January 2007, Three Cups of Tea has sold 3 million copies and has been published in 34 countries. The book is required reading for senior U.S. military commanders and the peace-keeping forces of several nations.

Legendary television broadcaster Tom Brokaw described Mortenson as, “one ordinary person with the right combination of character and determination, who is really changing the world.”

Mortenson’s title, Three Cups of Tea, comes from a concept in Afghani and Pakistani culture. Although symbolic, in order to do business, two individuals must have tea three times. At the first, they are strangers. After the second tea, the two become friends. By the third gathering, they trust each other like family. This process of friendship building can take years, and exemplifies the approach that Mortenson has used to make his literacy programs successful.

Jeff Joiner, chair of the Division of Emergency Management and Exercise Science and one of the co-organizers of the event, says Mortenson’s message of service was a great fit for Lincoln and specifically Union College. After Joiner saw Mortenson’s presentation at an Omaha church, he couldn’t shake the idea of hosting him at Union. “We send service-oriented students all over the world to make a difference,” Joiner said. “Greg shares that same message and mission. His story is about education and helping those who really need assistance.”

Nearly the entire campus family including students, faculty and staff attended the chapel presentation at 10:30 a.m. to hear Mortenson’s message, already his second event of the day. Mortenson was also the keynote presenter at the annual Mayor’s Interfaith Prayer Breakfast earlier that morning. In the afternoon, Mortenson shared his inspiration with 400 Lincoln Public School educators. And finally, after a full day of speaking and book signings, Mortenson shared the most in-depth version of his presentation with a sold-out audience (including overflow seating) in the College View Seventh-day Adventist Church.

Linda Becker, vice president for Student Services, helped coordinate the team of volunteers who made the event a success. “We were delighted by the community’s response to both Greg’s message and to the hospitality we extended,” Becker said. “While most may have only had one cup of tea following the event, we are confident that Union College is no longer a stranger to the more than 1,400 new friends we made through Greg’s visit.”

The Leadership Symposium is part of Union’s Leadership Certification Program that, according to Becker, “helps students to develop their personal leadership potential for optimum effectiveness in life.” Students who enroll in the program take advantage of leadership classes, peer mentoring and weekly cohort meetings focused on improving leadership skills.

“I feel like the leadership cohort has really opened the doors for great opportunities this year,” said Kelly Phipps, a junior communication major and leadership cohort member. “Meeting Greg Mortenson was very inspirational and motivated me to get actively involved in helping make the world a better place.”

Last year’s Leadership Symposium featured Erin Gruwell, educator and author who was portrayed in the 2007 film Freedom Writers starring Hillary Swank. The 2010 symposium speaker will feature Coach Ken Carter, a high school basketball coach and motivational speaker. Carter received national notoriety when he locked out his undefeated varsity basketball team and nearly canceled the season to push the athletes to improve their grades. Coach Carter, the 2005 film staring Samuel L. Jackson, chronicled his experience.