Two flags, one Thunderbird

Courtesy: magazine.thunderbird.edu
Courtesy: magazine.thunderbird.edu

By President Larry Penley

Like many of you, I celebrated the Lunar New Year last week.  Luckily I was able to visit with my family to do so.  I know many of you may have wished that you could have done the same with your own families.  Choosing a school is a tough decision, but spending time away from family can be tougher, even for a Thunderbird who relishes adventure.

Despite some of the journalists who don’t understand Thunderbird, I am impressed with our students and so many others who make this institution great. Many inspiring students crossed the stage during the Foundations flag ceremony in January 2014, but two students in particular caught my attention. One carried the banner of Russia, and the other represented Ukraine. Julia Mitusova ’15 of Russia spoke first, followed alphabetically by flag bearers from Saudi Arabia, South Korea, Spain and Taiwan. Then came Anastasiya Shaposhnik ’14, a naturalized U.S. citizen from Ukraine.

Relations between Russia and Ukraine have been tense at times since the dissolution of the Soviet Union, and Anastasiya commented on the challenges. Instinctively, my head turned to Julia, seated in the audience, to watch her reaction. She smiled in my direction, and a day or so later on campus, we spoke. Her response, when I asked her about the flag ceremony and her reaction, expresses very well how the mystique permeates Thunderbird. “Everything is fine,” Julia assured me. “She is my friend.” In fact, I learned that the two students are roommates.

Thunderbird attracts students from all parts of the world, and many of you come with cultural and political differences. Rather than dividing the campus, these differences bring us together.

The late Saad Abdul-Latif ’81 spoke about this phenomenon during his last campus visit in 2010. Saad, a Palestinian who served as CEO of PepsiCo’s Asia, Middle East and Africa Division at the time of his death, grew up in East Jerusalem surrounded by conflict. At Thunderbird he discovered diverse viewpoints on the Palestinian issue. But to his surprise, he saw that his classmates could disagree and still get along.

“Thunderbird was one of the cornerstones that shaped my outlook on life — to have an open mind,” he said in an interview with Thunderbird Magazine. “People could be different. People could have different opinions, and they still could love you.”

This was true in 1980 when Saad came to campus, and it remains true today. Some things will change in the coming months as Thunderbird moves forward with exciting growth plans. But the spirit of collaboration and respect that binds Thunderbirds together will remain.

Thanks to students such as Julia and Anastasiya — and thanks to you — the Thunderbird mystique will survive.

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