Melanie Smeallie Mbuyi ’77 | St. Lawrence University Commencement

Melanie Smeallie Mbuyi ’77

Remarks to Graduates, May 20, 2018

Thank you, President Fox, Trustees, Faculty, fellow Honorees, my friends and family, and most importantly the class of 2018.   I am truly honored to be part of your graduation. I have met some of you during St. Lawrence's DC Connect sessions in Washington.  And a few of you I have helped with summer internships.   You usually want to know how I got from St. Lawrence to where I am now.  So, I thought I would quickly tell my story and how St. Lawrence taught me to follow my passion, take risks, and remember to have fun.

I grew up in Upstate NY.  Choosing to go to St. Lawrence was easy for me.  While here I discovered all sorts of new interests, like regular hikes to the Hoot Owl for morning parties in the blowing snow, learning to love the cold dorm at Delta, and floating down the river at the first hint of spring. I was also taking courses towards a potential career in Social Work.  But then out of the blue came an opportunity that turned out to be pivotal for me, the Nairobi Semester. It was September 1975. Our group was part of that program's second guinea pig semester.  We entered a world where life was nothing like upstate NY.  We were way outside of our comfort zone. It was fantastic.

Because of that semester I found a new passion and decided to join the Peace Corps after graduation.  It was a hard decision, not because of how far away I would be living, but because two years seemed like an eternity to be away from friends and family.  But I took a chance and accepted Peace Corps invitation.  My motivation was to get back to Kenya.  But Peace Corps assigned me to Zaire, now known as the Democratic Republic of the Congo, a huge nation brutally colonized by the tiny country of Belgium, and suffering under a tough dictator, Mobutu Sese Seko at that time.  Oh, and it was Francophone and I didn't speak French.  But Peace Corps provided a total immersion language training for our group of about 100 new volunteers in the eastern hills of the Congo, not far from the Rwanda border. 

Two years in a remote village sounded tough but I figured if I could handle Canton’s winters, I could handle this.  Frankly, those years flew by and I loved it.  We were making friends and making a difference in a forgotten rural area of the Congo.   I did a 3rd year in one of the provincial capitals where Peace Corps gave me a land rover, an office/residence in an old pharmacy building.  My assignment was to be Peace Corps Rep and supervise 50 volunteers scattered across the region.  I was barely 23. It was a great adventure.   That lead to a staff position in Congo’s capital city, Kinshasa, which then lead to a 5-year contract with the State Department as the Commercial Officer at our Embassy there.  At this point I was ready to call Kinshasa home.  I married my guy and set up house for the long haul.  Kinshasa had a vibrant music scene, and was a fun city to live in, despite the chaos of Mobutu’s regime.

But living in the Congo for 10 years, often under difficult conditions, had not prepared me for what was about to come next.  My husband was diagnosed with liver cancer and died a month after our baby was born. So, I packed up and moved back to the states. We moved to Washington and a colleague from my Kinshasa days recommended that I interview for a position at the World Bank.  I wasn't an economist but my range of experiences in the Congo made the difference and I got the job, knowing I had a lot to learn, but confident I could step up to the challenge.  Seriously, working at the World Bank was never on my radar screen.  But it allowed me to stay on the path I had started and I instantly liked being part of their project teams.   This is now my 27th year there and I’m still having fun.   

Here's the thing, none of this was planned. There were always moments of uncertainty. But to me that meant anything was possible.  Looking back, I see how St. Lawrence opened my mind to follow my passion and have the confidence to take risks - starting with that Nairobi Semester. The dominoes fell from there and the doors kept opening.  I enjoyed being part of every team, always making sure to have fun and be flexible.   I valued the many colleagues from all those different jobs, stayed in touch and never burned bridges, which - it turns out - is why doors kept opening.  

My advice to you is to get involved and use your good fortune to try to make a difference on the lives of others.  Get outside your comfort zone and live in new places, especially while you are in your 20’s before you move onto other adventures like marriage and mortgages.   St. Lawrence has given you a great foundation so get out there, be a good team player, be humble, and have the confidence to follow your passion and take a few risks.  You will see that the experiences you have while you are trying to get to your goal is where all the fun stuff happens. 

Let me close with a quote from former First Lady, Barbara Bush: “Never lose sight of the fact that the most important yardstick of your success will be how you treat other people - your family, friends, and coworkers, and even strangers you meet along the way.”

Congratulations class of 2018.  It’s an honor to be part of your graduation.  Good luck to each of you.