Plenary Address – Greg Mortenson
Humanitarian and Author
Charles Eliot Award Recipient for 2008
Greg Mortenson is the co-founder of Central Asia Institute, a nonprofit organization dedicated to promoting community-based education in Pakistan and Afghanistan, and co-author, with journalist David Oliver Relin, of the New York Times #1 bestseller, Three Cups of Tea.
In 1993 after a failed attempt to scale K2 in northern Pakistan, Mortenson, an American mountaineer, wandered away from his climbing group into the most desolate reaches of the Karakoram Mountains. Disoriented and exhausted, he eventually stumbled into an impoverished Pakistani village where he was nursed back to health. Observing the local children sitting outdoors, scratching their lessons in the dirt, he vowed to return and build a school.
From that promise grew a remarkable humanitarian campaign. Over the next fifteen years, Mortenson built not just one but over 64 schools, providing education to more than 25,000 children. A living hero to rural communities of Afghanistan and Pakistan, he has gained the trust of religious leaders, government officials and tribal chiefs for his tireless effort to champion education, especially for girls.
His incredible accomplishments have not been without difficulty. He struggled in his early attempts to obtain financial support in the United States and with the seemingly insurmountable logistics inherent to the mountainous Pakistani terrain. Realizing that successful and sustainable development in the region only occurred when the projects were initiated and managed by the local tribal communities, he embraced a philosophy that empowered the rural communities in every aspect of the building process.
Mortenson has survived an armed kidnapping, religious pronouncements against his work from suspicious Islamic clerics, long separations from his wife and children, CIA investigations, and death threats from fellow Americans after 9/11.
His story is a testament to the power of the humanitarian spirit. “It’s proof that one ordinary person, with the right combination of character and determination, really can change the world, ” —Tom Brokaw.
Mortenson, a resident of Montana, serves as director of the Central Asia Institute. He spends several months each year in Pakistan and Afghanistan.
Image courtesy of Central Asia Institute