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U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson urges Mason students to engage the world

March 6, 2018   /   by Damian Cristodero

Rex Tillerson and Ángel Cabrera

U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson speaks to George Mason University President Ángel Cabrera at Harris Theatre in advance of his first official trip to Africa. Photo by Ron Aira.

U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson made a special stop at George Mason University on Tuesday ahead of his official five-country visit to Africa, addressing students, faculty and staff at the Harris Theatre on the Fairfax Campus.

During his hour-long visit, he shared a range of policy objectives for U.S.-Africa relations and announced a $533 million aid package for the continent in his speech.

But he also spoke directly to students during a Q&A moderated by Mason President Ángel Cabrera. At one point, he urged students to study abroad and choose more remote destinations for the life-changing experience.

“Today the case for going abroad is more compelling than any time in my life,” Tillerson said. “The world has transformed so dramatically. It is all interconnected. You cannot think about economic issues, security issues, without thinking about them in a global context. The earlier you understand that and interact with it, the better prepared you will be for it.”

“And go to the hard places, don’t go to the easy places,” he added. “It’s quite an experience to see how people exist around the world. Go to the hard places. It will change you.”

Tillerson learned that lesson firsthand as a college freshman on a mission trip to Peru following a devastating earthquake.

Cabrera had asked Tillerson to explain the benefits of studying abroad. Earlier, he said Mason’s international student body is an ideal audience for the Secretary.

“The choice for Mason for this presentation couldn’t be any better,” Cabrera said. “George Mason has students and faculty from more than 130 countries. We work hard to make sure we are educating students to engage in a very interconnected world. We define ourselves to be a university of the world.”

Mason student body president David Kanos, who is from Nigeria, had a front-row seat for the event. He also had a chance to speak with Tillerson—one of the perks, he said, of attending a university that has become a consistent destination for national leaders to speak about important issues.

“It’s an amazing opportunity to be at a school where you have people like this speaking on issues not just about the United States, but global issues,” said Kanos, a senior government and international politics major. “It’s a fantastic opportunity for us.”

Tillerson said the United States sees great opportunity in Africa, and the newly announced aid package will address food insecurity on the continent, and provide clean drinking water and health programs that will prevent the spread of disease.

Mason student body president David Kanos (left) talks backstage with Secretary of State Rex Tillerson (right) and Mason President Angel Cabrera (center) before Tillerson's policy speech at Mason's Fairfax Campus on Tuesday, March 6. Photo by Evan Cantwell.

As for economic development, that will only happen, Tillerson said, with “mutually respectful partnerships.”

Tillerson criticized China for projects in Africa that involve predatory loans, corruption and vague contracts. The United States, he said, wants to be a partner to promote the rule of law, fight terrorism on the continent and help women expand their education and their roles in government.

“In having conversations with him, he stressed to me the importance of making it a generational thing, not just a one-time thing,” Kanos said. “I think he and his office and the United States really want to work to change that. Once you change that, you change a lot of things on the other side.”

Mason is the third university the Secretary has visited since taking office; he previously visited Stanford and the University of Texas.