Josh Green ’92
Aloha everyone. Thank you, Classes of 2020 and 2022, for sharing your special day with me.
Thank you President Smith, faculty, and Board of Managers for this incredible honor.
I never imagined that I might receive this recognition from my alma mater, and it is made more special as it comes exactly 30 years to the day after I graduated. Honestly, it is a small miracle I graduated at all after my performance in freshman philosophy.
Graduates, if it hasn’t begun already, soon you will begin to have the dream that we obsessive Swarthmore students have. In the wee hours of the morning, in deep REM sleep, you will be dreaming of courses that you never attended, yet in the immediate future will be facing honors examinations for them. It happens to most of us.
I am now completely confident, as I receive this honorary doctorate from our beloved college, that I will begin to dream that I have done nothing to earn this honorary degree, yet I am due to accept it for no apparent reason and give this speech.
Thank you Swarthmore for contributing a new facet of anxiety to my already anxiety-ridden Jewish existence.
Swarthmore has meant the world to me and my life, but it did not come easy. In my freshman year I wondered if I was capable of the intellectual rigor that I saw around me in wonderful classmates and contemporaries. I didn’t know if I would be able to make it through, but mentors like Professor Steven Piker and Professor John Jenkins, who is with us here today, and former dean of students Janet Dickerson, made sure that under any circumstance I was supported during dark times. They got me through, they believed in me.
After graduation I didn’t know what I was going to do, which road I was going to take. I certainly didn’t plan on being a physician, lieutenant governor in Hawaii. I hate to admit it but I got a D in organic chemistry (the first time) and never took a political science course, not one.
But, as the first born of most Jewish families are inclined to do, I left Swarthmore and went to medical school.
Medical school was easier than Swarthmore and though again there were moments where I wondered if I could make it amongst very smart peers. On many afternoons I indulged in a fantasy that I had quit medicine and would go get a Ph.D. like almost everyone else I knew from my class. Things weren’t so bad, of course, as I let on, and I finished medical school, in the spirit of Swarthmore, and joined medical missions far from the safe confines of my med school. I went places like Swaziland and South Africa to work in very rural clinics. We treated those that were suffering the pandemic of HIV-AIDS in a hospital that became one part hospital and one part orphanage.
In Swaziland that year, there was also a major outbreak of malaria, and there my dear friend Elena, also Class of 1992, and I treated hundreds of people a day in this far away land. It made us believe that the spirit and ethos of Swarthmore should inform our medical careers and we should become, to the best of our ability, humanitarian physicians. I joined the National Health Service Corps and prepared to serve in an inner-city like Philly or New York, but there were no positions that year to fill.
The health corps gave me three options: northern Maine, the supermax federal penitentiary in Oklahoma, or Hawaii, at the southernmost tip of the United States of America, a place called Ka’u. I picked Hawaii.
I had never been to Hawaii but had imagined it to be the paradise that all of us dream it is. Thus the incredible irony that I am now its LG and in a few months may receive the honor of becoming Hawaii’s next governor. On arrival in Hawaii, I became the physician for 8,000 Hawaiian and Filipino patients, family, ohana. These people welcomed me into their lives and hearts and taught me what the aloha spirit is.
But they suffered terribly. My patients had no access to mental health care or drug treatment, no trauma services, and there were terrible healthcare disparities for all of them. So I ran for office to shine a light on these injustices. The Swarthmore Effect.
My full awareness of these challenges was a result of the mentors I had here at Swarthmore.
In that first election, one which I never had expected to pursue, for the House of Representatives, I was simply trying to make a point that people deserved a fair shot at quality healthcare. But when it when it came out in the final days of the election that my opponent was a cocaine dealer, I won. Now I had a problem; I was a politician.
I met my wife Jaime 2 weeks later, we started a family, and I served four years in the House of Representatives and then 10 years in the State Senate before once again rolling the dice and running for lieutenant governor. But there were lessons along the way as a young legislator.
One morning before dawn a group of protesters was berating our Governor, demanding he institute the death penalty in Hawaii. They were so mad it took me by surprise in our peaceful state, so I did what every junior representative who wanted to be appreciated by his governor would do; I called him at 4:30 in the morning and left a message for the gov to please be careful and avoid this crowd that’s making demands that are not consistent with our values.
I left that message on his voicemail and went about my day.
The next morning again around 4:30 a.m. on my jog, I saw for a second time this very angry, violent protest outside of the gov’s home, again demanding that he institute the death penalty in Hawaii. So I again called the governor before dawn and left a message for him to be careful and to avoid this group, because there was no way to win this argument given how awful they were behaving.
On the third day as the crowd gathered one more time around the governor’s mansion, I pulled out my phone and called our governor, to once again warn him against this mob, but this time the governor answered my phone call, and at 4:30 a.m. said, “GREEN, stop calling me, they’re filming Hawaii Five-0 outside my house.”
So I guess there are many life lessons to learn along whatever road you choose.
I grew as a representative and senator, and pursued policies that would help people, in the spirit of our Swarthmore traditions, and ran for lt. governor, a position which most people feel is utterly worthless, but would allow me to continue to serve as an emergency room physician in rural Hawaii as I had for almost 20 years now.
Under normal circumstances that might very well have been true, that being LG is useless. But then there was an outbreak of measles in Samoa and my team led a mission to vaccinate the entire country in 36 hours. We returned from Samoa and six weeks later in classified briefings, I was told there was a new virus on the horizon, one called coronavirus (COVID-19) emerging from Wuhan, China, and spreading across Asia and Europe.
Tasked with leading the Covid response, I was able to perhaps make a difference. Hawaii ended up having the lowest rate of COVID in the country and the second lowest mortality rate,
But it is not lost on me that I would’ve never been in that position had I quit Swarthmore in 1988, indulged my fantasies to leave medical school in 1993, and 1994 and 1995, skipped an invitation to do medical mission work in Africa, passed on a National Health Corps assignment to rural paradise, chosen to not run for office against a drug dealer, met Jaime, crashed the set of Hawaii 5-0, or become Lt. Gov when everyone said, “Why don’t you just go make some money and let the rest of us win some elections for God’s sake?”
So I stand in front of you today, 30 years after I was so fortunate to receive my Swarthmore degree, without a clue of what road laid ahead, and all I can say is this: I have have no idea on Earth why all of this happened to me in my life, including this honorary degree. But I’m grateful it all did.
You may not realize it, but you, as Swarthmore graduates, are built for amazing, unpredictable adventures ahead. You will likely lead and do great things, whether you know it or not, whether you want to or not, in ways that will mean the world to those around you.
Thank you again for including me in your special day, congratulations, and well done to all of you, who have made Swarthmore College the most extraordinary place I’ve ever been.
Remarks as submitted to Swarthmore College