Thinking the Unthinkable

Introduction of Fulbright Board member Christie Gilson at the Fulbright International Students Enrichment Seminar

Philadelphia, PA

Thursday, April 19th, 2012

Philos adelphos.

For any of you who studied classical Greek—or maybe a few who struggled through the very basics like I did for one semester freshman year—those are the two words that gave this city its name.

Philadelphia. City of Brotherly Love.


You’re in Philadelphia this weekend to study American democracy.

The Greeks may have invented democracy. But America begins here. The first Continental Congress met here, the Declaration of Independence was signed here. The American constitution was written here. Rocky Balboa did his training runs up the steps of the museum here. And—now I’m going to date myself—but Dick Clark, who died only yesterday, created one of television’s all-time greatest hits right here in the City of Brotherly Love: American Bandstand, which introduced audiences worldwide to the sounds of everyone from Tina Turner to the Talking Heads.

But enough about the guys already. Philadelphia is Betsy Ross and Louisa May Alcott. It’s Grace Kelly and Tina Fey. And it’s all the women here in the room tonight. So let’s put our hands together and cheer for Philadelphia as the city of Sisterly Love!

If you think of Fulbright as a big international family—8,000 of the best and the brightest in 160 countries and all 50 states– well, then you might think of the people the President appoints to the Fulbright board as the big brothers and sisters watching over the program. The really cool big brothers and sisters, of course. The ones you really loved.

Seriously, tonight, I have the pleasure of introducing you to the newest Fulbright board member, Dr. Christie Gilson.


Dr. Gilson brings a unique voice to our board. She herself is a Fulbrighter. She was awarded a Fulbright in 2006 to Hong Kong and she conducted research on higher education for students with disabilities.

The subject of disability is a personal one for Dr. Gilson. She is blind. She is, in fact, the first blind member of the Fulbright Scholarship Board.

Bringing a rigorous, sophisticated and compassionate understanding to the study of disabilities and to the methods and practice of education for people with disabilities—this has been Dr. Gilson’s life work. She’s known across the world for her pioneering approach to disability studies. And she is known for her eloquent advocacy of diversity, her determined commitment to social justice.

Dr. Gilson is an assistant professor of Education at Moravian College in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, only a little over an hour from here. She also teaches English to blind adults in China, connecting with them over the internet. And she has mentored youth with disabilities in Germany, China, Hong Kong, Singapore, Spain, Taiwan, and the United States.


She’s taken her studies everywhere, and she’s made everywhere her study. That quality seems to be quintessentially Fulbright.

And tonight, everywhere includes Philadelphia. It is particularly compelling to have this leader in disability studies here in the city that gave the United States its founding documents.

Why is that? Well, how many of you know who Stephen Hopkins was? A lot of people signed the Declaration of Independence in this city, but many names we never hear about. We know Thomas Jefferson, John Adams, John Hancock, and others, but 56 people signed that original, history-making document.

Stephen Hopkins was one of them.

From Rhode Island and one of the founders of Brown University, Hopkins was much loved by the other Founders for his friendship and camaraderie. John Adams told the story that after the long days of working on the Constitution, with blackflies and heat and dust plaguing Philadelphia – and few baths and no air-conditioning—Hopkins would gather his compatriots around and pour himself some “Jamaica Spirit”—some rum—and then he would regal all those men in wigs with what Adams said was “Wit, Humour, Anecdotes, Science and Learning.”


Now I’ve learned that Dr. Gilson doesn’t like rum. She loves chocolate. But she definitely has the wit, science and learning. And she also shares with Stephen Hopkins something else: the challenge of living with a disability.

It turns out that Hopkins was born with cerebral palsy. Imagine what an astonishingly difficult condition that would be to live with in the 18th century.

When Hopkins signed the Declaration of Independence, some of the Founders evidently said, with some impatience, that he had the worst handwriting in America.

Hopkins responded, “My hands may tremble, but my heart does not.”

Dr. Gilson—and all of us—are here because of that kind of brave determination, that wisdom, that grace. Dr. Gilson’s work, her strong character, her motivation to make the world a better place, and the untrembling heart that drives her—in a minute you will experience how extraordinary these are, how remarkable she is.

The founder of this program, Senator J. William Fulbright, liked to say something that applies to Stephen Hopkins and applies to Dr. Christie Gilson: Sen. Fulbright said, “We must dare to think unthinkable thoughts.”

That’s your job as Fulbrighters. To be like Stephen Hopkins, like Christie Gilson. With untrembling hearts, think the unthinkable, do the undoable.

But, right now, I ask you to witness the unstoppable—and welcome Dr. Christie Gilson.

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