Lech Walesa visits Franklin Pierce University

  • Franklin Pierce University President Kim Mooney awards the 2022 Visiting Fitzwater Scholar Medallion to Lech Walesa, the former president of Poland. —LUKE NEWMAN/FRANKLIN PIERCE UNIVERSITY

  • Lech Walesa, the former president of Poland, talks with Franklin Pierce University senior Kaitlyn Acciardo. —LUKE NEWMAN/FRANKLIN PIERCE UNIVERSITY

The Keene Sentinel
Published: 5/10/2022 7:19:36 PM

A small group of high school and college students from across Southern New Hampshire gathered at Franklin Pierce University on Monday, dressed to the nines and ready to welcome the former president of Poland, Lech Walesa, to campus.

In a conversation moderated by FPU senior Kaitlyn Acciardo, Walesa periodically cracked jokes through his interpreter, Mgdalena Iwinska, but remained focused on what he was there to discuss -- the value of a free press to a fair democracy.

It’s a topic Walesa knows well. For decades after World War II, Poland was a satellite state of the Soviet Union, which imposed a communist rule. An electrician by trade, Walesa spent the 1970s and 1980s speaking out against the communist regime and organizing labor strikes.

In 1983, he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for his nonviolent pursuit of the freedom to organize and his advocacy for human rights. Seven years later, he became the first president of Poland to be elected by a popular vote.

“Free word, words spoken with liberty, meant a lot to us, and it continues meaning a lot,” Walesa said. “Free word prepared people for the fight and led them into the fight against the regime.”

About two dozen people — including students from Franklin Pierce, Conant High School in Jaffrey, Bishop Guertin High School in Nashua and Pinkerton Academy in Derry — attended Monday’s event in the Fitzwater Center’s Patterson Television Studio. Students from around the state submitted questions for the event, according to Kristen Nevious, director of FPU’s Marlin Fitzwater Center for Communications.

The high school students in the audience were selected by their respective schools, most of which have worked with the Fitzwater Center before, Nevious stated Tuesday. The FPU students in attendance were recommended by their professors and represented a variety of majors and class years, according to Kathryn Grosso Gann, the college’s communications coordinator.

Donning a T-shirt that read “constitution” in Polish under his blazer and a Ukrainian-themed ribbon on his lapel, Walesa said free media plays a critical role in identifying inadequacies and corruption in government.

“Had there been freedom of the media, we wouldn’t have had (Leonid) Brezhnev, (Vladimir) Putin, (Joseph) Stalin, because free media would have told people what liberty is about, how beautiful living in freedom can be,” he said, referring to several Russian leaders known for their authoritarian regimes.

Walesa answered questions on topics ranging from censorship to social media’s impact on the press to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

According to Reporters without Borders, a nonprofit that promotes free information, Russia has banned or blocked all independent media since the invasion began in February, and all other outlets are subject to censorship. This poses a threat to the rest of the world, Walesa said, and it will take global collaboration to see a new political system established in Russia.

“Once we stand together, stand united, we can help Russia overcome the old structures and enter the new era,” Walesa said. “Even if Ukraine defeated Russia militarily, it will not be a solution and it will not bring peace to the world, because five to 10 years from now, there will be a new Stalin or Putin.”

After Walesa answered questions, FPU President Kim Mooney awarded him the 2022 Visiting Fitzwater Scholar Medallion for his championing of robust public discourse, his belief that young people must engage in politics to improve the world and his dedication to democracy.

“The Visiting Fitzwater Scholars are people who have found their voices in the public discourse at international levels, and are committed to helping others find theirs,” Nevious stated Tuesday morning. The scholars visit campus to talk and work with students, she said, and previous honorees include journalists Richard Griffiths, Terrence Hunt and Ann Compton.

Upon accepting the award, Walesa said he has collected hundreds of accolades over the years, including honorary degrees and professor titles. It wasn’t to brag, he said, but rather to share with the young crowd what can happen when one pursues a valuable cause.

“This is only to claim, to say, that it’s really worth following the way I have been following,” he said. “And you stand even greater chances because you boast a better educational background than myself.”

“And you have more money,” he added, prompting a round of chuckles.

Allyson Hoctor, a senior at Conant High School in Jaffrey, said she felt inspired by Walesa’s words and his call to action.

“I feel like there’s so much more that I can do right now, after hearing his speech,” she said. “Hearing about his story, reading about his story before this conference — I need to figure out what I can do to make this world better and to help politically or socially or however.”

Molly Bolan can be reached at 352-1234, Ext. 1436, or mbolan@keenesentinel.com. Follow her on Twitter @BolanMolly. These articles are being shared by partners in The Granite State News Collaborative. For more information visit collaborativenh.org.


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