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Harvard’s Humanitarian of the Year: Rihanna

What is there to be said about Rihanna, that hasn’t been said already? She has been described as a fiery performer, a fearless icon, and a breathtaking singer; but she is also –– as it turns out –– a devoted humanitarian. We all know Rihanna has a lot she can, and should, be proud of, but at the top of the list is what most of us knew nothing about: her charitable work.

The newest (and if I may, very shiny) addition to the list of the Peter J. Gomes Humanitarian Award recipients is no other than the pop superstar Rihanna. Each year the Harvard Foundation for Intercultural and Race Relations presents the award to an individual who has extraordinarily contributed to improve lives around the globe. It is given in honor of the Reverend Professor Peter J. Gomes, Plummer Professor and Minister in Harvard’s Memorial Church, who passed away six years ago. Former recipients include Martin Luther King Senior, four Nobel Peace Prize winners, and four U.N. Secretaries General.

Welcoming Rihanna (born Robyn Rihanna Fenty) to our campus on Feb. 28, with what might have been one of the most enthusiastic crowds Sanders Theatre had seen in its 147 years, Dean Rakesh Khurana told her how much we value diversity. “We know that our aspirations run ahead of our reality,” he said, “but we have a deep belief in the transformative power of the liberal arts and sciences education. … This beautiful diverse environment … not only deepens that intellectual transformation but creates the conditions for a social transformation.”

“So I made it to Harvard,” Rihanna announced joyfully, “never thought I’d be able to say that in my life!” She said she was “incredibly humbled” and gave us a glance at how it all began: when she was 5 or 6 years old, she watched “other children suffer in other parts of the world” on TV commercials and said to herself, ‘when I grow up and I can get rich I’m going to save kids all over the world.’ Little did she know, she would be “in the position to do that by the time I was a teenager.”

At the age of 18, only a year after starting her career in America, she started her first charity organization –– Believe, to help terminally ill children. During the following years she “met, helped, and even lost some of the most beautiful souls,” Rihanna said. “We’re all human. And we all just want a chance: a chance at life, a chance at an education, a chance at a future.” She sees it as “our life mission to impact as many lives as possible.”

“As I stare into this beautiful room,” she continued, smiling, “I see optimism, I see hope, I see the future.” She then reminded us that we all have the ability to help someone, “all you need to do is help one person –– expecting nothing in return.” We don’t have to be rich or famous, she said, “you don’t even have to be college educated.” Then, laughing, she added: “I wish I was.”

In 2012, Rihanna founded the nonprofit Clara Lionel Foundation (named for her grandparents), and built a state of the art center –– the Clara Braithwaite Center for Oncology and Nuclear Medicine at the Queen Elizabeth Hospital in her hometown of Bridgetown, Barbados, to diagnose and treat all types of cancer –– but especially breast cancer. Earlier that year, her grandmother Clara Braithwaite “lost her battle with cancer,” Rihanna said emotionally, “which is the very reason and driving force behind the Clara Lionel Foundation.”

“With the voices of Rihanna and her fans,” said director of the Harvard foundation S. Allen Counter, “this foundation also engages in global advocacy with the goal of improving the quality of life for young people everywhere … She has shared her time her talent and her treasure for humanitarian causes.”

Through the foundation, Rihanna launched a need-based scholarship program for students from Caribbean countries attending college in the U.S. The foundation also supports health and emergency response programs around the world, and it partnered with Global Partnership for Education and Global Citizen Project to improve access to education for children in over 60 developing countries.

The eight-time Grammy Award winner also held the Diamond Ball in 2014 and 2015 –– which raised over $5 million for the Clara Lionel Foundation, and performed numerous charity concerts, including A Girl’s Night Out –– benefiting the Believe Foundation.

She explained, making herself even more lovable –– she never wanted to get any credit for all that. But it is downright moving to see her getting the recognition she certainly deserves, and it also inspires us all. Just turned 29 and already has 11 years of the most honorable, selfless work behind her. To many more to come.

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