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Author uses Common Reading Lecture to share advice on service

Conor Grennan spoke Tuesday to a crowded Alumni Gym about his efforts to reunite trafficked children with their parents in Nepal following a civil war that tore many families apart.

"The one soapbox I have to stand on is not that you should volunteer ... but it's not to let anybody tell you what your motivation for volunteering should be," said Conor Grennan, author of "Little Princes," Elon University's 2013-14 Common Reading.

Conor Grennan was clear on one thing Tuesday night: If you hadn’t read his work, the stories you were about to hear would help you bluff your way through any conversation involving “Little Princes,” the New York Times bestselling book he authored following his journey into the heart of Nepal.

One hour later, at the end of Elon University’s 2013-13 Common Reading Lecture, Grennan had proven true to his word.

Hundreds of Elon University students, faculty, staff and community members filled Alumni Gym on Sept. 17, 2013, where Grennan entertained and educated with stories drawn from his acclaimed book.

"Little Princes" tells of Grennan's visit to Nepal in 2004 as part of a yearlong journey around the world. He wanted to volunteer for a short time at an orphanage with the admitted purpose of impressing his friends back home, but when he developed a deep affection for kids under his care, it set in motion a series of events that culminates two years later with a visit to some of the roughest terrain on the planet as he locates parents who lost their children to human traffickers during the nation's ongoing civil war.

Along the way, Grennan rediscovered his faith, met his future wife, and started the nonprofit Next Generation Nepal to run orphanages for many children who today remain displaced from their families.

Hundreds of students, faculty, staff and community members attended Conor Grennan's talk on Sept. 17, 2013, in Alumni Gym.

Among the anecdotes he shared with his audience:

  • When he first told the children in the “Little Princes” home, the orphanage from which his book found its title, about his love of beef, he failed to recognize the impact of his words. “I didn’t understand that in that moment I was telling them that my favorite food was to take one of their sacred animals, kill it, and put it on a bun,” he said. “I realized I was probably going to have to do a better job of taking care of the kids and at a basic level just not traumatize them before going to sleep.”
  • Because of the armed rebellion against the Nepali monarchy at the time of his first two visits to the country, the threat of violence was never out of sight. “It was just sort of tense when kids were playing and guys were there with guns,” he added.
  • He was as shocked as anyone else when his initial efforts to find the parents of children in the orphanage started bearing fruit. He recounted his first visit to the first set of parents he located in the mountains of northwestern Tibet. “The whole village was gathered around us,” he said. “I was stunned that we actually found the parents. And it ended up working! We ended up walking through the mountains, and a lot of things went wrong. I wasn’t the guy you wanted doing any of it. You wanted, I don’t know, a Canadian to do this!”

Grennan emphasized two points for his audience.

First, the same men who trafficked children from their parents now target Westerns to make money. Traffickers sometimes operate “orphanages,” he explained, where they prey on the kindness of foreigners who visit Nepal with the hope of giving their time and treasure.

Conor Grennan autographed copies of "Little Princes" for more than 100 students following his lecture.

When it comes time for the volunteers to leave, the traffickers will ask for donations – and donations from the Westerners' friends and family – to help keep the home operational. That money never benefits the children, Grennan said. It’s gone as soon as the volunteer departs. If conditions were to improve, it would make it more difficult for traffickers to “tug on your heartstrings.”

And second, in closing the program, Grennan reflected on his growth as a volunteer. “The one soapbox I have to stand on is not that you should volunteer … but it’s not to let anybody tell you what your motivation for volunteering should be,” he said. “Whatever it takes for you to get up and get out and do this stuff, then do it.

“Once you do start helping people, you’ll find that your motivations change.”

Grennan’s views on service were part of what led to the selection of “Little Princes” as the 2013-14 Elon Common Reading. The program is designed to challenge students, faculty and staff to examine themselves and the local and global worlds they inhabit through reading. Readings and related discussions aim not only to encourage critical reflection about important issues but also to invite consideration of how our individual actions affect these issues.

Associate Professor Jeffrey Coker, director of the General Studies program at Elon University, chaired the Common Reading selection committee. Coker praised Grennan’s early enthusiasm for speaking to multiple classes in the days prior to the evening talk.

Earlier in the day, Conor Grennan answered questions posed by first-year students in several Global Experience sections that had gathered in the LaRose Digital Theatre to learn more about his travels and experiences in Nepal.

He also said Grennan’s appearance at Elon University is the first in a series of programs this academic year focused on the themes of diversity, global engagement, human trafficking, poverty, the Nepal region, Buddhism and Hinduism, personal development and writing. 

“His visit highlighted what a common reading program can and should be,” Coker said. “It’s not just a book and a canned lecture but rather a series of interactions with Elon students over a number of days. He’s a wonderful communicator who comes across as spontaneously funny, but there’s an underlying brilliance there that’s easy to miss. And he’s very aware of how to motivate other people.”

Students who attended the lecture echoed similar sentiments about the evening and the book on which it was based.

“He was really inspirational and kept my attention the whole time,” said freshman Mariam Lopez. “The book motivates you to study abroad, and another thing that makes the book so great is that it was about service.”

Elon freshman Julia De Sanctis agreed. “He leveled with us, which made him more relatable,” she added. “He didn’t put himself on a pedestal. He portrays himself as a common person, and if he can do this, we can do this.”

In addition to Grennan's appearance, Paul Anderson, director of the university’s Writing Across the University initiative, used the start of the evening program to announce an upcoming writing contest for Elon University students.

More details about the contest, which is tied to themes of human rights and social justice, will be announced on E-net and on the Center for Writing Excellence website in early October.

Eric Townsend,
9/18/2013 2:30 PM