Text of the Commencement Keynote Address delivered at Macalester College on Saturday 13th May 2023 following the conferral of the degree of Doctor of Humane Letters (Honoris Causa)
President Suzanne Rivera, members of the Board of Trustees, faculty and staff, friends and family, students, and most importantly, the Class of 2023! Congratulations on this truly special day.
Thank you all so much for the opportunity to join you today to celebrate the culmination of four eventful years. And I thank you as well for the opportunity to finally achieve one of my life’s biggest dreams – and I am not just referring to the unbelievable distinction of becoming an honorary Scot: that is mindblowing in itself – but believe it or not, this is the very first time in my life that I have walked a stage in an academic robe and a hood.
I was 21 years old and preparing for my own graduation with a degree in the Social Sciences, and wondering how exactly I would go on and make a tangible difference in the world, but the choices that I had made long before then dictated that I would never actually make it to my own commencement ceremony.
As a freshman in college, I cultivated a habit of asking deep questions. I often wondered why things were the way they were; I wondered who was directly responsible for the present state of affairs; I wondered if they felt any sense of urgency about turning things around. And when I got resistance to my questions, I challenged myself to not back down. I grappled with the internal urge to stand for something while knowing that there could be consequences to my actions.
As a young journalist, I understood that societal transformation always begins with the asking of deep, intentional questions – both of others and of ourselves. So, whether I was interviewing the Pro Chancellor of the university or the first black African to win the Nobel Prize for Literature, I operated with the same vigour with which I drilled myself on the most important question that I could muster. It goes like this:
Of all the things that I could be, who will I be?
Of all the things that I could do, what will I do to make the world a better place?
Right before I turned 19, I decided that I would be known, not so much for the words that I speak, but the work that I do. I decided that it was more important for me to be “the man in the arena” as Theodore Roosevelt described in April 1910. I have heard the story told countless times about that day in 1995 as the South African Rugby team prepared for the World Cup Finals – the single sports game that would help to unite a deeply fractured country seeking to heal from a long legacy of injustice. To inspire the team to be greater than they thought they could be, Nelson Mandela gave a copy of Roosevelt’s speech to the captain of the team, Francois Pienaar. The words read:
“It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming.”Theodore Roosevelt (1910)
I decided that I wanted to be a doer, not just a critic; I wanted to be a builder, not just a visionary. I wanted to be the man in the arena.
For the rest of my time as an undergraduate, I was relentless in pursuit of my purpose – I led a federated network of more than 2,000 student writers and editors; I served as lead speaker for my university’s debate team doing competitions within and outside the country; I undertook three highly successful internships; I founded my first non-profit with the great support of nine friends and recruited more than 100 volunteers providing after-school tutoring at an under-resourced government school, volunteering at every orphanage we could find, organising micro-entrepreneurship programmes giving grants to founders of small innovative ventures and organising leadership programmes for ambitious young leaders. I co-founded a radio station and became host of my own programme; every week I was interviewing young changemakers whose stories needed to be told. I was relentless – honouring invitations to speak at conferences and school graduations.
It was all that doing that ensured that on the day when I should have been walking across a stage to receive a diploma and a celebratory handshake, I was out on the trail doing exactly what I’m doing today – I was speaking at another institution, providing encouragement for those who seek to make a great positive difference in the world.
These were the activities that prepared me for my very first encounter with the spirit of Macalester halfway across the world. While I immersed myself in work, dreaming about how I might play a role in the transformation of my country, Nigeria, I got introduced to someone whose vision completely superseded mine – a man who perfectly articulated my unknown passions for developing a generation of ethical and entrepreneurial leaders for all of Africa. That would be none other than a member of the Macalester Class of 1999 and 2018 Commencement speaker here – Fred Swaniker.
While I was asking these deep questions of myself, Fred helped me to ask even bigger questions. He invited me into his dream, his Big Hairy Audacious Goal, and what was initially an invitation to spend four months contributing to the most compelling vision that I had encountered became nine of the most fantastic years of my life at African Leadership Academy in Johannesburg. And that is where my second lifelong Macalester connection was formed.
An outstanding young man from the Democratic Republic of Congo came into my life in 2013 and then he came here to Macalester in 2015. Throughout the time that he spent here studying Political Science with an African Studies concentration, while pursuing an intense passion for Dance, Arnold Nteranya Sanginga worked tirelessly alongside me in developing my own Big Hairy Audacious Goal – of developing a generation of young Africans who are steeped in an understanding of the public sector and of society’s needs and who are passionate about finding pathways to transformational public leadership roles. What we built together seven years ago has now evolved into Future Africa, a thriving organisation that is developing leaders from more than 30 African countries, and today, it is led entirely by a young man who fully embodies Macalester’s emphasis on internationalism, multiculturalism and service to society.
On a personal note, on the most important day of my life, when I said my vows to my best friend, I could think of no better person to stand next to me as my best man. And on the second most important day of my life, when my daughter was born four years ago, I could think of no better person to entrust with the responsibility of being her godfather. Macalester shaped that man.
Long before I knew that I would come here, the influence of Macalester College touched me in my corner of the world. And I know that the stories of Fred and Arnold are mirrored in each of you and in your journeys. Over the last four years, you have not just experienced some of the most pivotal moments of the 21st Century, you have stood at the forefront of advocacy, demonstrating the kind of leadership that changes things.
You are the generation who witnessed the world completely shut down around you just as you began what was supposed to be the most enjoyable year of your lives. As we saw the death toll from Covid-19 rise uncontrollably in this state, across this country and around the world, you lived through the fear, through the pain and through the uncertainty and you forged even stronger bonds with each other in spite of the fact that many of the treasured traditions of campus life were put aside temporarily. You have since worked extra hard to bring back those beloved traditions, and to build better experiences for those who have come after you. You are the generation that builds.
You are the generation that witnessed the eruption and outpouring of emotions that followed the murder of George Floyd not very far from here. And as his final words “I can’t breathe” ignited a global movement for racial justice, you did not stand by the wayside. You witnessed the helicopters flying overhead, you saw the journalists descending on the city and you observed the protests going on day and night as the attention of the entire world focused on Minnesota. That would have been a convenient time to duck away and look after yourselves first, but you went out and protested. You lent your voices to global calls for justice. And it is even more special to know that you had the backing of the college to not be passive in the face of injustice – not just here at home but across the world – in Syria, in Sudan, in Lebanon, in Afghanistan, in Ukraine, in Ethiopia, in Iran, and everywhere else where people feel hurt and wonder if anyone hears their cries for help. You are the generation that listens and acts.
You are the generation who turned your activism inwards as members of the student body leading the campaign for a “Fossil-Free Mac”. You felt strongly enough about the need to divest from companies that “desecrate the earth and harm indigenous communities” as you wrote in your proposal. Your persistence challenged the Board of Trustees to make important calls about protecting not just the financial future of the College, but also the future of our land and our planet. You are the generation that advocates.
You are a generation that is unbowed, undefeated and definitely not to be underestimated. In spite of your ups and downs, you have continued to lead with heart, with focus and with determination.
And I know that many of you would be graduating with at least a little bit of trepidation about what comes next – both for yourselves and for the world. Personally, you may be unsure whether your plans for graduate school will pan out as you envision, or if that job offer will prove to be right decision you hope it will be. And some of you would give anything to have even a job offer or something that represents clarity about your next steps. I know how you feel because I have been there as well, but I have learned in my own journey that life only truly makes sense when you look backwards and join the dots in your story as Steve Jobs said at Stanford in 2005. So, remember to leave room for serendipity and trust that the road will rise to meet you as you forge ahead.
And if you are worried about the desperate state of the world and wondering if anything will truly change – if you are concerned about racial injustice and violence here in the United States or endless wars across the world; if you are concerned about climate change and the sustained degradation of our planet; if you are concerned about rising inequality seeing the ultra-wealthy become even wealthier faster than the bottom billion can meet their daily needs; if you are concerned about political and social polarisation and what looks like the gradual loss of our social fibre; I would like to plead with you to resist the urge to give in to cynicism and a sense of defeatism, because we have proven time and again that humanity will always prevail and that we can shape a better future together if we don’t give up on trying.
If you need some inspiration, let me introduce you to the Macalester College Class of 1923. When they arrived here for the start of their first semester on Wednesday 24th September 1919, the world was a mess. The worst pandemic in human history had affected 500 million people and claimed the lives of about 50 million – what became known as the Spanish Flu Pandemic. The first World War was winding down and Macalester College published the list of 290 undergraduates, former students and alumni who had been involved in war service including six who were killed in action and three others who had died in service. The Elaine Massacre in Arkansas saw almost 800 African-Americans killed by white mobs assisted by federal troops. Everything looked bleak.
Over the next four years, as they attempted to focus on their studies, the Russian Famine of 1921-1922 took the lives of roughly 5 million people; France launched a campaign against women’s bodies prohibiting the sale or prescription of contraceptives and Mahatma Gandhi was sentenced to six years in prison as he led the movement seeking Indian independence from British rule.
But in the face of all of this negativity, there were springs of hope. On the 4th of June 1919, the United States Congress approved the 19th amendment to the constitution that guaranteed suffrage for women and three years later, Rebecca Felton was elected as the first woman in the US Senate, inevitably paving the way for someone like Senator Amy Klobuchar to be representing Minnesota in service of this great country. Across the pond in Toronto, Dr Frederick Banton discovered how to isolate Insulin for the treatment of diabetes – a huge medical breakthrough at the time.
If we think back 100 years ago and imagine the journeys of the 48 people who graduated in that class, there was just one international student, Eugenio Fonbuena from the Philippines, how impressed would they be to see a student body today drawn from 94 countries across the world? Some things really do change over time if we are persistent in refusing to give up.
But here is what I find most inspiring and personally gratifying, at exactly the same time that the Class of 1923 was arriving here at Macalester, another young man in another part of the world was traveling as a member of the German delegation to the Paris Peace Conference. With the conviction that comes from observing the formal end of World War 1 with the signing of the Treaty of Versailles, Kurt Hahn founded Salem School in Germany in 1920 where the curriculum revolved around social justice and service to society. He challenged Hitler, spoke up against Nazism and found himself imprisoned and then exiled because of his advocacy.
If he had not done that, perhaps he would not have gone on to establish Gordonstoun in Scotland, the Outward Bound movement, the Duke of Edinburgh Award, and Atlantic College in Wales which was the first of what would become the United World Colleges, which I am deeply humbled to steward today. If Kurt Hahn had not stood up for his values, we would most likely not be celebrating the graduation of 23 members of this class here today and the more than 300 UWC graduates who have gone here before them.
So, here’s my final charge to you: don’t dream small dreams. Take on big challenges, and do not sit on the fence when the time comes to defend your values. Be aware of your limitations and be thankful for your opportunities. Be firm in your convictions. And even if you are required to stand alone, stand strong. Be prepared to be wrong so that you can enjoy the elation of being right. Learn to tackle the mountain directly in front of you so that you can see clearly the other mountains ahead of you. Listen carefully to this, you will be only remembered for the risks that you take. So, take some risks because the secret to doing great things in life is to do lots of small things very well.
Your education here has prepared you to make a positive difference in the world. Now go ahead and do exactly that; we’re going to be cheering you on.
May the road rise up to meet you.
May the wind be always at your back.
May the sun shine warm upon your face;
the rains fall soft upon your fields and until we meet again,
may God hold you in the palm of His hand.
Congratulations, Class of 2023!