On Courage and Difference: Excerpts From Graduation Speeches

Tim Foley for The Chronicle

May 28, 2013

Chronicle of Higher Education

Patrick G. Awuah Jr., founder and president of Ashesi University College, in Ghana, at Babson College: To really make change, we must have courage: the courage to imagine something new, the courage to act, and the courage to persist through setbacks. We all recognize those leaders whose dramatic acts of courage changed the world.

We are well familiar with the actions of political leaders such Abraham Lincoln, Martin Luther King, Mohandas Gandhi, and Nelson Mandela; of innovators such as Steve Jobs, Thomas Edison, and Alexander Bell; and of pioneering scientists such as Isaac Newton, Albert Einstein, and Charles Darwin.

But courage is not always about big, dramatic events. It is often about quiet, determined action every day, at work and at home. The courage to say "Sorry" when you've wronged someone. The courage to be introspective and honest with yourself. The courage to join a cause you believe in and to do all you can to help it succeed. The courage to even imagine a different future.

Chronicle of Higher Education

Steve Blank, technology entrepreneur, at the University of Minnesota's College of Science and Engineering: While you're excited about your first "real" job, recognize that your interests and those of your employer are probably not the same. Having your employer tell you what a great job you're doing and rewarding you for it is not the same as discovering your passion and figuring out who you are and what's rewarding for you.

What I am saying is, "Don't let a career just happen to you." And as much as you love, respect, and honor your parents, don't live their lives. Your obligations to meet their expectations ended the day you became an adult.

At the end of the day, you can decide whether you want to be an employee with a great attendance record, getting promoted to ever better titles and working on interesting projects­—or whether you want to attempt to do something spectacular. This ... should be a question you never stop asking yourself for the next 20 years and beyond: Be or do?

Chronicle of Higher EducationElisa Villanueva Beard, co-chief executive of Teach for America, at DePauw University: It's only when you find yourself in unfamiliar situations with unfamiliar faces that you can learn who you really are. It's when we're surrounded by difference that we see ourselves most clearly. ... For you it may be your next job, or your third job, or a moment of profound personal or professional loss.

Some people can live their entire lives without going through that kind of soul-searching experience. They prefer to never stray out of their comfort zones. That's sad. Because those are the moments when you figure out what you stand for and what you're made of. ...

Take that job in a completely new field you've always wanted to try. Choose to work, worship, or live alongside people who have vastly different experiences than your own. ...

As you start your careers, you're going to find yourself in situations where, to put it simply, you have no idea what you're doing. That describes every job I've ever had. And it's not necessarily a bad thing—it's an indication that you're in a good position to learn a lot.

Chronicle of Higher EducationJohnnetta Betsch Cole, former president of Spelman College and of Bennett College and current director of the National African Art Museum, at Hollins University: No matter where you are on life's journey, and no matter how much success you have or have not yet attained, you must act on the basic principle that doing for others is just the rent you must pay for your room on earth.

That might mean that you are a successful lawyer but you regularly offer pro bono legal counsel at a community center; or it may be that you volunteer in a rape-crisis center; or you bring support and hope to women who have sought protection in a center for the victims of domestic violence; or you are a big sister or a big brother to a girl or boy who needs your love and support.

Every woman leader, and yes, every man who is a leader, too, has the responsibility to give back, because they would not have gotten to where they are if others had not helped them.

I also believe that doing community service teaches a leader things she cannot easily learn by any other means. For instance, how to make do when "don't" wants to prevail, and that being poor does not mean one automatically lacks intelligence, dignity, faith, and courage.

Chronicle of Higher EducationBernard Cornwell, author of historical novels, at the University of Hartford: Think for yourselves. That sounds easy. But if you go away with one thing today, I would ask you to do that.

Consider, for a moment, things which have been believed in the past: Astrology was reckoned to control our fates—some people still believe that. In the 12th century it was firmly believed that eating celery would kill you, and in the 16th century tomatoes were poisonous. We all know what trouble Galileo incurred for daring to suggest that the Earth went around the Sun. ...

In 1918, Popenoe and Johnson wrote in their best-selling and wildly successful book, Applied Eugenics, that ... "many a college girl of the finest innate qualities, who sincerely desires to enter matrimony, is unable to find a husband simply because she's been rendered so cold and unattractive, so overstuffed intellectually and starved emotionally, that a typical man doesn't desire to spend the rest of his life in her company."

It's a pity some of you girls weren't told that four years ago. ...

All these ideas, and many far more reprehensible, many more stupid, were honestly held by our forebears. My point here is you need to think for yourself, to examine the prejudices and the ideas.

Chronicle of Higher EducationMelinda Gates, co-chair of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, at Duke University: Reject the cynics who say technology is flattening your experience of the world. Please don't let anyone make you believe you are somehow shallow because you like to update your status on a regular basis.

The people who say technology has disconnected you from others are wrong. So are the people who say technology automatically connects you to others. Technology is just a tool. It's a powerful tool, but it's just a tool. Deep human connection is very different. It's not a tool. It's not a means to an end. It is the end—the purpose and the result of a meaningful life—and it will inspire the most amazing acts of love, generosity, and humanity.

Chronicle of Higher EducationWil Haygood, journalist and author, at Miami University of Ohio: In the eighth grade, I went out for the junior-high basketball team and got cut. I was devastated. In the 10th grade, I went out for the high-school basketball team and got cut. Again, just devastated. And here, at Miami University, I went out for the junior-varsity basketball team. And got cut. It was a sad walk back to my dorm room. ...

But after each time I got cut, I pulled myself up and I went to each basketball coach the very next day and asked for a second chance. Those who had made the team looked at me like I was off my rocker. They were whispering, "What's he doing here? Doesn't he know he didn't make the team?"

Well, guess what: Each year, in the eighth grade and in the 10th grade, and even here at Miami University, I ended up being on the team, wearing a uniform.

The truth is that no one can ever really cut away your dream. It is lodged deep inside of you. It is a force of nature. When you lose an opportunity, don't be afraid to circle back. Ask that person for a second chance. That's exactly what I did. Knock on the door again. Life is about second chances, but only if you ask.

And know this: When someone gives you a second chance, you give grace to their life. You give them a chance to do something unique, something bigger than themselves, something quite special. They now become part of the long string of human spirit that pulls you along.

Chronicle of Higher EducationJim Yong Kim, president of the World Bank and former president of Dartmouth College, at Northeastern University: My father spent his childhood in North Korea and, at the age of 19, escaped across the border into South Korea, leaving his parents, his brothers and sisters, his entire extended family—everything he had ever known—behind. He had no money. Still, he managed to enroll in the Seoul National University dental school and became a dentist.

He told me stories about how he had so little money he often could afford to buy lunch only from the illegal noodle vendors on the street. Once, when he was eating his contraband ramyun next to the vendor, the police came and chased after the vendors and their customers. But while he ran, my father kept eating his noodles because he knew he wouldn't be able to afford another bowl....

You see, my father knew all about uncertainty. He knew that it's impossible to be sure about where you might end up in life. And [later] he worried that his own success might have deprived his children of the opportunity to understand deeply the meaning of running away from the noodle police while, of course, finishing your noodles.

Chronicle of Higher EducationNicholas Kristof, columnist for The New York Times, at Syracuse University: Talent is universal, and opportunity is not. And I hope that you can use your education to help chip away at that challenge.

The truth is that we have all benefited from opportunities that others extended to us, and many of you are receiving degrees in part because you had the chance to receive financial aid. Now, in the coming years—as you pay down those debts, too—I hope that you will have the chance to pay that forward as well.

Now, I'm not saying that you should all enlist as aid workers. You don't all need to become Mother Teresa. But I do hope that you will find some space in your life, some space for engaging in a cause that is larger than yourselves. ...

The blunt truth is that all our efforts to help other people have a pretty mixed record of success. But they have this almost perfect record of helping ourselves.

Chronicle of Higher EducationMelanne Verveer, the State Department's ambassador at large for global women's issues, at Franklin & Marshall College: With all the progress we have made, the toughest challenge remains to transform human behavior. History tells us that it is an insurmountable challenge. History also tells us that we must try: to reconcile our differences, to create opportunities, to engage in service no matter what profession we pursue, to empower others who are powerless—to be change makers. ...

Years ago, I traveled with Hillary Clinton, when she was first lady, to Bosnia, where the Balkan conflict had been raging. ... We met with U.S. soldiers at an outpost. And one young man said, "Look at us," pointing to his fellow soldiers. "We're men and women. We're black, brown, and white. We practice different faiths. Some of us have funny accents, and we come from all over America—from cities and farms.

"And," he said, "the people we've come to help all look the same, and they are killing each other."

It was a lesson I've never forgotten from a very young soldier, and it is something your example can offer the world: the positive power of diversity and democracy in action.

Chronicle of Higher EducationPhilip G. Zimbardo, professor emeritus of psychology, Stanford University, at the University of Puget Sound: One source of negative group power is the pervasive pressure of social norms over each of us to not take action in emergency situations, to not get involved, to mind our own business, to do nothing when we know we should do something.

Most of us, when we witness examples of bystander apathy, typically say, "I would have gotten involved!" However, when we are actually caught up in the social drama of the situation, the majority of us cave in to the social norm of being helpless, mindless bystanders.

Time to change that. Practice being a social deviant in small ways to experience the power others have over you to be what they want you to be. Try putting a black dot on your face for a day. When questioned about this out-of-character marking, simply say, "I just felt like doing it, no big deal." If you can resist the pressures friends and family and strangers impose on you to get rid of it, you will have gained a new sense of inner power of the one over the many.