Patrick Awuah, Founder and President
June 4, 2011
Distinguished guest speaker, parents, family and friends and dear Class of 2011, welcome to the seventh commencement ceremony at Ashesi University College. Congratulations, Class of 2011, for successfully completing all the difficult tasks leading up to this day. Congratulations too, and many thanks to your families and friends who have made this day possible for you.
Commencement Day this year is a little different for me. I feel like I am graduating with you. Before I started writing this talk, I read every graduation speech I have made since 2005, when Ashesi’s pioneer class graduated. I should do this more often. What memories of Ashesi’s earlier years. What a journey it has been so far!
Yesterday, I sent e-mail to the faculty and administrators, detailing the schedule for our move to Berekuso this month. As I speak with you this morning, construction crews are working frantically to complete our new campus. On Monday, we will start distributing moving boxes to Ashesi staff so that we can all pack up our offices in preparation for the move. Ashesi is in transition.
In our tenth year since classes began at Ashesi, we are preparing for a new start – a commencement. This is why I feel as if my team and I are graduating with you, Class of 2011. Yet, this period of change also presents a season of anxiety.
Change is always a little unsettling, even when we are the architects of that change. As the French poet Anatole France put it, “All changes, even the most longed for, have their melancholy, for what we leave behind us is a part of ourselves; we must die to one life before we can enter into another.”
As you make your transition to a new chapter in your lives, I would like to share a few thoughts with you about navigating uncertain paths and swirling currents; and of letting go of one life in order to enter another.
Deng Xiaoping, the Chinese leader, and the architect of China’s recent rise, once famously said, “To cross a river, feel for the stones.” There is great wisdom in this counsel. It is the path of being humble and acknowledging that one cannot always see the obstacles and the opportunities in life’s journey. It is the path of probing, exploring and learning. It is the path of determination –of grappling with unpredictable currents, remaining resolute, and staying focused on the object of our journey. It is the path of courage –of choosing to cross the river in the first place. And it is the path of hope, of believing that we can achieve our goal.
As you go out into the world, I urge you to keep this lesson in mind. I am confident that your Ashesi education has given you the sturdy legs, the inquiring mind, and the fortitude with which you can traverse the many rivers that you must cross in your life.
My own journey has been full of change. Growing up in Ghana; traveling across the Atlantic to attend Swarthmore College on the East Coast of America; continuing a westward journey across the United States to begin a career at Microsoft Corporation; travelling along the Pacific Coast to expand my education at UC Berkeley; and eventually making yet another trek eastwards, back to Ghana to engage my current enterprise. Each of these transitions involved the excitement of doing something new, the anxiety of the unknown, and a measure of self-doubt. Change is like that.
My return to Ghana was especially difficult. I was embarking on an incredibly ambitious and difficult task, to, of all things, start a university. But “starting a university” was not even the object of my journey. My aim was to begin a social movement –to trigger a rethinking of higher education—that would transform a continent. It was an ambition so great that my parents were at first concerned that this project would break me.
What no one knew then, was that the difficulty of starting a university did not concern me as much as a more personal hurdle for my family. We were moving with an autistic child, from the city of Seattle, which is a very resource-rich environment, to Accra. My wife and I held a great deal of trepidation in our hearts about whether we could find the resources in Accra to give our autistic child the support he needed.
But move, we did. We had a burning sense of mission. We felt we could find a solution to this personal problem. So we brought a specialist with us to Ghana, and we went knocking on the doors of schools we thought might be able to help us. We found a school that did not know anything about dealing with special needs children, but that was willing to enroll our son and have his aid from Seattle work with a local teacher. That teacher now works at a newly established special needs school helping many other children. The school that our son first attended has established a permanent commitment to special needs children. And our son is doing very well. In this regards, Ghana has been kind to my family.
The way I see it, the most important decision that Rebecca and I made was the decision to cross the river. We have been feeling for stones ever since.
The key, I think, is to remain open to possibilities, to maintain focus, and to help others. As you cross the rivers of your life journey, it is important that you take the time to give others a helping hand. It makes for a less lonely journey, and it steadies the heart. I have discovered first hand, the truth in Martin Luther King’s words when he said, “An individual has not started living until he can rise above the narrow confines of his individualistic concerns to the broader concerns of all humanity.”
To my fellow “graduating” team at Ashesi, I urge us all to have faith in our ability to overcome any challenges that we may face during this period of transition to Berekuso. We must hold hands and be diligent about feeling our way through this change. Most importantly, we must remember to engage fully, the rural community that Ashesi is moving to, and to do all we can to raise the horizons of Berekuso’s children. Believe me, it will make for a less lonely and more rewarding road.
Graduating Class of 2011, as you enter the University of Life, try to find a path that feeds your soul. Remember the lessons you have learned here, and remember your responsibility to all humanity.
I look forward to continuing this journey with you, and to your successes in the years to come. Thank you and God bless.