Good morning. I'm delighted to be here on a beautiful, glorious day. President Bravman, members of the Board of Trustees, senior officers, faculty and parents and most important of all graduating students you are now joining a special group in the world.
Thank you for inviting me here or rather thank you for not disinviting me. I wish I could say it that was not long ago that I was standing in your shoes. You'll understand that one in a few years. I do have a few messages that I would like to discuss with you today. I learned them the hard way. You probably will too but maybe I can give you a bit of a head start. Each of you will encounter something great in your life, whether you create or it confronts you. But great things sometimes happen in the most unexpected moments and you have to be ready for that greatness in your life. So my first message is about the importance of resilience.
I had just finished graduate school in New Jersey and my husband was sent to China for his job so I followed him out there. But I had this small problem of not yet being gainfully employed. The New York Times where my husband worked would hire me but it would only work if I could get press credentials in China so for six months I was in limbo. Sure it was a wonderful adventure, I was exploring a new country, a new world but it still seemed as if I was wasting my newly minted degrees. In my moments of frustration, it seemed as though a billion people in China had something to do but I didn't. So I wooed, I wrangled with the Chinese authorities, I looked for other possible jobs. I called the American bankers in Beijing, I called the aircraft companies in Beijing. I strategized, I brought in other people to help me. Then in the space of a few weeks everything turned around. I got my credentials so I could write for the Times. Shortly afterwards, the vast Tiananmen student democracy movement began in China. It was the biggest story in decades in China and it fell into my lap. And then after I got over my astonishment I picked myself up and ran with it.
Then I worked harder than I'd ever done in my life thus far and catapulted into a new career as a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist. Luck has a way of balancing out. Life is impossible to plan and plenty will go wrong. But when it does your fortunes will eventually change and you need to be ready. You do want to take risks indeed, smart risks. You do want to get out of your comfort zone and explore. But there will be times in your life that are as painful as today is joyful. Alongside the thrill and wonder of life you will encounter failure and tragedy. You will experience all of them. When you take risks though, sometimes you will fail. Setbacks and disappointments are inevitable so your first challenge is to build a standby system to bounce back. Be that Phoenix rising from the ashes. That's what resilience is about.
For my next piece of advice, I'd like to turn the tables on you. I'd like to see how you would have handled the challenge that my husband and I encountered when we were in China. I had met a very smart intelligent Chinese — we shall call him Hongjun. He wore glasses on his round face, he was beginning to bald, and he was very thin. We had become friends and then over the years, Hongjun left his job and still talked about the future of China and its hope for reform. This was before China's economy became the second-largest in the world.
We had a mutual friend who had been put in prison and so one day my husband and I were speaking with Hongjun and we asked gently about this mutual friend. Hongjun's ears perked up and he said, "Did you know him well? Did you see him often?" His inquisition put me on guard. He pressed on. 'He was a classmate of mine but how often did you see him?" "Not often," I lied. A week later another friend pulled us aside and told us that Hongjun was a spy for Chinese state security. That's like the CIA. "Don't trust him with any information," she said. "He's been asking about a book you are writing."
Well, we hadn't told anyone about our book. Only someone tapping our phones would've known about it. Then a few months later Hongjun asked us to write a recommendation for a prestigious fellowship at an American university not too far from here. So here's the dilemma. If we refused, Hongjun might figure out that our mutual friend had tattled on him for being a spy. Our friend would get in trouble. Yet should we really help send a Chinese spy to America?
We were in China. Our mail, email and phones were tapped so we couldn't tell the University the truth without perhaps getting caught. What would you have done? How many of you would have written a recommendation? Raise your hand. How many would not have written a recommendation? Raise your hand. Okay. Okay, professors in the crowd — do you know your students?
Well, we wrote a recommendation. A perfectly fine letter though it was a bit lukewarm but somehow we didn't think it was right. Next time when we were in a place where we knew our phones were not tapped we called the University and explained that while Hongjun was a really smart nice guy, well he might be a spy — China CIA. Not surprisingly he didn't get the fellowship and we betrayed someone we had considered a friend. Okay, so now you know I'd never last on House of Cards. But wait a second; did I have an obligation to him as a friend though he lied to me about what he did? Did I have an obligation to the American university where I didn't know anyone in the admissions office but was part of the country where I was born?
I learned something useful about the world in that experience and it's my second bit of advice for you.
You will confront many ethical choices in life so you must develop a moral compass that will help guide you through life, navigate these waters. Often there are no perfect choices so make the best imperfect one.
And that brings me to my next message which is to try to make a difference. There are many ways to make a difference — in school, in business, in your career, in family and in life. Maybe you will invent something that saves lives or helps us all live longer. Yes, please do that.
Maybe you become the next Warren Buffett and make a lot of money so you can sign the giving pledge and give half of it away to do good. You can always think about making a difference in the society you live. Many of us can give back in small steps or it can be something grander.
Take Somaly Mam. She's not your typical role model in the U.S.; she's not even American. As Somaly Mam tells it when she was a young girl she was sold to a brothel where she was forced to work without being paid a dime. She says she was barely fed, beaten, sometimes tortured, threatened with death. It seemed like slavery and the big difference from 19th-century slavery was that many of these girls end up dead of AIDS by their 20s.
But Somaly was able to escape when she married one of her clients and went to France. She got educated. She used her raw intellect to learn foreign languages. And then she did something even more remarkable. She'd escaped the Cambodian brothels and could have sat back and enjoyed croissants on the Champs Elysees or stared at the Mona Lisa all day. But she kept thinking back to her friends in those Cambodian brothels. She couldn't just walk away. So she went back to Cambodia, she set up a shelter and began to help other girls escape. Traffickers were enraged and threatened to kill her. They held a gun to her head. But Somaly keeps on fighting for the girls trapped in those brothels and she trains other young women she has rescued to work alongside her. It's not glamorous work. And think how scary it must be to walk through the red light district among traffickers who would just like to kill you.
A few years ago Somaly brought her campaign to New York City signing an agreement with the office of New York City Mayor David Bloomberg to fight sex trafficking in New York City. Look. If an uneducated Cambodian woman who escaped from a brothel can give back and try to help Americans, we surely have something to give back as well.
There is a misperception that working on these kinds of humanitarian causes is depressing, emotionally debilitating. Yes you do see some terrible things. But in fact someone like Somaly who expresses her humanity by risking her life every day to give back has an exuberance about her that I don't see in my typical day here in the U.S. She is inspiring.
But now a disclosure. I have to say that after a few years after we learned of Somaly, there were criticisms that she stretches the truth, that she may even perhaps have lied in describing the horrors of eight women who she said survived life in the brothels in a speech before the U.N. assembly. Newsweek has written an article this week about her. So let's say she lies to get sympathy and raise money for her organization and her cause to stop trafficking. There is no other person who has done so much to raise awareness about trafficking around the world. Does the end justify the means if she lies to get there? Does she no longer deserve to be a role model? What does your moral compass say about Somaly? Life is not black and white.
I do hope you try to make a difference in the world. I don't mean that you should all move to Cambodia or Congo and become aid workers. But I hope that if you become bankers, lawyers, doctors, engineers, artists, I hope that you will find some sideline that will enable you to also make a difference in another way to help others in society and to add zest to your lives.
Research shows that folding compassion and giving back into your life has benefits in health and the pursuit of happiness. In your careers you will be developing skills that are critically needed around the world or in many poor areas in this country. So fold your giving into your lives, please don't save it for last.
I'm at a stage in life where I'm struck by the number of friends who are leaving lucrative professions to go into public service or study health, nursing or teaching. Just the other day I learned that a friend who had worked at one time in the White House went off to divinity school. Maybe their careers had satisfied one big need but not a lifelong one. They yearn for more meaningful fulfillment. You can find that fulfillment starting tomorrow, alongside building your careers, your family, your lifelong friendships.
When I talk about giving back, people have doubts. What is the question of whether it really does any good, whether it makes a difference. Look. Let's admit it — helping people is hard. Humanitarians somehow overstate how easy it is to get results. If you try to give back you'll find it won't always work. Sometimes our efforts even backfire. But when that happens, try again. Apply those Bucknell critical thinking skills and try again. Build more resilience. Partly because of the social entrepreneurship revolution, partly because do-gooders are borrowing skill sets from the business world, we're getting better at making a difference.
There's a wonderful Chinese expression which refers to the way you cross a stream by feeling for the rocks one by one with your bare feet and then going on to the next rock. And that's a pretty good and pragmatic approach to giving back and to getting through life.
One of the mistakes our generation made was to feel the need to solve problems in their entirety and of course it's pretty hard to solve problems so it's easy to get discouraged and overwhelmed. Students have always excelled at protesting, at taking symbolic steps, and that was true of our generation as well. But one of the things that I admire about your generation is the willingness to take modest incremental steps that won't solve a big problem but will still change the world little bit by little bit. For example our generation might have denounced the lack of educational opportunities in poor countries. You folks are better at sponsoring a particular third-grade class in a particular refugee camp. It doesn't solve the problem globally but for those kids it's transformational.
Maybe it seems as if I'm arguing for incrementalism. Hey look, I am not against saving the world in one fell swoop. But I think it's also important not to disparage or discount efforts to change the world one step at a time.
Let me illustrate this point with a Hawaiian proverb. Now this is utterly hokey and I'm a little bit embarrassed to tell you this while I'm wearing this ceremonial robe but what the heck. A little boy is walking along the beach in Hawaii and the beach is just littered with starfish. And he picks up the starfish, throws it back into the water, picks up another starfish and throws it back into the water. Along comes a man who looks at the boy and looks at the shore and says, "Boy, what are you doing? You can't possibly make a difference. Look at all these starfish." And the boy picks up another starfish, throws it back into the water and says, "It made a big difference to that one."
That's what each of us can do. We may not be able to solve the problems of global poverty or of illiteracy or of human trafficking but we can help individuals. And that's a legitimate way of changing the world. It's also a way of changing you.
There's been a great deal of research over the last 20 years into what makes us happy — in neurology and social psychology and economics — and the lessons are complex. But one of the answers is that after you've fulfilled your material needs, one of the ways to elevate your level of happiness is to connect with some cause larger than yourself.
Another way of putting it is this: our efforts to give back by helping others frankly have a somewhat mixed record of success but they have an almost perfect record of helping ourselves. There will be skeptics among you who will think, "Well, why should I care?" Well, one answer is that when you've looked into the eyes of a bright ambitious girl who has had to drop out of school because she can't afford $20 in school fees, you don't ask that question. When you see a child dying of malaria for want of a $10 bed net, you don't ask that question. That's one reason I want you to take a bit of a risk and get out of your comfort zone, whether in America or abroad. The experience will change you and will answer that question. It'll give you the drive to help others and to feel better about it too.
Another answer is that the experience will give you a new and broader perspective. Bucknell has already given you a strong foundation and efforts to give back will build on that experience by helping you see your own life in a new light.
The truth is that all of us here have won the lottery of life. The fact that you are graduating from an elite college in America means you have hit the world's jackpot. And when you win the lottery of life, the question to think about in the coming days, months, and years is how you will discharge that attached responsibility. What will you give back and how?
Your road ahead may now seem uncertain but go with courage. I end with a quote from Lu Xun: Hope is like a path in the countryside. At first there is nothing but as you walk this way and that again and again, a path appears.
So congratulations, graduates. In parting, I hope you'll go out with a moral compass, take some risks but bounce back if they don't work and try to make a difference. And in the process you will gain perspective. You will be happier. And I have no doubt you will change the world. Thank you very much.
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