Black Hills State University
Spring 2009 commencement address given by Dr. Ahmad

Dr. Ahrar Ahmad delivering the commencement address.
Dr. Ahrar Ahmad delivering the commencement address May 9 to the graduating class of 2009.

Commencement Address delivered on May 9, 2009 to the graduating class at Black Hills State University by Dr. Ahrar Ahmad.

President Schallenkamp, distinguished members of the platform party, my respected colleagues, ladies and gentlemen, and of course the visual and emotional center of this today’s event, the graduates of 2009 – it is you that we celebrate, and you that I will eventually address.

But, before that, there is a personal point I would like to make. When a first generation migrant, who comes from a country like Bangladesh, who happens to be a Muslim man, is given the unique honor of addressing the graduating class this year, it says little about any qualities as teacher, scholar or human being I may have, but it says much about the generosity of my students and colleagues, the warm inclusiveness of this university and this community, and ultimately the greatness of this country that I call my own. Whether this could have happened anywhere else is not something I know, or anything that I consider relevant. However, I do know it has happened here, and I feel blessed, and humbled, and grateful.

My dear students, commencement addresses can be sublime and profound, full of wit and wisdom, novel ideas, bold inspirations, new directions.

One can recall Sir Winston Churchill’s famous address at Westminster College in 1947, when he delivered what was called the famous “iron curtain” speech that eventually found expression in the policies of containment towards communism and Soviet expansionism.

In the next year at the commencement ceremonies at Harvard, the Secretary of State Mr. George Marshall outlined the premises and principles which laid the foundations for the Marshall Plan, the single most important peacetime initiative of our country after WWII.

In 1963, President John F. Kennedy, charged the students at the American University in DC, with nothing less than the need to explore and establish the conditions for world peace.

In 1998, His Holiness, the Reverend Dalai Lama inspired the students at Emory University with his call to spirituality and sacrifice that later came to be called “servant leadership”.

But then again, there is the commencement address of the Governor of Wyoming, who at the University of Wyoming at Laramie, strode up to the podium, leaned into the microphone, tipped his hat, looked into the students, and said, “Ya dun well, Ya dun well !” and went back to his seat. Incidentally, that is the only commencement address I have ever memorized in its entirety.

My dear students, it suddenly occurred to me that the President sworn in this year is Barack Husain Obama, the Distinguished Faculty of the year is my good friend, Dr. Cheryl Anagnapoulus, and your commencement speaker is Ahrar Ahmad. Clearly, you are graduating in the year of funny names.

More seriously, you are graduating into a world facing some very complex and troubled times. These are times of changes, of transitions, of confusions, and even perhaps contradictions. Let me mention a few of these paradoxes as a context of my charge to you.

Consider the fact that there are more people living under democratic arrangements today, both in absolute numbers, and as a percentage of the world’s population, than at any time in human history. There are also our brave men and women in far-away lands struggling to bring the fruits and dreams of democracy to distant peoples. But yet, here at home, our politics can often get mired in coarse partisan bickering, our own civil rights and liberties, and our moral standing in the world, may at times come under stress, and almost 40% of us, and more than 50% of young people, do not even vote.

Consider the fact that food production has consistently outpaced population growth rates in the world over the last 40 years. Between 1969 and 2002 population grew at an aggregate of about 1.9% per annum, while food production increased by about 3.5% per year. However, while we are growing more food per capita, the number of hungry people in the world has not decreased appreciably. Even in our country, particularly today, when we see families struggling to retain their jobs, their homes, and their hopes, almost 12% of the children live at nutritional risk. The sad irony is that while we are producing more food, it is being consumed by those who need it the least.

Or, consider the fact that the world has shrunk over the last 50 years or so. The forces of integration are powerful and palpable. We see increases in trade and tourism, the globalization of the structures of production and exchange, the rise of intergovernmental and non-governmental organizations, the development of information and communication technologies that can put the entire world, literally, at our fingertips. There are more than 200 million web sites today, and almost 2 million e-mails are sent out every minute. At no time has the idea of a global village been as true as it is today.

However, and at the same time, the forces of discord and disintegration are no less compelling, and indeed, so much more dangerous. We see the people of the world dividing along lines of race and gender, class and caste, of language and culture, of ethnic identity and perceptions of history, of region and religion. It is the last which is the most problematic, because some, perhaps many, believe that religious truths are absolute, and absolutes are non-negotiable. So we see the world drift towards misunderstandings and stereotypes, hate, conflict and violence.

Things have not improved much from 1920, when William Butler Yeats wrote in his famous poem The Second Coming,

Things fall apart, the center does not hold,
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned
Where the best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.

My dear students, you must reverse that equation. It is you, with your learning, your ideals and your example, must prevail over the forces of division, and despair. As you get your degrees today, you must remember that less than 28% of US citizens, less than 25% of South Dakotans, less than 1% of the world’s population, have accomplished what you have. You are by definition our elite and our leaders. You have earned the right to that high status, and must accept some responsibilities that come with it.

Remember that your degrees will help you to make a living, but it is your education that will help you to find a life. And, both will help you to make a difference in the lives of others. That is what you must do. Make a difference.

In the context of the three issues I have indicated earlier, make a difference in your commitment to democratic values and practices, make a difference in your sensitivity to the needs of the less fortunate, and make a difference in building bridges of understanding and tolerance with those who are assumed to be “the other”.

But I do not ask you to go to the mountaintop in sack cloth and ashes. Pursue your pleasures, embrace your conveniences, have fun, play the game, and as Jalaluddin Rumi, the 13th century Persian Sufi poet would say, do not stand in the margins, join the dance, and with one hand extended to the heavens, the other to the earth, in the still center of your whirling motion, find your bliss, your peace, and your love.

Therefore, be joyful, but weave into your tapestry of joy, the notion of social consciousness and personal engagement. Remember, not all experiences of personal fulfillment depend upon calculations of personal gain. And remember too that you can make a difference, not necessarily through grand projects and huge sacrifices, but through everyday acts of courage and compassion, grace and humility, mercy and humanity.

My dear students, this day demonstrates what you can achieve through your talent and dedication. But, this is only a stepping stone. Do not let your laurels of today become your shackles of tomorrow. Your journey is only beginning. But, you must keep striving, keep growing, keep forging ahead, keep on advancing, keep moving onward to new challenges and upward to greater triumphs.

As you leave our beautiful campus today, I will not simply bid goodbye and wish you the nice things in life. As T. S. Eliot paraphrased Lord Krishna’s admonishment to Arjun in the field of epic struggle, I would say, “do not just fare well my friends, you must fare forward”. That is our hope, that is your challenge, and that, my dear students is my charge to you.

Congratulations, Thank you, and God bless America.