During a commencement ceremony held at Webster University’s campus in Accra on May 19, Ambassador Jackson congratulated the graduating class of 2018 and exhorted them to seek careers which fulfil a purpose in their lives:
“Purpose is an essential element of you. It is the reason you are on the planet at this particular time in history… Whatever you choose for a career path, remember the struggles along the way are only meant to shape you for your purpose. Take the harder path. Learn from your mistakes. Let your struggles shape you for your purpose. One thing I didn’t mention at the beginning is that this will likely be the last commencement speech I give while serving as a U.S. ambassador. In a couple of months, my wife, Babs, and I will depart Ghana and begin our retirement. This career has taken us around the globe. There have been struggles. I have definitely made mistakes. But I always believed that my purpose was to make people’s lives better. I always believed that by channeling the resources of the U.S. government, I could help others be healthier, better educated, more prosperous and more secure. That is what motivated me to get up and go to work every morning. Find your purpose and embrace it.”
The ceremony was also attended by Campus Director Christa Sanders, Prof. Mohammed Salifu, Executive Secretary of the National Council for Tertiary Education, Representatives of the Government of Ghana, members of Webster University’s faculty and staff, students, parents, and other distinguished guests, and members of the Class of 2018. Read Ambassador Jackson’s full remarks below.
Webster University 2018 Commencement Ceremony
Remarks by Ambassador Robert P. Jackson
Webster University — Ghana Campus
May 19, 2018 | 10 a.m.
Good morning, Graduating seniors. This is your day, but I want to start by congratulating your parents. They deserve our deep respect for having survived your adolescence and your journey to adulthood. Parents, today is your reward for all these years.
If there had been an eleventh commandment in the Bible, I believe it would have gone something like this: “Thou shalt offer advice and platitudes in thy graduation day speeches.” “…the unfortunate, yet truly exciting thing about your life, is that there is no core curriculum. The entire place is an elective. The paths are infinite and the results uncertain. And it can be maddening to those that go here, especially here, because your strength has always been achievement.
So if there’s any real advice I can give you it’s this. School is something you complete. Life is something you experience. So don’t worry about your grade, or the results or success. Success is defined in myriad ways, and you will find it, and people will no longer be grading you, but it will come from your own internal sense of decency. … Love what you do. Get good at it. Competence is a rare commodity in this day and age. And let the chips fall where they may.” OK, that’s not mine; the comedian Jon Stewart said that in a speech to the 2004 graduating class of the College of William & Mary.
When someone tries hard, but perhaps the results are not stellar, we often joke that he or she deserves an “A” for effort. This is often meant as only a half-compliment, but I think it accurately reflects the reality of the world. Your peers, your professors, and your future employers, will respect you for this effort, regardless of the results. As another American comedian, Woody Allen, once famously said, “80% of life is showing up.”
Now, some hot-off-the press advice. Last weekend, at a graduation ceremony for students at Howard University in Washington, D.C., Chadwick Boseman — aka Black Panther — urged graduates to “Take the harder way. The more complicated one. The one with more failures at first than successes. The one that’s ultimately proven to have more victory, more glory … You will not regret it.”
I would add to Mr. Boseman’s words the importance of accepting — indeed embracing — those failures, embracing the frustrations you face. Why? Because we learn far more from our mistakes than from our successes. President Teddy Roosevelt once said: “The only man who never makes a mistake is the man who never does anything.” Make sure you are someone who does something, something you love, something that is meaningful to you.
There was another excerpt from Mr. Boseman’s speech that really struck me, when he talked about what the graduates will do next. He said, “When you are deciding on next steps, next jobs, next careers, further education, you should rather find purpose than a job or a career. Purpose crosses disciplines. Purpose is an essential element of you. It is the reason you are on the planet at this particular time in history. Your very existence is wrapped up in the things you need to fulfill. Whatever you choose for a career path, remember the struggles along the way are only meant to shape you for your purpose.”
Take the harder path. Learn from your mistakes. Let your struggles shape you for your purpose.
One thing I didn’t mention at the beginning is that this will likely be the last commencement speech I give while serving as a U.S. ambassador. In a couple of months, my wife, Babs, and I will depart Ghana and begin our retirement. This career has taken us around the globe. There have been struggles. I have definitely made mistakes. But I always believed that my purpose was to make people’s lives better. I always believed that by channeling the resources of the U.S. government, I could help others be healthier, better educated, more prosperous and more secure. That is what motivated me to get up and go to work every morning. Find your purpose and embrace it.
And now some advice from a nearly retired Baby Boomer, tailored especially for you, members of the Snapchat and Instagram generation. We’ve talked today about pursuing your passion, finding your purpose, doing your best at what you love, and not worrying about meeting others’ expectations for success. But with your friends sending you snaps, your favorite celebrities Instagramming their lives and all manner of news traveling like wildfire through WhatsApp, it can be hard to focus. These constant distractions are certainly increasing your capacity to multi-task, and there is no doubt that this skill is increasingly important in today’s world.
That said, to really get good at something — anything — requires focus. Concert pianists practice five or six hours a day; that demand hasn’t changed with the advent of vlogging and stories. So the next time you read a book, just read the book. The next time you listen to a song, just listen to the song. You’ll be amazed how much more you appreciate the simple pleasures of life when you resist the temptation — every once in a while — to do five things at once.
Finally, I would like to close with this thought: as graduates of an American university in Ghana, whose faculty and students come from literally the four corners of the globe, you are uniquely qualified to make a difference in this world. In a globalized world, no-one has the luxury anymore of being insular or insulated; metaphorically, the world is shrinking as we become increasingly interconnected. This is one of the great benefits of social media tools: to build and foster connections and thus break down fears and prejudices.
A graduating senior from the International School of Kenya once called his six years at the school a “destructive experience … destructive to ignorance, racism and parochialism.” How? Many students in the U.S. choose to participate in Model United Nations as one of their extracurricular activities. But your whole education here has been a Model UN. Over the course of your time at Webster, how many nationalities were represented by your teachers and peers? How may religions? How many languages have you heard spoken, even learning a few phrases yourself? These experiences have opened your minds and hearts. You have embraced tolerance — that consummate Ghanaian value — you have lived it. You will embody it for as long as you live.
As a result, your experiences in this university, wherever you go next, whether you realize it or not, make you cultural ambassadors. You may be a Ghanaian representing his or her culture and values while studying in the U.S., or explaining American culture and values to other Ghanaians who were not lucky enough to have had your experiences studying here in such a multicultural environment. Or maybe you are an American who can demystify sub-Saharan Africa to other Westerners. Or a student from a third country who can bear witness to the culture of tolerance that makes Ghana such a special place to live and grow up.
Wherever you are coming from, and wherever you are going, as a result of your unique experiences here, you will be natural leaders in this age of globalization.
So I congratulate you, graduating class of 2018, for all you have accomplished. I wish you the best of luck on your journey. This may seem like an ending, but in truth, it is only your beginning.