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TEXT OF COMMENCEMENT SPEECH GIVEN BY M.G. VASSANJI

Madam President, distinguished members of the platform party, graduates of the class of 2007, ladies and gentlemen-

Let me first warmly congratulate the Class of 2007 on having reached this milestone in your lives. It is a day you will look back to not only for this ceremony but also for the years it crowns.

Madam President, I thank you and the University for the honor you have bestowed upon me. Indeed it is the greater honor for I come not from your own community or country but from outside. But I have a history with your country, and a connection with your community. And this honor very much brings to mind that history and connection.

I have been asked to say a few words upon this occasion-but what can you say to young people venturing out into the world, who have to discover it and leave their mark upon it? Be brave, take risks, but don't do anything stupid. Follow your dream but land on your feet? Easier said than done.

I thought I would speak about that connection and history that I mentioned-and share with you some of my own experiences as a young person of about your age and I will be presumptuous enough to end with a plea.

Many years ago when I played in the alleys or courtyards or sidewalks of Dar es Salaam-the city where I grew up in Africa-I could hardly have dreamt, let alone conceived the image of finding myself at a place such as this, before a graduating class of a university in the United States. I could hardly have conceived of a coincidence such as this one, that at some university far away-where I was being graciously honored-there would also be present-as a professor-the playmate I was closest to for many years, in whose backyard we played ball together. This event therefore brings back many images from the past.

It's truly an amazing world; a wonderful world; which is not to forget the horrors occurring everywhere on the globe that turn our stomachs every time we turn on the news; but it's important also to look on the positive side also. Especially when we are young and setting out into the world to conquer it in a manner of sorts.

America was a distant place in those play days I am reminded of; it was not even a dream. It was, essentially, Elvis Presley. And then later President Kennedy, and some pulp fiction, in which I read about the joys of having coffee with donuts for breakfast, as what a district attorney was. And then somehow in complex ways because the world was growing America grew in the horizon and became a possibility, then a life experience.

Thirty years ago I arrived in Cambridge, Mass. and put up for the night at the YMCA near Harvard Square. It was August and hot. Perhaps the 15th or 17th for my generation, those were tumultuous times. The Vietnam war was on. There were protests everywhere. Kent State had happened in May of that year. As I lay in the darkness in my lower bunk at the YMCA hostel, I heard someone on the upper bunk speaking with someone on another bed, giving him the day's report, so to speak. "The cops came at us and we threw stones at them."

There had been a riot on Harvard Square. And this was my first day in this country. And far from what I had expected.

Now after that night at the Cambridge YMCA, the next morning I went to the University and picked up some papers, and then proceeded to a family that had volunteered to welcome me to this country. It was called a host family, and in a part of New Jersey that's been made famous by the Sopranos, but in those day it was quite wealthy and staid. This family opened their house to me, took me around, even let me cook a terrible curry for them. I would later go to see them often, became close to them, even though our politics were different-mine those of a young person and recent, theirs those of a conservative family from Baltimore.

There are a few points I would like to draw from my experiences that followed, as an undergraduate and later as a graduate student in the United States in the seventies.

First, I could not believe, I found it miraculous, coming from where I did, that a foreign university which had no inkling of who I was, except for my grades, would welcome me; give me a chance to study; help me financially, with scholarships and loans, so I could come with $400.00 and never look back. That almost free of charge, I was able to attend a great university from which one of the men of Apollo 11 had come-and indeed in my second week at the place I was looking at moon rocks.

How could a boy playing barefoot in the sand, in a poor colonial country have received such a privilege? It has happened to others, but it was happening to me. I was told; So you thought you were smart; well here are boys and girls just like you, prove yourself. The world is yours. No conditions.

That was not all. University is not just studying. I soon found out. At university I discovered the idea of freedom. Not the freedom from a dictatorship, which is easy to understand. And in a manner of speaking I had escaped a benign dictatorship. But the freedom I discovered was to be and say what you want; to define yourself. To believe that what you thought mattered, and you should therefore express yourself. This may be obvious to you, it wasn't to me because I had grown up respecting authority. Tradition and the government controlled all aspects of my life; education was a way out but only partially-tradition pulled you back like gravity and the government set bounds on what opportunities you had. Now there was the freedom to ask what dared not to be asked before; to speak what one dare not have said before, did not know how to say before.

And then there was the excitement of discovery…to discover the world, the universe-of ideas and thought. Not just through classes, and hearing great scientists and artists, but by being where you were-where ideas, lifestyles, politics mattered so much, were so passionately debated. I came from a small community in a small town or city in a small country. My world was circumscribed; in a fashion typical of those who come from a small world, we thought we were at the center of the universe and a chosen people. And now, to see the shell break around you, and emerge-into the sunshine-and the rain- and the snow and whatever.

I cannot convey to you enough the world that opened up for me, the sheer excitement of it; obviously those years have shaped me, and they have shaped me in ways I am thankful for. I have always looked upon those years as a second birth. I would not wish for anything better to have happened to me. No luxury would ever replace that. This is not to say that I spurned the place I came from, did not feel nostalgic for the comforts of existing in a small, all-embracing community, in which loneliness was a word in the popular songs that came to us from abroad. In fact I became more attached to the country I came from, understood it better.

All this came about through a single act of generosity by an American university…albeit by kindness from individuals. I recall that first time I came here; I was with a friend and we had a stopover in a European city, and I remember asking a newsvendor there for directions and impatiently being pointed the wrong way; and I recall standing lost and confused at a Boston subway station and someone coming up and asking, Where do you want to go? There was no doubt whatsoever, from day one this was a different, a welcoming country.

The generosity I received extended to an attitude prevalent at the time that made me proud and not ashamed of where I came from; I was accepted as I was. I was accorded a freedom in which to think and to say; so that I could without being afraid of a midnight arrest, say that I would rather the US pulled out of Vietnam. And I was shown a space from which to discover myself and discover what I think of as the universe-everything there is or possibly can be. A world of ideas and people, of science and the arts, philosophy and whatnot. I was not asked to give back (except the loans), and I don't know how they found me but they did; I was not asked to think a certain way, give up anything.

Now we can say that acts of generosity are easy for the rich; and that they are built into the DNA anyway, they help the common good of the human race. And so on. But I will insist on praising and thanking for that which was extended to me, and perhaps that too is for the common good. And I am not deluding myself, or I do not with to mislead you into believing that-like millions of young people-I did not dissent from the world as we saw it. But to be able to dissent itself was part of the miracle.

These qualities and gift of humanity and generosity and freedom are my counterexamples, they are what defined for me the America I experienced. Whenever I hear criticism of America-and I remember I live in another country-these are the cards I pull out. America is not just wars-about which we may think what we want; it is-or was for me-the people and their generosity and openness. It is its democracy-though that has become a bad word now. But I remember staying up half the night, in 1972 in New watching the Democratic national convention, whose results seemed to vital at the time, especially for the young people.

All these qualities that I am extolling give me a life.

Of course the world has changed; I would not always feel secure saying what I thought about the world, first because I have more to lose, and second the world itself is less secure and seems more dangerous than it was. Our moral principles and our freedoms are under stress, and we are not sure what is quite right.

But speaking to young people here I thought I would remind you of some of the qualities of your people and nation and way of life that made a deep impression on me; more than that, gave me a second birth; and to remind you, and to urge you to guard these qualities that have made you permanent friends, and that now and in the future may continue to do so, and set an example to the world and make it more peaceful.

This article was posted on: December 20, 2007

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