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Commencement Address -- Partick Awuah '89

30 May, 2004

President Bloom,
Members of the Board of Managers,
Distinguished faculty and staff,
Graduates of the Class of 2004,
Friends and family,

I feel very privileged to be here, and I thank you from the bottom of my heart for this honor done me today.

I still remember the evening when Maurice Eldridge called me in Accra to inform me of the Board's decision to bestow this honor on me. I had just completed another long day at Ashesi, when my mobile phone beeped. And so with mosquitoes buzzing around me in the parking lot, I listened to Maurice's message and then blurted out, "Do I really deserve this?" He assured me that I did, and then I had the good sense to thank him, President Bloom, and the Board of Managers.

I see this honor, not necessarily as recognition of my achievements to date, but rather, as a statement of Swarthmore's belief in what I might yet accomplish. I am humbled to receive such high praise from an institution that I hold in great esteem and that will always have a special place in my heart.

Members of the Class of 2004, the awards that you receive today are not merely an indication of how well you have performed the tasks associated with being undergraduate students. This entire day is an affirmation of what your future represents for the world we live in. You are an inheritance that Swarthmore College is giving to the world, not just for today, but for generations to come.

This is a good thing, for in the words of King Solomon, a good man leaves an inheritance for his children's children. We would be in a different place if all our leaders committed themselves to leaving a lasting inheritance of freedom, prosperity, and peace for future generations. Sadly, far too often history's leaders have lacked the wisdom of King Solomon. We see the results all around us.

Yet, thankfully, we also have institutions like Swarthmore College, whose entire purpose is to leave such a gift to the world, in the form of enlightened and committed people who have the wherewithal to chart a better course for the future. People who understand that real freedom can only be attained with justice and respect for the dignity of others. People who understand that true prosperity can only be attained when we feel compassion for others, and act on it. People who understand that peace is not merely the absence of war, but something much more profound that can live in our hearts and bring us closer to God's creation.

The college that I have helped establish in Ghana, Ashesi University College, is an attempt to create an institution like Swarthmore College in Africa. We face enormous challenges on a continent that has too few such institutions. Yet, we persevere with the knowledge that our success will make a tremendous impact on the lives of many future generations in Africa and the world.

We take hope from a most unlikely place; a prison in South Africa called Robben Island — the site of Nelson Mandela's incarceration. Robben Island was a dark place. Yet, a light shone there that could not be extinguished by the night. And this light lived in the persons of Nelson Mandela and his long time friend, Walter Sisulu. Together, these two men created what could arguably be called the first real institution of higher learning in sub-Saharan Africa. Believe it or not, they even called their prison "the university". And they weren't kidding.

After all, at Robben Island, they read great books, they conducted cultural performances, and they ran seminars while they broke stones at a quarry, discussing the books they had read. In prison, these men engaged in a deep conversation about the good society and how best it might be organized.

Most importantly, Nelson Mandela and his friends moved beyond intellectual conversation, to action. They insisted on maintaining their dignity. They fought a persistent and successful battle with the authorities to create a more just society at the place of their imprisonment. Through this process of intellectual discourse, Nelson Mandela learned to consider the different perspectives of our world, and to negotiate with his enemy for the sake of his children's children.

Robben Island — the university — is a remarkable phenomenon that is not fully appreciated in the world. It helped shape a man who is undoubtedly one of the greatest leaders of our time. It helped shape a man who has created an inheritance of liberty for his children and their children.

Heaven knows, Africa needs many more people like Nelson Mandela; in our governments, our classrooms, our hospitals, indeed, in every corner of our society. Ashesi seeks to nurture such leaders in Africa, just as Swarthmore has shaped you over the course of your time here. Ashesi's success will largely be a result of how Swarthmore molded and prepared me. And for this, I will be eternally grateful.

I still have a pretty good memory of my graduation ceremony here at Scott Amphitheater, and I remember simultaneously having a sense of great relief about having completed college, excitement about the job I had just landed, and significant uncertainty about how my life was going to play out. I did not for a moment consider the prospect of becoming a leader, and I imagine that many of you here today don't either. But believe me; you will each be a leader: in your home, in your chosen profession, and in your country. As you chart the course of your respective careers, remember to nurture close friends; remember the values of integrity, hard work and perseverance; remember the peace that comes with compassion; and remember the wisdom of King Solomon.

Swarthmore Class of 2004, you are a precious inheritance for your country and for the world. Congratulations on achieving this important milestone. We all look forward to your contributions in the years to come.

Thank you.