Thank you President Christian, thank you very much for inviting me back to my Alma Mater.
I am deeply honored and humbled to be here to share this precious moment with you, the graduates! Congratulations!
Esteemed members of the Faculty, proud parents, supportive siblings, devoted friends, without you this day would not have been possible, so congratulations to all of you as well!
Today you should be proud, very proud, of this remarkable achievement in your life.
Some 30 years ago, I was standing in your shoes, on this same lawn, wearing the same cap and gown. To be frank, I don’t remember the commencement speech, so I’m sure you will forget me – and that’s okay! – , but I do remember the mix of emotions: joy…relief…cheerfulness… sadness, but I also remember an inner voice asking the inevitable question:
And here comes my responsibility as commencement speaker: to give you some advice from my own personal winding road, from New Paltz to the United Nations, –via Haiti, Cuba, El Salvador, Guyana, and many-many flights around the world.
When I look back, my life and career feels so unexpected – so full of turns and twists, victories, but also many mistakes.
My journey started right here in New Paltz, as a 17-year-old foreign student. You see, I grew up literally in the middle of the world: Quito, Ecuador, Latitude 0’ 0’ 0’. So, snow storms, icy winters, toasted bagels and beer kegs were all a mystery. It is here where I first got to know Michael Jackson who was then singing “Billy Jean,” and I saw my first MTV video with Bruce Springsteen’s “Dancing in the Dark.” I watched Flashdance, Terminator and Back to the Future in the same movie theater up the street.
It is here where I discovered the beauty of the outdoors, through the Outing Club, that took me rock-climbing in Minnewaska and hiking in the Gunks.
I also discovered here what it’s like to be independent, and to be carefree. Like many of you, I spent dozens of Sundays in my dorm laundry room, hundreds of hours trying to stay awake at the Sojourner Truth Library and I also learned to type with that super word processor that replaced the electric typewriter!
But I also remember fondly my professors, my roommates (including the one who never cleaned her side of the room), my tutors, my RA, and so many others who guided and welcomed me in this place far from home; and who ultimately shaped, in one way or another, who I am as a person today and helped me define my next steps.
So here are my first words of wisdom to you: ‘cherish all you have learned in this school and be thankful for the privilege; but remember that life is too complex to think that we can thrive on our own.’
Be grateful to your parents, to your family, your teachers, your friends and your mentors. Not only today, but always. Don’t feel embarrassed to reach out, to ask for help, but also to say “thank you,” or to let someone know you were inspired by his or her words or deeds. There will come a time when you will be able to give back and help someone else get ahead in life, or to mentor a young man or woman who will follow in your footsteps.
My second piece of advice is ‘start somewhere. Anywhere. Even if you don’t know where to go. Life will take you places.’
I am saying this because I never imagined the most important things that were going to happen in my life. I never imagined that I would become a high-ranking official of the United Nations.
Life is all about trying and choosing different paths. During my years at New Paltz, I prepared for a career in business and finance; I studied the rational markets theory and followed the stock market every morning in the Wall Street Journal. I thought I wanted to be a stockbroker. But I also wanted to work internationally, not quite sure where or how. I did not know much about the United Nations then.
But I remember walking by the UN building in one visit to New York and wondering, “how does one get to work here? Who are these people who go in and out of the gates, looking so “international?” I began reading about it. I became fascinated by the concept of Peacekeepers, the blue helmet soldiers whose job is to make peace. In my research, I came across an opportunity to join the UN as a volunteer in the small and very poor South American country of Guyana; a country about which I knew nothing.
It was a low-paying job, in very tough living circumstances, no telephones or clean drinking water – very far from the Wall Street job I once aspired to! But I knew there and then – in the country with the largest virgin rainforest in the world — that I had found my calling – to work in something bigger than myself.
And without knowing, this was the starting point of my 25-year career in human development: lifting people out of poverty, protecting our planet, and promoting democracy.
My third and final piece of advice is: ‘Take a risk. Go where no one wants to go.’
Nothing is set in stone after college; your career will be a long and twisting road. Careers are about trial and error. About taking risks, about perseverance, and about taking pride in every small step that you take.
During my UN career, perhaps the most difficult –and yet the most rewarding job, was my assignment in Haiti after the devastating earthquake of 2010 that killed over 200,000 people. The level of destruction and desolation, the arduous working and living conditions, the human tragedy and the horror were such that no staff member wanted to work there. I volunteered to go and take charge of the recovery and reconstruction operation for the UN. I thought that if ever there was a moment to stand for the principles and values of the United Nations, this was it.
The job was daunting, I did not know where to start, and I did not feel fit for the challenge. But there was nothing more inspiring and encouraging than human solidarity in the midst of suffering, or nothing more humbling than the opportunity and privilege to help others rebuild their lives.
Yes, adversity will happen to you, no matter what. When this occurs, don’t be scared by adversity, embrace it. Be compassionate and be willing to go beyond the borders of your comfort. It will only enrich your life, and it will make your more resilient in your walk forward.
So, how can you find your way? What will be your compass?
Stand for something. Find out what your essence as a human being is, and what you are willing to fight for. Build your philosophy of life by questioning ideas that surround you.
By doing that you will embark on the amazing journey of finding yourself; the one and only journey that is worth taking. Because, as James Bond would say: “The World is not enough”.
I wish you good luck and an adventurous journey. Congratulations and God speed!
Sunday, May 21, 2017
The Five P’s
Good morning. Thank you, President Christian, for the kind introduction and for inviting me to be here today. Congratulations to all of you for reaching this milestone.
I echo the president’s comments and thank the many families and friends who traveled here this morning to celebrate their graduates. Your presence and unyielding support matters so much.
At New Paltz we are fortunate to have students who come from near and far.
My wife Mary and I arrived in New Paltz last evening following a family wedding in Jersey City. We had a great time at the event connecting with relatives from Brooklyn. Three generations came together including my father, 85, and my Aunt Joan, 87. Both healthy, thank God. Aunt Joan has lived her entire life in Brooklyn and thinks it is the center of the universe. She seldom travels and when she does it is a major event. The trip to Jersey yesterday was like going abroad for her. So you can imagine her response when I told her I was going “upstate” to a college commencement. She immediately thought, “Westchestah.” I told her I was going to New Paltz and she said that is Canada. A relatively short drive from New York City, this school enjoys the benefits of have a lot of students who come out of New York, Long Island and the tri-state area.
I stand before you the beneficiary of a public university education. I am a strong believer in the power of education.
So let me share my story and paint you a picture;
I was the middle child, one of five, in my family. I had several learning disabilities and was diagnosed with minimal brain dysfunction, or ADHD. In school, I thought I was stupid, was insecure about academics and was afraid to participate for fear of being found out. This lack of engagement increased my academic challenges.
Fortunately, my learning challenges were offset by my personality and striking good looks… I was blessed with bright red hair and the best way to present your “gingerness” is with a “fro.” The afro accentuated/complemented my pale skin and abundant freckles.
If that weren’t enough to build my self-confidence, throw in a bit of a weight issue, 30 or so pounds, along with my thrifty mom who always scored fashion bargains at great prices. Nothing says confidence like walking out of the resource room and waving bye to your “Special Needs” teacher as your long sleeved striped velour shirt hikes up on you exposing more pale skin and freckles… Thank god for the powder blue tough skin jeans with the patches on the knees that was several sizes too small.
So you might ask, what’s the problem? I was a nice kid and by fifth grade my mother had to tell the teachers that I was not learning and needed more help. I couldn’t read. “Special Needs” teachers changed my life. Structure, support, patience and a different way, my way, to learn made a material difference. My parents were always involved fully in making sure that I was learning.
Fast forward to my high school graduation. One of the last scholarship awards was for a student with special needs who was going on to college. The word that was used to describe this scholarship by some of my classmates is not one that I will repeat. Some muttered who would get the expletive scholarship and I proudly said it would be me. I won the scholarship and it was presented by one of my favorite and most influential teachers, Jackie Allen. Getting that small scholarship may not seem like much to most people, but it was the culmination of my high school experience. I believed in myself and understood that persistence pays off. I went to college and then on to graduate school, too.
I hope sharing my background conveys the following to you. Public education was my ticket to ride. Many of you have travelled a similar or an even more challenging path. I have met New Paltz first-generation college students, community college transfers, students working multiple jobs and fighting against so many obstacles. You inspire me and all of us gathered here today.
I attended the Chi Alpha Epsilon Honor Fraternity pinning ceremony earlier this month. I was moved to tears as parents, siblings and friends pinned their student and people in the audience erupted in support.
My undergraduate experience at UMASS was awesome despite the normal bumps on the road that I am sure some of you have experienced. When I became involved in New Paltz in 2003, I felt like I was stepping back into UMASS again.
Why New Paltz and not my Alma Mater? Given my journey, my purpose was to become involved in education to pay it forward for all that I was given. The New Paltz community has allowed me to participate actively. Meeting you, learning about your journey, how New Paltz has impacted your life and, in turn, how you have made New Paltz better is rewarding beyond words.
The New Paltz eco-system is unique and powerful. It is hard to capture its essence in a phrase or tagline. It is a state of mind. Tolerant, Accepting, Diverse, Supportive – with the right mix of academic rigor. This is a place where you feel like you belong.
All of you have contributed to this very rich culture and are now the stewards of maintaining the essence of New Paltz. I urge you to stay connected and help build on the foundation you have laid.
I recently met with a group of graduating students. I left our conversation feeling better about our collective future. Your candor, intellect, enthusiasm and fearless approach to the future is contagious. So the advice I will impart to you are things that you already know. I call them the five P’s. Purpose, Passion, Perseverance, Patience and People.
Purpose- Your generation has purpose down. You want to do work that is meaningful to society. Don’t lose sight of doing things that are purposeful.
Passion- The actual definition is pretty broad. But I think you know what I mean. You tend to do better and feel valued when you have a passion for what you do. Someone who says this isn’t work if you love to do it is an individual with passion.
Perseverance- Spend some time on this one. Think about this as a marathon not a sprint. Difficult things take time and you need to stay engaged, shift gears, adjust your approach and yes, compromise in the pursuit of accomplishing a difficult task or goal.
Patience- Perhaps you would think this is a contradictory term coming from someone who is easily distracted. You should understand that just because you believe what you are doing is right or important that not everyone has the same level of interest or concern. You have to learn how to adapt and reshape the message and approach the issue from other angles. Your top priority may not be the same for the people you are trying to work with. Be patient and work on other approaches to accomplish your goal.
People- If you remember anything from my speech today, it is the fifth and, most important, P. People are everything despite all of the technology and progress. People will always be the essential ingredient in your future. People will be your mentors, advisors, supporters and investors. If people can see you and hear you they will believe in you.
You have grown during your time here. You have made a difference and by all accounts, while you are eager to move on, you will. If you loved the experience here you will feel a profound sense of loss. You will make a series of promises to stay connected, to friends, fellow students, New Paltz and yes, faculty. Then, life will get in the way. Geography, job, family and so many other things will pull at you to disconnect from this place and your friends. Try hard not to fall into this trap. Connection to New Paltz and the people you have met here is priceless and will continue to nourish you
New Paltz has prepared you for this journey and you will succeed in whatever it is you decide to do. This institution/environment has given you the tools and the confidence to move forward. Each of you will do things that make a difference, large and small. You will change the world in your own way and on your own terms. We as a society are better off already as you move on to your next adventure.
My best to all of you and your families. Enjoy the journey.
Saturday, May 20, 2017
Fellow students, faculty and staff, administrators, family, friends, good morning and welcome to the SUNY New Paltz 2017 Undergraduate Commencement ceremony, part one. In recent weeks, when people found out that I was the salutatorian of the class, (and I say found out because I generally try to keep that information to myself… my parents, however, do not), they would come up to me and say, wow, that must be so exciting. And I would smile and say “yeah it is!” And in my head I think, “ehhhhhhhh.”
To better explain I think it’s best to go back a bit. When I first got the call from Mr. Winters, I had no idea why he was reaching out to me. When he did get around to dropping the s -alutatorian- bomb, my reaction was… complicated. At first I thought, Oh! that’s cool. And then what immediately followed was unease, because I thought, “dear God, what if they ask me to speak?” …And then he asked me to speak. Now at that point my mind was chaos. You know that Spongebob episode where Spongebob learns to become a fancy waiter, so he forgets everything except fine dining and breathing, but in the process the tiny Spongebobs in his head accidently throw out his name? That was my brain at the time. There were just tiny panicked Jonathans running around everywhere, the file cabinets of my mind were on the floor with their contents on fire, in general: a hot mess. But I collected myself enough to get through the phone call, and I got the tiny mess in my head to regroup.
So I started thinking about what I wanted to say, and I kid you not, within the week, before I even had a chance to start writing my speech, I had grown grey hairs. I said “oh my God, death is already trying to creep up on me”. Naturally, I tried to reassure myself. “Maybe grey is my color you know?” or “Maybe I’m extra wise for my age and my hair is trying to keep up with all my wisdom.” Since it’s probably the wisdom thing, today I figured I would impart some of that wisdom to all of you. (At least as much wisdom as a 21-year-old is capable of imparting).
At first I had a difficult time choosing a subject. I wanted to find a topic that united all of us attending this ceremony: parents, students, professors, people who may have just wandered in by chance, but apart from this very ceremony, I realize that our lives may be destined for rather different paths, even just between we students. Some of us will be seeking a job, some will be attending graduate school, some will be taking a break and trying to figure out where we really want to go in life, etc. etc.. But, in any case, there are some words of advice that can hopefully be meaningful to everyone here.
Leo Tolstoy, one of my favorite authors, once said “If, then, I were asked for the most important advice I could give, that which I considered to be the most useful to the men of our century, I should simply say: in the name of God, stop a moment, cease your work, and look around you.” Being a student, I understand that at times, this advice is difficult to appreciate. On hearing the same advice, I might very well say “how can I ‘cease my work’ when my final is tomorrow and there’s a project due the next day and I work a shift between?” But I would respond to my hypothetical self, and all those other students who think like me, that even during those busy times, small victories can help you make it through. I personally have found there aren’t many things that a morning hike and a brief tête-à-tête with Netflix can’t fix.
Now none of this means that you should go through life without a plan, or with an aversion to hard work; it’s always good to have a plan, and a strong work ethic has rarely betrayed the one who employs it. Indeed, pushing in the direction of one’s dreams has led many great people to great success. But, it is important to remember throughout all the pushing, that dreams are not guaranteed. Even the best laid plans have a way of not panning out. And besides, as another wonderful writer once taught me, “it does not do to dwell on dreams and forget to live.”
So I suppose in the end, what I want to say, is the following. In every moment, be present; be open to the shades of your life and take them as they come. Even in those spaces when life doesn’t quite go as you’d like, allow yourself the experience of what comes your way, because at the end of the day, a full life is one in which every minute has been thoroughly inhabited. In all of your future endeavors, I wish you all the best of luck, but above all things, don’t forget to enjoy the ride.
Thank you, and congratulations to today’s graduates.
Thank you, President Christian, and good morning everyone. I would like to recognize our family, friends, and the SUNY New Paltz faculty and staff for their continued guidance. I, also, want to give a personal thank you to my mom, siblings, partner, and loved ones, for I would not be here without their support.
Today is a beautiful day. It is a day of gratitude, a day of honoring our connections to others, and a day of moving forward to create a more compassionate world.
Throughout my journey here, my mom always told me that I was setting myself up for the future. That with higher education comes the opening of doors and opportunities, not experienced by most. The degrees we receive today can help steer us down several paths — whether that be continued education, a career, a volunteer position, or taking time to find one’s self.
It was my education in biology and math which sparked my curiosity for learning and understanding our world. My sociology courses, however, showed me that my mom was correct. That we are empowered by the education we earned here. With this realization I ask of you, my fellow students, to never forget the obligation that comes with a college degree. Our doors have been opened. Now, let’s open doors for others.
Education erodes ignorance. We now have the tools to investigate and better understand our world. The question is whether or not we will pay attention. We can continue to ignore current situations, or use our education to become active citizens of the world. We can use our degrees to live comfortably and re-enforce our own advantages, or can be a voice for those who never had the opportunity to be in our place. We can be proud of our achievements, and also use our knowledge to help those who struggle.
Today, we are receiving our undergraduate degrees, but we have yet to make our true imprint on this world. To paraphrase Ralph Waldo Emerson, we should all attempt to leave the world a bit better whether by raising a healthy child, growing a garden patch, or fighting for improved social conditions. To have had even one life breathe easier because you have lived is to have been truly successful.
Today, I am challenging you to make one life better. As a teacher, give love to your most troublesome student. As a doctor, care for each of your patients. As a CEO, hire diverse employees. As an artist, paint us a beautiful world. Whatever path you choose, make it a path dedicated to all, regardless of sexual orientation, gender, disability, race, or ethnicity.
I challenge you to live for the humanity of everyone in order to find your own.
We all love the flowers of spring, but remember it is from the cold dirt they grow. They come from darkness, to bring our world color and hope. Living for the morality of our society is not an easy task. Spending each day fixing and mending your own biases and prejudices is exhausting. Staying strong, and kind in a cold world may feel impossible. But it is these struggles that will make you bloom.
Once you have flowered, your pollen and seeds will help others bud and blossom. Once you have appreciated the beauty of a life dedicated to others, you will begin to reshape your environment. Plant your roots deep, but don’t be afraid to let them expand. Let them be grounded, but capable of intertwining with others. This will allow you to help your community and social sphere, but as well your world. We have the potential to make an impact, but only if we choose to live for something greater than ourselves.
By being college graduates we have the power to affect change. Nothing is innately permanent about our social world. As the evolutionary biologist Stephen Jay Gould said, (quote) “Violence, sexism, and general nastiness are biological since they represent one subset of a possible range of behaviors. But peacefulness, equality, and kindness are just as biological – and we may see their influence increase if we can create social structures that permit them to flourish” (end quote). My question for us all, is will we work together to make this a reality?
Enjoy this day of gratitude. Let yourself relish in the fact that you have completed your undergraduate degree. My final words are that I hope you will all realize our interdependence with each other and our world. And that helping others attain happiness, is what will bring you true joy. Let’s start with making at least one life better, and little by little we’ll create a more compassionate world.
Congratulations, my fellow classmates, for being a part of the SUNY New Paltz graduating class of 2017!