“Stronger Together”: Ambassador Richard R. Verma’s Convocation Speech for the Fourth Class of Young India Fellows Ashoka University

(As Prepared for Delivery)


Thank you Vice Chancellor Mukherjee for that kind introduction.  I also want to acknowledge my friend, Dr. Pramath Sinha.  Both of you are leading such a remarkable effort here at Ashoka University.  I know you have attracted top faculty members, and I am particularly honored to have been invited to participate in the first convocation ceremony on Ashoka’s campus.  Ashoka University is creating a new benchmark for liberal arts education in India and this fine campus is a testament to that vision.  It is a vision that includes drawing and expanding on the knowledge and practices of fine universities from around the world to provide students with not only knowledge, but with the tools you need to think through problems and find solutions.  And so I naturally was honored to join esteemed leaders like Former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright as one of your former Young Fellows speakers.
It is also an honor to join the audience that is assembled for today’s event. As a parent, I look forward to the day when I will watch my children graduate — although we just had a 4th grade graduation last week for our 10 year old and that was pretty emotional, so I’m not sure I can handle thinking about college just yet – but what I do know is how much work, time, sweat and tears are put in by the parents and the families and friends – I know that first hand.  So, I’ll start by asking the graduates to join me in a round of applause for your parents, families and friends.

But though this is the first convocation ceremony on Ashoka’s new campus, we are here today to celebrate the fourth graduating class of Young India Fellows.  The Young India Fellows program is unique in India.  It provides proven leaders from a variety of economic and social backgrounds with small group and hands on learning from eminent academics and others from around the world.  It has the support of many fine global academic institutions.

But I’ve had the great privilege of working with Ashoka Fellows, and so I know from personal experience that perhaps even more notable than Ashoka’s credentials, are yours.  As Ashoka Fellows, I know you all have one thing in common:  you are leaders.  I’ve heard stories about how one Fellow successfully tested using water as a supplementary fuel for auto-rickshaws.  Another founded an NGO to support economically disadvantaged students.  There are so many other stories of leadership like these in each of your personal histories and how you’ve inspired and moved so many people already so early in your careers.  And I am certain there are many more stories to come.  I look forward to hearing those, too.  But without further ado, let me ask your friends, families, and educators, to please join me in giving hearty congratulations to our graduating Fellows!

One of the things I love about being a commencement speaker is that it is easy to solicit a lot of applause.  But at the same time, I know none of it is for me, but rather for the idea that as soon as I’m finished, you are finished too!  But if you’ll bear with me for just a few more minutes, I’d like to talk a little bit about what I think it means to be graduating right now, in these interesting times, and right here, in this dynamic place.  What it means to be a leader in today’s world.  And, I also want to mention some of the ways the United States and India are working together to provide the global leadership we need to address some of our most difficult challenges.

The Need for Global Leadership

The truth is we need your leadership now more than ever before.  It’s a cliché to say the world is changing rapidly, but it is.  You will simultaneously confront huge opportunities as well as tremendous challenges.  When I graduated from college, a “tweet” was something a bird would do, a tablet was something you wrote on with a pencil – not an electronic device that could connect you to millions of others, we did not recycle our trash, the world was just awakening from its Cold War slumber, and there were no direct flights from India to the US.  Fast forward to today, and you embark from here into a truly interconnected world of ideas and commerce, you will stamp out deadly diseases and confront new ones, you will live longer and in a country that has emerged as a global powerhouse, you will learn more about the power and complexity of the human mind, and during your lifetime, someone will walk upon the surface of Mars.  Wow – to be you, with that future at your fingertips, with your talents and the instruction you have been given here – there is no bound to what you can accomplish!

And, of course, there will be the challenges.  Our increasingly globalized, populated, mechanized, and resource-limited planet is in some ways straining to accommodate the political and economic dreams of all of its inhabitants.  The news is filled with challenges ranging from political struggles, economic inequality and climate change.  And, of course, the scourges of violent extremism, racism and intolerance still impacts too many of our friends and neighbors across the globe.

Some see these challenges as impossibilities.  It’s sometimes easy to get depressed or down on where the world is headed when we watch the news on television or open up the daily papers or get the latest news feed on our hand-held devices.  Others, and I hope this includes many of you, see these challenges as possibilities for positive change.  They are the ones that articulate a vision that inspires action.

I am hopeful, and I am excited about the future and the role that all of you will play.  I am also proud of the leadership role that the United States will continue to play.  This past week in the United States was one of those historic weeks where democracy, the rule of law, and ordinary people played such a powerful role in shaping our future.  All three branches of our government were doing their part in an often noisy and untidy American democracy – the Congress passing landmark trade authorities that could help further integrate and develop Asia; the Supreme Court upholding universal health coverage and the rights of gay Americans to marry; and the first African American President, an Indian-American Governor of South Carolina and the brave families and victims there coming together to unite the country after an act of terrible racial hatred and violence.  There was leadership and courage on display at all levels.

In India, too, we see this leadership on display.  When humanitarian disasters impacted ordinary people in Nepal and Yemen, India was there to respond, including this past week, with its generous contribution in humanitarian aid to the victims of the Nepali earthquake.  With the scourge of human trafficking, particularly among young children, plaguing this region, it was an Indian national and his NGO that stood up and spoke out – earning him the Nobel Prize.  And who would’ve thought that hundreds of millions of people from over 170 countries would get together on June 21 to celebrate Yoga, one of India’s gifts to the world?  This is leadership in the 21st Century.

As you finish your fellowship, I urge to remember these examples and to think about what changes you might inspire in the next year or five or ten.  I urge you to remember that leadership is not a degree or diploma.  It is not reinforcing the status quo or giving up or finding ways of working around problems instead of through them. Leadership is what we do between a challenge and the next step forward. It can be on a global scale, it can be within your state or corporation or organization, or it can be in your community, your neighborhood or family – yes, your families, friends, and neighbors need your leadership too — it may not get the headlines, but you sure can have a real and lasting impact.

For me, I am extremely humbled that my path has led me from a modest upbringing in Western Pennsylvania to become Ambassador – the first Indian-American Ambassador — to the country my parents called home.  Many of you may know that my father graduated from DAV College in Jalandhar, Punjab, over 60 years ago, before immigrating to the United States to teach.  My mother was also a teacher.  I am certain I don’t need to tell you all what it’s like to be the son of two Indian teachers!  I remember coming home in the 9th grade with a report card of five A’s and one A minus.  Yes, you guessed it, we spent the next days reviewing what happened, and what could have caused this A minus!  But as an adult, I am ever grateful for the important values of education and service that they instilled in me.  I also know that from the alley-way of the Basti-Sheikh neighborhood of Jalandhar where my family grew up to the road leading to the US Embassy is not a likely path or one easily traversed – not without a lot of help, a lot of friends, teachers and mentors and a dedicated family.  I am also very mindful of the extra obligation we all have to help others who today may be living down that path or alleyway like we did, but who also dream of what the future holds.  So, leadership is also not forgetting where you come from and not forgetting about those who may have been left behind.

Stronger together

It is particularly rewarding to be here at this moment in the U.S. – India relationship’s history.  After two very successful meetings between our President and your Prime Minister, our bilateral relationship is soaring forward.  We are working together on over eighty initiatives addressing all sorts of challenges.  Challenges like exploring our solar system and improving the quality of the air we breathe.  I think it is fair to say that progress on our agenda may in many cases define and enrich the lives of generations to come.

But the relationship is about more than just programs and initiatives.  It is about looking closely at the full expanse of our people-to-people, strategic, and economic ties and asking essentially, “where do we go next”?  It is a relationship where, as PM Modi has recognized, the U.S. and India should not be looking only at what we can do together, but also reaching further and aiming higher, looking at what we can do for the world.  And as we define what those next steps can be, we are finding many areas where it is possible for both of our countries to become stronger together.

Stronger together.  This is the crux of the leadership vision Prime Minister Modi and President Obama have set for our countries.  And though they have set a more ambitious course than we have seen before, they are also building on ties that have been nurtured for well over a hundred years.  Over our histories, we both fought and overcame colonialism; we both have established loud and powerful constitutional democracies; we both stand for the rule of law, diversity and inclusion.  And the connections between some of our most famous philosophers and leaders, such as between Henry David Thoreau, Gandhi-ji and Dr. Martin Luther King are well known.  These leaders and so many others like them enriched the world by building on cross-cultural knowledge, cooperation, and inspiration to fill that all-important space between a challenge and the next step forward.

Our Work Together

And that is where our U.S. – India relationship is today.  In over eighty areas we are looking for ways to be stronger together.  For instance, we enjoy a trade relationship today that, at $103 billion, is five times what it was just over a decade ago.  Our leaders think we can multiply that number five times to $500 billion over the next decades.  This economic growth can be extremely important to India as it looks to feed and employ its booming population.  But reaching that number won’t happen if we only act bilaterally or if we only focus on programs that increase wealth.  The United States is a wealthy nation, yet we are not close to being free of poverty.  India too has great and growing wealth.

As the prosperity of both of our countries grows, we must join the Prime Minister and President Obama in their commitment to grow in financially inclusive ways.  And we must recognize that much of our success will come through smaller initiatives that strengthen our communities.

Indeed, some of my most rewarding moments here in India have been seeing how social innovators are working to improve lives and livelihoods on a local level.  I’ve sat with migrant cricket bat workers whose lives were transformed by a solar powered battery – giving them power for their tools and lights to keep their families safe at night.  I’ve seen the benefits of after-school and language programs for at-risk children.  I’ve seen what enterprising American entrepreneurs can do to help women find a skill in handcrafts and knitting after being victims of sexual trafficking.  Small programs with a big impact – made possible with a bit of courage and a lot of leadership.

Another area where we can be stronger together is working together on the challenges and opportunities created by climate change and clean renewable energy.  We in the United States have had our own battles with air pollution and some successes, too.  We are working with Indian partners to share that experience.  Tackling air pollution makes cities more livable and marketable, improving outlooks, inviting investment and lowering health care costs.  It will also help in addressing some of the causes of climate change.  But, this is not the only synergy between us.  The expertise of U.S. and Indian entrepreneurs is creating scores of new initiatives that can address some of the challenges of climate change and expand the opportunity for renewable energy.  I just learned Ashoka is also an example of this.  I understand that many of your facilities were designed by U.S., Indian, and other partners to be as sustainable as possible.  It is a fitting approach for this forward-looking institution.

With regard to education, India and the US have been natural partners for years, but we can also do more.  The Prime Minister has recently announced efforts to make India a global “education hub.”   I look forward to the day when US and Indian universities are collaborating even more closely, including through the establishment of branch campuses of leading US universities, and similarly with Indian universities increasingly involved in educating American students.  As beneficiaries of the global education Ashoka provides, you will be well placed to be advocates for this type of positive change.

Finally, let me say a few words about health care, and then I will wrap up – you’ve been waiting too long for this day, I know!  Today, the United States and India are cooperating on a variety of the global and local healthcare issues that confront not only our countries, but the region and globe.  For instance, we are collaborating deeply on research to prevent child sicknesses and deaths.  Through this cooperation, we might have finally found the source of a disease that was killing far too many children in the Muzaffarpur district of Bihar. We are working together on development and health in 10 different countries, and just this week we signed multiple healthcare cooperation agreements, including one on cancer research, prevention, control, and management.  Together, healthcare in our countries and around the world can become stronger.


Here in India I have the privilege of living in a residence we call Roosevelt House.  Roosevelt House was named for President Franklin Roosevelt and his wife Eleanor, both of whom had a special connection with India.  Its mid-century modern design was also the inspiration for the Kennedy Center in the United States, which was named after President John F. Kennedy.  Today, the Kennedy Center is one of our premier cultural centers.  I bring this up because both of these families – the Roosevelts and the Kennedys – were leaders who stood for great global change, but who also had great personal impact on every day people.  Franklin Roosevelt brought the United States out of the Great Depression to join – and win – the fight against Nazis atrocities.  His wife Eleanor stood up for individual liberty and dignity, including during a month-long visit to India.  President Kennedy created the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) to combat global poverty and hunger, among other causes, and pushed the United States to explore deep space.

We need to continue taking bold steps like these today to confront the great challenges before us.  But the beauty of our growing relationship is that we don’t need to take these steps alone.  We are stronger together.  We can combat extremism, search the farthest reaches of the galaxy, and stand up for those rights that Eleanor Roosevelt said come from the small spaces – the neighborhoods, the cafes, and from within the human heart – not just by acting stronger, but by acting stronger together.  And, with your proven leadership in the Young Fellows program, I know the future will be bright for both of our countries and our peoples in the years ahead.

Thank you.