U.S. Ambassador Richard Verma’s Remarks at the DAV College Commencement Ceremony
Mahatma Hans Raj Marg, Dayanand Nagar, Jalandhar,Punjab
(As Prepared for Delivery)
Thank you, Dr. Manuja. Thanks also to Dr. Sharma and DAV for allowing me to participate in today’s ceremony. Let me also ask the audience to join me in congratulating the graduates.
Good afternoon Graduates! Sixty-four years ago my father sat for his convocation from this very same college, DAV, here in Jalandhar. Just as you are today, he finished one chapter of his life and began a new one. Just before today’s ceremony I visited one of his classrooms in your historic building. I cannot begin to explain what a humbling honor it is to return to a place and an institution that has such a profound impact on my own life story. There is a part of me that just wants to stand up here and tell you family stories for the next hour or so.
We are from the same place
But I also know that I am one of the last things standing between you and the degrees you’ve worked toward for years! With that in mind, I’ll just stick to one story.
One of the things about my Dad is that wherever we are in the world, whenever we meet another Indian, whether it is a shopkeeper, doctor, restaurant owner – it doesn’t matter – my Dad will have a conversation with them that inevitably winds its way back around to a conversation about where the person is from. And when I was growing up, no matter what the answer to that question was, my dad would turn to me and say “You see son, we are from the same place.” It was always this same sort of thing, we are from the same place, or the same village, or the same school. Happened my whole life.
In the fall of 2009, I was an Assistant Secretary at the State Department – this is the equivalent of a Joint Secretary under your system. It was President Obama’s first term and I was invited to the arrival ceremony at the White House for Prime Minister Singh. As you can imagine, this was pretty exciting, so I told my Dad about it. And he says, “You know, son, we and the Prime Minister, we are from the same place.” And my dad says, “You should be sure to tell him that.”
I said, “Dad, there are 1 billion Indian people, it is mathematically impossible that all of you can be from the same place.” He says, “Well, I’m telling you, you should tell the PM we are from the same place.” “Thanks, dad, but I’m not doing that.”
So the day of the event comes and I am standing in the receiving line. When my turn comes, President Obama says to the Prime Minister, “This is Rich. He works at the State Department.” The Prime Minister looks at me, and says, “Oh, your family is Indian,” I tell him “yes,” the President nodding approvingly. “Where is your father from?” I tell him Northern India, Punjab. He asks where…and I tell him my dad is from Jalandhar. The Prime Minister then turns to President Obama and says, “Oh, his father and I, we are from the same place.”
So the first lesson today is, no matter where or when, no matter your position in life, always listen to your parents!
Teachers, Family and Community
Let me congratulate you all once again on your big achievement.
To the faculty and staff, thank you for all you have done to build and shape these young leaders of the future….just as another group of faculty many decades ago helped shape and prepare my father for his journey and life’s adventures.
To the members of the community, friends of DAV college, and neighbors, thank you for supporting this school, and these graduates – communities are proud of their colleges, and you have every right to be very proud of this institution and these graduates. This community is special for me, not only because my dad graduated from here, but also because my grandmother lived here, and my mother went to high school here too. In fact, I lived with my grandmother in the Basti Shek neighborhood in the summer of 1974, of which I still have clear memories – meals cooking on an open fire stove in the kitchen, a giant block of ice would be delivered in the morning, and gathering on the roof with the neighbors to watch the latest Indian movie. I appreciate you welcoming me back to this community that took such good care of my family.
And to the families of the graduates, you deserve a special note of thanks for supporting these men and women at every turn, for picking them up when they might have been down, and for giving them the encouragement they needed to succeed. I very much believe a graduation – much like an Indian wedding – is for the family and friends to celebrate too – so please give yourselves a round of applause. You deserve it too for getting here today!
And to the graduates, how exciting that you are graduating from this fine institution, at this time, when India stands on the cusp of global leadership in so many areas – India continues to be a leader in science, in art, literature, space exploration, health, sports – and so much more. The future is yours to chart, and I know the opportunities will be bright. So you all should take a moment to reflect on your achievement, and celebrate…but not for too long because you all have to get to work to start changing the world!
Our Collective Roots
I was very excited about coming here today for many reasons, but this visit has offered me the opportunity to reflect more deeply on the meaning of what my father has been saying all those years. Why, after more than 60 years in two different countries, my father’s connection to his roots here in India is as strong as ever. And why, no matter who it is, my father feels such a strong connection to people he’s never even met. People whose own experiences might be much different than his.
I think one reason is the belief that many of us have that if someone is from your country, you have shared values and a similar history. You believe these commonalities also mean you have the potential to be natural friends. Now I don’t plan to talk a lot about U.S. policy today, but let me pause here just to note that it is also our shared values and similar histories that have brought our two great nations together in a close partnership. Essentially when the U.S. looks at India, and I think when India looks at America, we see important similarities that we think are more important than our differences. Just like when one Indian meets another somewhere else in the world, we have assumed that our shared similar values and histories mean that the U.S. – India partnership can be a defining one in the 21st century.
And, that’s another reason I’m so excited to be here with you today, because I want to make sure you know that we are experiencing new heights in the US/India relationship and the promise of what we can do together is rather unlimited. I think Prime Minister Modi said it best in the recent issue of Time Magazine, when he said that the real promise of the US/India relationship is not what we can do for each other – it’s what we can do together for the world. That’s why President Obama came here in January to be the Chief Guest at Republic Day – the only US President to visit India twice during his term. He did so because he firmly believes – and I know the Prime Minister shares this view too – that if the US and India are the closest of friends and partners – indeed best partners – then the world will be a safer and more prosperous place. It’s that simple. It’s that powerful – this is the great promise of the world’s two largest democracies coming together.
The close bonds that have been forged between the President and Prime Minister received much attention, perhaps best displayed by the cup of chai they had together in New Delhi and the walk they took to the Martin Luther King memorial in Washington DC. But the close friendship, as the President has said, was only natural given the common values we share. These are values and a friendship that transcends any one individual leader or party: democracy, tolerance, diversity, inclusion, the rule of law, education, science and innovation. Indeed, we are natural partners bonded together by shared values, and well on our way to becoming best partners.
What does that mean for all of you? Hopefully, it means you get to share in the benefits and even participate directly in the vast number of areas in which we are cooperating. Maybe you will be part of a US and Indian mission that helps launch the first manned space flight to Mars. Maybe you will be part of an Indian and US medical team that combats a deadly disease or epidemic in some other part of the world – we have several such missions ongoing now. Maybe you will fly military or humanitarian missions on an Indian fighter jet that lands on a US aircraft carrier. From sports, to education, to Bollywood and Hollywood….the possibilities of what we can do and create together are endless.
And, as I mentioned, how wonderful is it for all of you to be part of Incredible India – a country on the rapid rise as a global economic, political and strategic power. India will soon have the most people, the largest middle class, the most college graduates, the world’s biggest cities….I could go on, but I think you all know how big and consequential India will be on the global stage, and more importantly, how each of you may play a role in shaping India’s future.
And while the future for both of our countries is bright, we also need to be aware of the risks and challenges we face. For instance, too many of our citizens still live on the margins and find it difficult to enter the organized economy. Both our nations face threats from terrorism. We have both experienced the impacts from climate change. And, in the United States, important debates are taking place over race, law enforcement and income inequality. I know India faces similar debates.
To address these challenges, and to seize these opportunities, the world needs transformational leaders. At the local level, in our schools and business, and globally, moving ahead today requires hard work, dedication, and looking for new ways to approach both old and new problems. I know from my father, I know from folks at the Embassy, and I know from your professors – that here at DAV you have learned a great deal about facing changing times without sacrificing values. Thus, I urge you to find ways to make your mark as leaders on this transformational world. This college has prepared you well to play that role.
As college graduates, this might seem like a pretty lofty challenge. After all, some of you are probably wondering more about your first job than about how to change the world. But here are some suggestions, with the caveat that no one has all the answers. Everyone must find their own way.
First, never stop learning. That is a lesson my parents taught me very well. I am shaped, of course, by their stories and struggles, their defiance of every odd set against them. My mother was born in what today is Pakistan. She settled near here shortly after the Partition. My father was the only person in his family to attend college. Nevertheless, my mother, this young girl from a village in Pakistan, would go on to get a degree in social work and be trained at Gandiji’s Sevagram Ashram. And, her mother, my grandmother, taught at GM Girls School, where I had the honor of visiting earlier today. And my dad – also from a village and the oldest of 11 children – would move on to get his PhD. Their commitment to a lifetime of learning opened doors for themselves and for their family. They instilled this in us. They taught us the way forward is first to open our minds and then to open a book.
The second way to be a transformational leader is to use the influence you have to seek positive change. Everyone in this room has influence somewhere. It might be with your families, at work, through your political or religious affiliations, or in your cricket club. It doesn’t matter. Look around you. Talk to people, find out what can change, and do it.
Let me tell you one quick story of people who used their influence to make a change in their community. You might have seen news about the recent violence in Baltimore, Maryland, a city right near our capital of Washington, DC. The causes of the violence are the focus of a lot of discussion and introspection in the United States. Today, I want to talk about something I saw in one of the images of the violence’s aftermath. It was a picture of a single person, with a broom, cleaning up the riot debris. Now I don’t know if he was the first or the last person in his community to pick up that broom and start to repair the damage, but here was a person who had decided he wasn’t going to let instability and unrest win in his neighborhood. The accompanying article suggested his neighbors were there too and that their community had taken it upon themselves to restore their community by cleaning up and urging their local businesses to reopen. They used the influence they had to take their community in a more positive direction than it could have gone. That is transformational leadership.
Another avenue is to never be afraid to be the voice for those who are not often heard. In the press of our careers and families, it is often easy to forget that there are many among us who, for one reason are another, are struggling. Maybe it is with dependence, or mental illness, or because of gender or economic inequality. Or maybe it is an organization with valuable goals that needs someone who understands social media to help them be more effective. All around us, there is a need for intelligent action and strong voices to help those whose resilience is weak. Transformational leaders see those needs and look for positive ways to address them.
Finally, transformational leaders find ways to overcome obstacles. As you grow into your leadership roles, you can expect that you will face challenges to accomplishing your goals.
My dad, like other immigrants, left his wife and kids behind to go to America. He arrived in New York City in 1963 with $24 dollars that he had borrowed and a bus ticket to the University of Northern Iowa. It was hard for him. My mom and brothers and sisters would come over a few years later. I recall when I was young, seeing my mom in her sari waiting for the bus to go to work in sub-freezing temperatures in blowing and drifting snow. Things were still hard. We had no money. We only had each other, but soon we were welcomed into a new community in Western Pennsylvania. We were the first Indian family in our community. Soon there would be several – and soon that group of recent immigrants would gather to celebrate holidays, eat Indian food, and yes of course, watch Indian movies on the old-fashioned reel to reel projector. My parents persevered. They showed us what it meant to be strong, what it means to stay together and to confront challenges as a family; what it means to build new friends, and embrace new communities; and they also taught us to be proud of our roots.
And so, when those obstacles are set in your way, I urge you to never forget you come from a place where one man can peacefully convince hundreds of millions to cast off centuries of foreign rule in the name of self-reliance. You come from a place where the son of a tea seller can become Prime Minister. I come from a place where one leader named King led a small group that convinced millions to stand up for greater civil rights for all Americans. And one man named Barack, the son of a single mother, would become the first African American President. All of these leaders, and millions of others like them from around the world, did not find their voice for the first time on the grand stages of national and international policy. They were local organizers first, fighting against the injustices they saw in their own communities.
And, transformational leadership is not just about looking for opportunities to advance social change. Schools need transformational leaders. The medical community does too. So does business. But so do your communities, your neighbors and friends, and often times, so do your families. So, while the world may be waiting for you to tackle the big things, the next challenge for you to tackle may be right here in your own backyard. Maybe a kid at school is being bullied; maybe someone in your family needs some extra care and attention; maybe an elderly man or woman could use a hand. That, my friends, is leadership too. Showing compassion, standing up for people in need and giving back to your communities and families is a wonderful form of transformational leadership.
Now all these leaders I’ve mentioned have something in common. They all came from the same place. They came from a place where obstacles were overcome by focusing on what could be done instead of what wasn’t being done. They came from a place where they used their minds and their pens and their voices to find solutions they thought were necessary.
And so, as we face this transformational world together, I urge you to act. Whether it is at home, locally, nationally, or globally, I urge you to heed an admonition often attributed to Gandhiji. That is to seek to be the change that you want to see in the world. Because whether you’re from India, America, or anywhere else, those who use their voices to seek positive change . . . we are all from the same place…and I am proud for my roots to be right here from this place.