Good morning, everyone! It is such a pleasure to be here today and to serve as guest speaker for the graduation commencement of an institution as distinguished as the Stella Maris Polytechnic University.
I want to issue a special congratulations to all 607 graduates!
As you all know, academia is no easy feat- it takes a great deal of sacrifice, often while balancing personal obligations to those in your life. Yet… you all still made the important decision to pursue your passions in the hopes of building a better future for yourselves and your fellow Liberians.
Today, we have graduates from five different colleges involving the study of architecture, agriculture, business, health, education, and more. All areas in the service of the people. Dedication to these fields is not something to take lightly- I mean this when I say that these fields are at the foundation of a thriving society.
Let me also thank your parents, and other family and community members who have helped you along the way so that today you could come forward and proudly receive your degrees.
Congratulations to you and the University’s faculty and staff for reaching this milestone. You have my support and encouragement.
For years, the United States has been a proud supporter of Stella Maris in efforts to fortify this campus, better prepare students for their respective fields, and improve the academic landscape for Liberian youth:
- From 2009 to 2010, USAID provided training for 22 teacher trainers working at the University as well as 82 teachers in training.
- In 2014, Stella Maris collaborated with USAID to develop an alternative elementary school curriculum targeting students who had been absent from school or had been held back.
- USAID also provided technical training for medical faculty, donated medical technology, and granted a limited number of scholarships for medical laboratory students.
The goal of this collaboration between the United States and Liberian institutions has been to strengthen an academic system that will serve the country’s needs for generations to come.
The theme you have chosen for today is “Dream to learn well! Learn so as to serve well!” Let me start by breaking that down into two parts. In the first phrase, “Dream to learn well.” I like the mix of “learn”, which implies curiosity, adaptation and continuing education, and the word “dream,” which implies a search for inspiration.
Well, for starters, never stop learning OR dreaming! The older I get, the more I realize that I don’t know, and the more things I want to explore. Mahatma Gandhi said, “Live as if you were to die tomorrow, and learn as if you will live forever.”
As for dreams, I am a huge fan of the book, “What Color is your Parachute?” This is a guide for job-hunters that says, when you are looking for work, don’t start with what’s being advertised – start by examining yourself. Inside each of us is an exceptional expert in something. If we look for what inspires us the most, what gets us out of bed in the morning, we can follow our passion. That will tell us where we would be most happy working, and we will excel at doing what pleases us the most.
The second phrase, “Learn to serve well!” is to my ear, a call for sacrifice and integrity. You’ve already taken a step in this direction by pursuing your studies in fields of service to the public.
As unique individuals, we serve at many levels – our family, our church or mosque, our friends, our country, and the greater society. “Serving well” also implies a balance between all our obligations – if you steal from your church to give to your family, that is not “serving well!” Equally, if you are so dedicated to your job that your family is suffering, you are not “serving well.” In addition, “serving well” implies presence and a good faith effort; half-hearted service is not “serving well.”
In looking at service in the Liberian context, I am compelled to think specifically about your environment. What makes this country different? I believe the inspirational ideals that motivated your American founders to return to Africa are still pertinent today, despite the fact that when they said “The love of liberty brought us here,” they overlooked that true liberty cannot be achieved by an elite ruling class that suppresses the dreams of most of the population.
Democracy is a never-ending work in progress, that is the net result of each one of us asking ourselves “what can I do to improve my family, my business, my country?”
The Liberian constitution of 1986 says in article 1, “All power is inherent in the people. All free governments are instituted by their authority and for their benefit and they have the right to alter and reform the same when their safety and happiness so require.” In the preamble, the constitution states, “We the people of Liberia, exercising our natural, inherent, and inalienable rights to establish a framework of government for the purpose of promoting unity, liberty, peace, stability, equality, justice and human rights under the rule of law, with opportunities for political, social, moral, spiritual and cultural advancement of our society, for ourselves and for our posterity, do hereby solemnly make this Constitution.”
The good news is that like the United States, after the horrors of civil war, Liberia IS a better, more democratic country. The press in Liberia is freer than most countries in Africa and many countries where I have lived. You DO enjoy a vibrant, thriving multiparty political system which has ushered in the peaceful transition of Presidential administrations from one party to another, and in which two of the three most recent by-elections were won by opposition parties.
Famous psychiatrist and philosopher Viktor Frankl said that one of the least recognized obligations in man’s search for meaning in life is maintaining the delicate balance between liberty and responsibility. After surviving World War II death camps in Europe and moving to the United States, Frankl even proposed building a “Statue of Responsibility” on the west coast to match New York’s Statue of Liberty.
If LIBERTY should come with RESPONSIBILITY, what can we say about responsibility in Liberia? A phrase I have heard in Liberia is, “this is a country where impunity rules.” Self-described war lords have become elected politicians, thousands of civil war atrocities have gone unpunished, rampant corruption goes unchecked. The Cambridge English Dictionary says that impunity is “freedom from punishment for something that has been done that is wrong or illegal.” Unfortunately “impunity” seems to be the opposite of responsibility.
Liberia is endowed with a favorable climate, a reliable rainy season, huge agriculture potential, incredibly rich mineral deposits, and a long coastline with four ports fronting highly productive fishing grounds. Why does Liberia remain among the ten poorest countries in the world today, nearly 20 years after the civil war ended? Why is it that Liberia fails to thrive? For perspective, let’s contrast Liberia with some other countries.
Singapore, with a land mass of only 283 square miles and zero natural resources, ranked as the world’s 37th largest economy in 2021. Rwanda, land-locked and a survivor of a man-made calamity rivaling that of Liberia’s, was listed as the 16th largest Sub-Sahara economy in 2022, and the second easiest place in Africa to do business in 2020.
Closer to home, with resources and geography very similar to Liberia’s, the increase every two years in Côte d’Ivoire’s rubber production by weight, is equal to the Liberia’s TOTAL annual rubber production. Sierra Leone, which also suffered years of terrible civil wars and Ebola, is about 40% larger than Liberia, and has managed to develop a 582-mile road network of smooth and efficient highways, while Liberia struggles to maintain 408 miles of semi-paved roads. Why is Liberia failing to thrive?
Looking at the issue of “service” and considering the country’s state of affairs, I encourage you graduates to aim higher than what sometimes passes for “service” these days.
For instance, how well is a Representative or Senator serving today if he or she appropriates four million dollars to a Ministry with the expectation that $200,000 will revert to a personal overseas bank account?
What about government supervisors who appropriate for personal use a percentage of the salary of the employees they supervise? How well are they “serving” the people?
Those pharmacists who knowingly sell drugs which were originally meant to be donated to the poorest Liberians – how well are THEY serving the country?
How well are they “serving” if senior government officials who are supposed to be stewards of the country’s forest resources are enriching themselves through illegal sales, with as much as 60% of the timber going unregulated and untaxed?
And what’s this about legislators who ask you for your vote, but then don’t want you to know how they voted to spend YOUR money?
How well are some of Liberia’s most prominent business professionals and largest companies “serving” the country if they borrowed millions of dollars from Liberian banks with zero intention of paying back their loans? How can the Liberia Bank of Development and Investment spur the growth of new small and medium enterprises if, as a result, the bank has no money to lend?
This year, two inspirational Liberians by the names of Facia Harris and Judge Cornelius Wennah were singled out by the United States for their outstanding service to the public.
Liberia’s first ever “International Woman of Courage,” Facia Harris, one of only 12 women around the world to be recognized in 2022, was singled out for her truly impressive accomplishments as a tireless advocate for women and girls, and her persistent activism against gender-based violence and inequality.
Judge Cornelius Wennah of the Ninth Judicial Circuit, in Bong County, was selected for the title of TIP Report Hero based on his extraordinary work investigating, prosecuting, and advising on Trafficking In Persons matters in Liberia. Notably, in 2020 Judge Wennah assisted the International Development Law Organization on an Embassy-funded project to develop an international-standard-level TIP training curriculum for judges, prosecutors, and law enforcement personnel, all to develop and strengthen justice sector actors’ capacities to prevent and fight TIP crime. Judge Wennah, who has dedicated years of his professional life to countering and prosecuting trafficking in persons, was chosen as Liberia’s first “Tip Report Hero,” one of only six people worldwide selected for this honor in 2022.
These two exemplify the hope and courage, and therefore the bright future of Liberia, through their service.
Now, today’s commencement ceremony celebrates not an ending point, but the beginning of your journey; a journey that will have a lasting impact on yourselves, on Liberian people, and on Liberia itself. Today, you commence your work as a leader by applying the knowledge you’ve attained so far. Perhaps the biggest difference you can make as individuals and as a cohort is through your gift of service. “Dream to learn well! Learn so as to serve well.” By building on your strong foundations, you can make a big difference like Facia Harris and Judge Wennah, whether you work at home, for a business, or in government. If you truly yearn to serve well, your life will be better, your community will be better, and your country will be better for it.
As the Bible states in Proverbs 24:4 “By knowledge, the rooms are filled with all precious and pleasant riches.” I look forward to witnessing, reading about, and hearing about the rooms you will enrich with your knowledge and your service.
Congratulations again for what you have achieved and for what you will achieve as you go out to your communities and through your efforts reinvigorate, rebuild, and lift Liberia!
Thank you for the opportunity to celebrate the commencement of your new and exciting journey.