Valedictorian Speech: “The Courage to Use Our Own Understanding”

Adam Moscoe

Delivered in a bilingual version on June 8, 2013 at the National Arts Centre in Ottawa, Canada. 

Today we are one. A class for 2013 — and don’t we look stunning, if I may say.

Today is about our class and our journey. Over the past several years, we have learned from each other, and we have grown as people. We are here today because of our perseverance and devotion to our studies. But we did not get here alone. Indeed, we are joined today by our parents, siblings, and other friends and family members. Today is your day, too. You gave us something irreplaceable – unconditional love and support too deep and varied to even describe. Thank you.

We are also here because each of us was fortunate to meet professors and university staff members who displayed boundless passion for enhancing our learning experience. Thank you for opening your doors, and in turn, our horizons.

I am immensely proud to be a part of the 2013 graduating class. As I look out towards you – my fellow graduates, I am reminded of the diversity and quality of what we have achieved.

I am reminded of how many of you spent countless hours enhancing campus life, promoting mental health and respect on campus, responding to tragedies at home and abroad (such as the earthquake in Haiti in 2010). As well, a number of you represented us as student leaders on various boards and student associations. It wasn’t always glamorous and you deserve our deepest appreciation.

To my peers in the psychology program, I know many of you work to empower marginalized and vulnerable individuals in our community, including survivors of abuse and exploitation. May you continue to find fulfillment in this critical work. Moreover, I am convinced that thanks to you and our conversations in class, we will become not just better researchers and clinicians, but better people – and one day, better parents and spouses.

If you find yourself confronted by a Generation Y sceptic asking you “What Can You Do With a BA in Psychology?,” you need not whimper. You can respond: “What can’t I do with BA in Psychology.”

Adam Moscoe with Paul Martin, former Prime Minister of Canada and Honourary Doctorate recipient

Adam Moscoe with Paul Martin, former Prime Minister of Canada and Honourary Doctorate recipient.

To all those graduating this morning from the International Development and International Studies programs, thank you for opening our eyes to the importance of reflecting on the long-term implications and ethical dimensions of Canada’s engagement with the world.

During our time at the University of Ottawa, we witnessed – and became an integral part of – a radical change at our school. Our university opened itself up to the community in an unprecedented manner, embracing the concept of Community Service Learning and orienting our academic journeys towards the imperative of service to others.

We have made a difference locally and globally, from the Strathcona Heights Homework Club here in town to Rwanda, from Berlin to Senegal. Now, the social, economic and political issues we tackled are far greater than our own individual capacities. Yet, as Rabbi Tarfon put it, “It is not your part to finish the task, yet you are not free to desist from it.” And desist we will not.

Furthermore, as Mother Theresa reminds us, we can do no great things, only small things with great love. The school provided us with an opportunity, but we took up the task – and did so with our greatest strengths – compassion, energy, ingenuity and kindness.

We have a fundamental desire to connect with people and to make a positive difference. At the same time, let us never lose sight of the way we must seek to build that change – with humility, patience, and devotion to people rather than obsession with product. If we’re willing, we can learn from those around us, and – to borrow from Broadway lyricists Betty Comden and Adolph Green – we can aspire to “Make Someone Happy.”

Canada is an amazing country – and you, and everyone in this room, make it that way. Maple syrup has an important role to play – but you are irreplaceable. You define Canada on the global stage – you champion Canadian values by promoting freedom, peace, and equality of opportunity for all. That’s why today is also a day to remember our brothers and sisters who dream each day of the opportunity to live in a free society.

Each day we realize our right to think and express ourselves – to take action and join social and political movements. Meanwhile, our peers elsewhere face repression from leaders afraid to embrace the ideas and capacity of their youth. Afraid of how they might shake things up.

Natan Sharansky, Soviet refusenik

Natan Sharansky, Soviet refusenik.

Through our studies, we have become critical thinkers – and as such, defenders of the democracy we hold dear. One of my greatest heroes is Natan Sharansky, who was imprisoned for nine years in the Soviet Union on trumped-up charges of anti-Soviet slander.  In 1983, Sharansky began a hunger strike, and the Soviets offered to release him if he would confess. He refused, saying that he remained a free man in mind and spirit, while these KGB prison guards were the ones who were truly imprisoned – in their rigid totalitarianism. There is nothing more dangerous to totalitarianism than a generation of educated, and empowered thinkers like us.

The state of technology brings us closer than ever to the lives of our peers around the planet. We see their daily struggles in high definition and in real time. We are more globally conscious than any generation in human history – we know that too many children are brutally robbed of their innocence, through exploitation, slavery and forced military service. We know that too many young people must stop their studies to take care of ill, disabled or injured family members. And, as Paul Martin can attest, we know that too many of our fellow citizens who belong to the First Nations are systematically disadvantaged in fulfilling their educational aspirations.

But knowing is not the same as engaging – as using our skills to advance the protection of human rights and of human dignity. We must have courage, as Immanuel Kant put it, to use our own understanding.

The fight waged by our ancestors for the freedoms we enjoy today is a fight that continues – for justice, equality, peace and security. Indeed, some of you in this room served in the Canadian Armed Forces, and for that we thank you – we love you.

Whether we’re in Kandahar, Afghanistan, on Parliament Hill, or in the Morriset Library, I believe all of us can make a lasting contribution. But this air of confidence should not cloud our vision of the reality we face – no, we’re social scientists, after all. It’s our job to embrace complexity while building a healthy society in what sometimes feels like a Tower of Babel.

Dr. Viktor E. Frankl, psychiatrist and Holocaust survivor

Dr. Viktor E. Frankl, psychiatrist and Holocaust survivor.

By working towards a better world and developing lasting relationships along the way, we will find meaning in life. As psychiatrist and Holocaust survivor Viktor Frankl explains, aiming for meaning and happiness and success is futile. These things cannot be “pursued,” rather they “must ensue…as unintended side effects of one’s personal dedication to a cause greater than oneself or as the by-product of one’s surrender to a person other than oneself.”

Now I know that the outlook isn’t rosy at the moment. But while there may be fewer job openings than we’d like, there sure is a lot of work to be done. We are Generation Y – a generation that says yes to innovation, collaboration, empathy, and optimism. We serve others…because that is who we are.

It is an honour to stand before you, and I want to thank each and every one of you for joining us for convocation.

Class of 2013, we have much to celebrate – we did it! Congratulations. Thank you.

This piece is cross-posted at Huffington Post: