Last week I had the honor of addressing the 2018 Winter Graduates of University of La Verne College of Arts and Sciences. Here is the speech.
Traditionally commencement speeches contain life advice, words of wisdom, ideas on how to be successful, to be happy, to be true, to be good, to be kind, to dream, to follow your passion, to work hard. That should be easy for me to say, because I’m a parent. It’s what we parents do, dispense advise and at no cost. But my daughter, who is a graduate of UCI and my son who is a graduate of ULV and who are both here among you today, immediately stopped me. “Don’t dish out advice Mom. No one wants to hear a commencement speaker telling us what we’ve already heard from our parents for the past 20 some years of our lives. We want out.”
You know what? They’re right. Because 40 years ago, I stood behind a podium and gave the valedictorian address at this same La Verne College and I don’t recall who the commencement speaker was or what was said. I too, wanted out.
So what can I tell you, brilliant beacons of tomorrow? Four words. Yours roots, your backbone. All life lessons that nurture you into recognizing who You are, and what you stand for are a result of the values instilled in you by your roots…your families, families you are born into, families you create and the families you make through your own choosing.
We each come from different backgrounds. I am an Armenian immigrant from Lebanon. But you and I are not very different. Whether your roots are from the Far East, Near East or Middle East, Asia, Europe, Africa, South America, across oceans or the border, or whether you’re born and bred in the US, you are not very different, because you, like me, made a choice to be part of this liberal arts community, to receive an education that prepares you to exercise your true freedom, a freedom that allows you to think and live unchained from dogma. And for some of you and your parents making that choice to live free came with a sacrificial price.
It was 1976 and Civil war was raging in Lebanon. Young men were being forced to join one side or another while others were being kidnapped and brutally murdered. My parents, seeing no end in sight, made the difficult decision to send my younger brother and me out of the country to find our way abroad, to receive a college education…to be free to practice our rights, our human rights, our values. The only exit out of the country was by car. We hired a driver who was to take us to the North and across the border into Syria at the first opportunity of a cease fire. It was dawn, dark and cold when the opportunity arose. There were no long goodbyes, there was no time. We kissed, we hugged and my father whispered “Look forward, Go forward. Don’t look back. Mom and I are looking forward in your direction.” We didn’t look back. We looked forward knowing our parents would be standing in the middle of the street looking in our direction until they couldn’t see us any more, until we turned a corner or became an indiscernible speck in the horizon. Because that’s what parents do. They fixate their eyes on you and follow the horizon of your visions.
Parents. They sacrifice. They build character, they define you and shape you with unspoken universal values which become your roots, your backbone. Hold on to those values, because they will sustain you when this world feels like it’s shifting under your feet. Even with people who you think are not like you, your values will matter, because somewhere, somehow, someone will have been touched by your humanity. We are made up of a kaleidoscope of racial groups with over 155 ethnicities and it doesn’t matter whether you practice Christianity, Islam, Buddhism, Judaism, Hinduism or are Agnostic, we all share a common humanity. And In our shared humanity we can touch lives, and strangers can touch ours in return and give us a sense of hope.
That day when we left our home, a few hours into our journey, we were caught in the midst of a barrage of gunfire that erupted between two sects. A frenzied gunman with an AK-47, an automatic rifle, appeared and motioned for us to move to the side of a building. It was do or die. We did. Huddled in the car until what seemed like an eternity for the gunfire to cease, we waited until that same gunman ordered us out of the car to question us. We were at his mercy. He pointed his AK-47 at us, asked for our name. We gave it. Now if any of you know anything about Armenian names, you’ll know that they are immediately recognizable because of the IAN at the end. Katchiguian, Keshishian, Kardashian, all Armenian. He waved the gun at us, “Are you Armenian?” he asked. “Yes,” we nodded. “You know Dr. Minassian?” he asked. As though all Armenians were expected to know one another. Was this one of those trick questions? Damned if you do, damned if you don’t? Do we say yes or do we say no, because Dr. Minassian was our uncle, a pediatrician. We told him. He immediately lowered the rifle and said, “Your uncle, he’s a good Dr. He saved my boy’s life. But he’s a better man. He took no pay. So now, my turn to repay him. I save you. Go.”
We went. And we didn’t look back.
War is unimaginably horrific. Yet, for a few short moments, in a world of conflict, among strangers our shared humanity valued goodness and showed reciprocity across cultural divides. Human values, they matter.
Six months later from that date, I found my niche in the safety of a liberal arts college called La Verne while my brother made it to Canada. It would be quite a few years before I saw my parents again. But we communicated in what is now called snail mail. We wrote letters. Among the letters I kept is one from my mother. She wrote, remember who you are and what you stand for. You are rooted in faith, You are rooted in values. Stay connected. Listen to the voice of your heart’s knowledge; always speak the truth. (Tell me the truth, Are you smoking? Don’t) Always remember your roots, They are your backbone.
With a backbone built on the values of my roots, the first thing I did was, to fall in love. (I don’t think that’s what my mother had in mind when she said follow the voice of your heart’s knowledge.) Listen. If you haven’t yet fallen head over heels in love, at least once, do so. And when you find that someone you can commit to love with a passion, you’re set. Because once you get a taste of that passion, you’ll know how to apply it to everything else in your life. Your work, your vocation, your family, your children, your parents, friends, ideologies. And if it does happen that you get your heart broken, that too, is.ok. That’s the risk you take, in love and in life, and you come right back, well, maybe not right back, but you do come back. Stronger, wiser, more passionate to moving forward.
There will always be a new lesson life has to teach you, if you’re willing to listen. Be conscious. Be aware. Somehow, today in America, we are being led falsely to assume that those who differ from our norms are wrong. That those who come from countries less fortunate are not welcome. Yet it is people from diverse roots who have come here as dreamers who mirror the spirit of tolerance, kinship, and nationalism. People like you and me who celebrate the values, traditions and history of our ancestry while embodying the values of the American way of life. As diverse as we are in race, ethnicity, culture, gender and sexual orientation, we must trust that our differences will not alienate us.
And when all else is pulling you under, remember who you are and what you stand for. Do not lose sight of your heart’s knowledge, because in a world that seems to reward dishonesty, cutting corners, lying, cheating, stealing, bullying, harassing, and all manner of nasty tactics, Graduates of this fine institution that gave you the understanding of how to think, use the values of your roots. Challenge this mindset, question the status quo, demand good answers, be true citizens of humanity. Because Citizenship is not found in a piece of paper. It is found in the integrity of character.
Think about who you are becoming at every corner or road you take. Some of you will choose to seek further studies while others of you may have already mapped your careers. However you choose and whatever professions you choose to invest in, stay connected to the essence of humanity, it will be the source of your personal worth. Your human connections, parents, families, spouses, children, educators, heroes of your lives, friends, are the most important investments you will make. 20, 30, 40 years from now when you beam with pride as you watch your sons and daughters, or grandchildren graduate, you will remember this day and the people who were here for you, the people who you love and the human connections on whose shoulders you were raised. And when all is said and done, you will find that the true measure of your award was not in the trophies you earned or the merits on paper you collected, but in the legacy of your roots you integrated into the American national identity.
Graduates of 2018 with your roots as your backbone, believe in the power of your humanity. Look forward, go forward. Don’t look back.