Commencement Address

President Joseph Aoun
Anatolia College, Thessaloniki, Greece
June 24, 2009

Opening Remarks

It is my great pleasure to be here with you today on this very special occasion. I bring with me greetings and best wishes from Northeastern University.

As you know, Northeastern and Anatolia are partners in an exchange program that is mutually beneficial. This fall, 67 Northeastern students will come to your beautiful campus to study and learn.

I would like to thank you for helping Northeastern achieve one of its top priorities—becoming a truly global university.

This is good for Northeastern, good for Anatolia and, I believe, represents the future of higher education throughout the world.

As an educator, it is both inspiring and humbling to be addressing you in Thessaloniki, a city with a commitment to education that dates back to Aristotle.

When people come to Greece they understandably focus on its glorious past. After all, this nation is the birthplace of so much that defines the western world: democracy, philosophy, the Olympic Games, key principles of math and science. I could go on.

We honor and respect this noble history. We are also mindful that history is not made by monuments or universities, but by talented and visionary people.

This is precisely why we have gathered here today—you are poised to create the history of tomorrow.

You are graduating in a time of unprecedented change around the world. You will be impacted on a daily basis by forces beyond your control.

You are witnessing knowledge revolutions, fundamental shifts in the prevailing world order, and unprecedented global interdependence.

What do these words mean? How will they impact you?

 

Knowledge and Technology

Let’s start with the revolutions in knowledge and technology. We are living in a period of knowledge explosion, powered by modern technology. We are all part of a World Wide Web that all ows us to communicate at light speed with friends and colleagues in every corner of the globe.

Perhaps more extraordinary is that today’s major events are witnessed in unison by people around the world.

This new dynamic connects us in a way that’s never been possible before. Such shared experiences bridge divides and bring people together behind common goals and aspirations. 
The current revolutions in technology are doing much more than facilitate worldwide communication. New fields are being invented: nanotechnology, cloud computing, genetic engineering.

These new fields promise to bring advances in everything from medicine to manufacturing to public safety. And, of course, they hold the promise of solving future problems . . . problems that we have yet to identify or comprehend.

 

Fundamental Shifts In The Prevailing Order

Alongside these advances in technology—which have accelerated the pace of change around the world—we are seeing large-scale political shifts that reshape the global landscape of conflict and cooperation.

There was a time when our world was largely divided into two camps—east and west. The ideologies were clear and so too were the dividing lines.

But today, the lines are blurred and constantly shifting. Communism has crumbled. Over the past year, we have seen unchecked capitalism severely tested.

We have transitioned from a world stage with defined actors on predictable pathways to a more elusive dynamic. Today the stage is constantly shifting and the actors are changing roles in the middle of the story.

 

Unprecedented Global  Interdependence

The crumbling of barriers has brought about a new global dynamic—one that is characterized by shared interests.

There was a time when individual nations managed to wall off their economies. Those days are over.

If the current downturn shows us anything, it is that economic forces cannot be confined to a single nation or continent. Financial markets and the daily operations of global commerce are completely interconnected.

The demand for steel in China has direct impact on building projects around the world.

The price of oil affects the cost of goods and services in every nation, city and village around the world.

Beyond economic forces, there are also powerful environmental impacts that transcend borders and oceans. The destruction of tropical forests in the Amazon can alter the climate in our countries.

There are shifts in migration patterns. For the first time in human history, the number of people living in cities exceeds the number of people living in rural areas.

These shifts have tremendous implications, including the need to reshape public health policies, modernize infrastructure, and dramatically improve public education.

 

The World Is Not Flat

Let me be clear: interconnectedness does not mean the world is flat. Globalization does not mean global uniformity.

The world still contains a wonderful diversity of cultures, approaches, and beliefs. Differences both between and within nations are still substantial.

There are entire countries that have very limited access to health care, modern technology, and much of what all of us take for granted. As a result, the citizens of these countries have limited opportunity.

Within nations there remain substantial disparities, particularly between urban and rural populations.

According to research by the World Bank, almost half of the world—about 3 billion people—live on less than two dollars and fifty cents a day. Many of these people live in rural areas—often inside countries with bustling metropolitan centers.

 

Implications For You

I know what you’re thinking right now. You’re sitting there wondering: What does all of this have to do with me?

The answer is simple: This global, interconnected, interdependent world is where you will live your lives. It is where you will work and play; where you will make contributions and solve problems.

This may seem daunting, but as I look at all of you, I think you are quite ready.

You have the values instilled in you by your families. You have the education you received here at Anatolia—an education that is foundational, and provides more than static knowledge. You have learned how to think—how to navigate the unknown.

Back at Northeastern University, we say that our primary mission is to educate students for a life of fulfillment and accomplishment. These aspirations are not specific to Northeastern students—they are universal. I wish this life for each of you.

I would like to share with you four guiding principles that have anckored on my journey.

 

Embrace Change

First, embrace change—make it your ally.

My personal journey allowed me to live and learn on three continents. This forced me out of my comfort zone. At times this experience created anxiety, but ultimately it taught me to embrace the diversity of challenges and opportunities that life presented me.

Your life expectancy is about 100 years. This means that, beginning today, you need to plan for the next 80 years.

During this time, much of what you have studied will become obsolete.

No matter what your field is, you will not have a single employer or even a single career.

You will need to be nimble, versatile and capable of adapting.

Your lifelong plan will be written and rewritten many times.

 

Take Risks

All of this uncertainty may lead to anxiety, which brings me to my second guiding principle: take risks.

You may not believe this, but the current recession actually offers tremendous opportunity.

History shows us that in times of adversity people take the greatest risks. Risks that lead to groundbreaking innovations and ultimately advance society.

There are many examples I can cite. Here is one relevant to your generation:

Apple Computer introduced the iPod in the fall of 2001, just months after the so-called “tech bubble” had burst.

While other technology companies were ducking for cover, the leadership at Apple made a bet. They had a radical idea. They believed the future of music purchasing would take place online, so they built a system to make this efficient, legal, and profitable.

Stories like this one are instructive, but remember that both successes and setbacks are important. You will learn from both. You will perhaps learn more from your setbacks. 
One of the best-selling authors in the world today is J.K.Rowling, creator of the Harry Potter series. Did you know that the first Harry Potter novel was rejected by the first 12 publishing houses?

She finally sent it to a publisher who let his 8-year-old daughter read the first chapter. Ultimately, the little girl demanded to see the rest of the book and—well, you know where this story ends. Today the Harry Potter books have sold more than 400 million copies and become an international phenomenon.

 

Follow Your Passions

This brings me to my third point: follow your passions.

No matter how many times someone told her to give up on being a writer, she kept J. K. Rowling dream alive. She followed her passion.

Passion provides clarity. It provides purpose. It will give you a pathway through the chaos and cacophony of today’s world.

Most importantly, passion inspires action. And without action there can be no progress or accomplishment.

 

Engage With Your Communities

Finally, my fourth point: engage with your communities.

Our individual journeys are also a collective journey. Our ultimate well-being is tied to the well-being of our communities.

You can define “community” however you like—your hometown, your country, or along affinities and causes that inspire you. I can assure you that your personal fulfillment will becomplete if you can commity our passion to something larger than yourself—if you can find the harmony that comes from knowing that our individual destinies are linked to the destinies of those around us.

 

Concluding Thought

You’ve probably heard the words: “The world is your classroom.” Beginning today—and for the rest of your lives—I hope this phrase always rings true for each of you. Never stop learning about this world, for it will be the scene of your lifelong journey.

This degree is not the end of your education. It is your launching pad. As the great Greek philosopher Socrates said: “Education is the kindling of a flame, not the filling of a vessel.”

May you kindle that flame in your hearts from this day forth.