June is the month for advice-giving.
At post-secondary institutions across Canada, thousands of students are gathering this month at convocation ceremonies to receive their diplomas and degree certificates and get some advice from honoured guests, school presidents, and alumni.
I’ve had the pleasure this month alone of attending 10 convocation ceremonies (seven at Laurentian University’s Sudbury campus, one at its Barrie campus, one at Hamilton’s Mohawk College, and one at Centennial College’s Scarborough campus). And over the past five years that I’ve been chancellor of Laurentian, I’ve also attended probably 50 additional convocation ceremonies at the University of Toronto, McGill University, York University, McMaster University, and Humber College. Add it all up, and I’ve probably heard hundreds of speeches offering well-meaning advice to dozens upon dozens of graduating classes.
As a guy who’s had to give many convocation speeches myself, I can tell you how difficult it is to say something meaningful and original — and do it all in less than 10 minutes. (You really don’t want to test the patience of the degree recipients who badly want to get that piece of paper and then go celebrate.)
But Centennial president Ann Buller did that and so much more a week ago today. Her speech was so good that I felt I needed to share the details here.
“I want you to help me build a better world,” she began. “The parchment you will grasp in your hand shortly is not merely a declaration to the world of what you now know, nor is it simply a passport to a richer, more fulfilling life. It is a call to action; it invests in you a responsibility to understand your place in the world — to feel, viscerally, the power you have to make a difference.”
Buller went on to say she wanted the graduates to say yes and no to particular situations in life.
“Say yes — yes to adventure, to challenge, to doing things that push you out of your comfort zone, to being silly and whimsical. Say yes to a full, rich, passionate life.” She added: “Say no. There may be a time in your life where circumstances will make you feel alone, vulnerable, perhaps even desperate. And you may be tempted — by people, by ideas, by religion, by circumstances — to turn your desperation into hate. Say no. If someone wants to hurt you, to draw you into a dark place, say no.”
One thing you need to understand is that most convocation speakers do their best not to make any political waves at all. The last thing any post-secondary leader wants is to garner attention in a politically controversial way.
Apparently, Buller didn’t get that memo.
“And finally, I ask of you to be a Trudeau — not a Trump,” Buller said. She was interrupted by applause and laughter as her speech built to a crescendo: “This is truly not a political statement. It is a statement about the leadership we need, about how to interact in a fractured world — a world where some see anger as a tool to manipulate people, hate as a reasonable response to opposition, personal attacks as a way to challenge difference.
“We need leaders who feel empowered, not threatened, by science, who are open to new ideas, who want every single person in the country to feel like they belong. Leaders who are strong but diplomatic, champion women and girls, are unafraid of those who are different from them. Leaders who criticizes ideas but do not bully, who are strong enough to debate ideas, but who have dignity, and who afford dignity to others.”
Buller finished with this:
“Lead, love, laugh. Fall down, get up. Rage and cry against injustice. Love what you do. Help build a nation. And most importantly, be the change you wish to see in the world.”
Best convocation speech I’ve ever heard. And I’ve heard a lot of good ones.
(To see Buller’s entire Centennial College convocation speech, click here and scroll to the 34:43 mark.)
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