2023 Commencement Address by Wanjira Mathai

May 26, 2023

Wanjira Mathai addresses the audience during the 2023 Commencement Ceremony

So now graduates, it’s your turn, to take up the cause for global citizenship that has been passed on to you by your mentors, your professors, your friends, you are absolutely ready. Go forth and shine.

Thank you, what a wonderful celebration. What a wonderful day. Thank you to that amazing, amazing chorus. Mr. President, thank you for that honor. Thank you so much to the Soka community. Graduates, you look so good from here.

I love those words, from your founder, Mr. Ikeda. Your graduation is a song, your graduation is a song of the epic triumph. That is amazing. Your graduation is a song of epic triumph.

Congratulations. You have earned every single minute of the celebration we will be having from now onwards. I think we will be celebrating all day. But I want to thank President Feasel, first of all, for the gracious, gracious introduction. Certainly, for the honor of this gift from this university. I’m most grateful as well from an earlier gift from the founder of Soka, Daisaku Ikeda. I was privileged to meet him almost 20 years ago now and when I did meet him, we took photographs, many photographs, but I didn’t know there was one of me and him and thank you so much to the Vice Chair of SGI for presenting me that wonderful photograph.

I want to acknowledge the fellow trustees, the faculty, the administration who keep this beautiful campus humming. I have absolutely enjoyed walking around. How lucky you are to have such a beautiful space. I want to particularly acknowledge Mr. President, those members of the administration who work behind the scenes. Often, they are rarely seen but they repair, they nourish, the food is so good here. I know how hard they work and I know that they make you have a good feeling of yourself.

And that’s so important because as you leave this place, we want to thank them. I want to especially thank Arch Asawa and Janna [Skye] who were so important in ensuring that I get here and comfortably be here. But we cannot forget, graduates, the constants in your life, those who have stood by you—your parents, your siblings, your friends who are all around you today. Look at them, they look so good themselves. Thank you all for what you do for these amazing graduates.

As you leave SUA, I know you leave with a deep sense of gratitude for what has been given to you, but also for the responsibility that you now carry forward. These graduates are a product of the support and the love of so many, and even some pocket money and loans from some parents sitting in the stands here. But this day is yours to celebrate.

And finally, and most importantly, congratulations to the Class of 2023. I know that there are some graduate students and some undergraduate students. What a day. I’m honored and proud to be part of the concluding chapter of your life here at SUA and the commencement of your next chapter. You did it, you did it! And you look amazing!

And I hope you feel a sense of accomplishment and a sense of gratitude as you step into the next phase of your life, whatever that may bring. You know, when I was told close to 30 years ago, as I sat in the stands much like you are now, that this was the commencement, I asked myself, commencement? That seems like the beginning. And I felt like after close to 10 years of being in this situation, it should be the end, not the beginning.

But actually it was. It was the beginning. From Nairobi, in my hometown, in Kenya, to the college I went to in upstate New York, it really, really was the beginning. And I want you to savor every minute of it, because it goes really fast.

So much happened, that changed who I was when I sat there and left. But also in those three decades I was a vessel for that change. You will be a vessel for change that’s coming. I did not always know what would be coming or what was happening. But I leaned in and I want you to lean into whatever comes your way.

I graduated with a degree in biology and a master’s degree later in public health. But today, I find myself in neither of those fields. I find myself at the confluence of what I consider the passion, what I love to do, and yes, what I studied, but it’s a confluence, because it’s health, it’s environment, it’s storytelling, it’s community building. It’s all these things. And none of that, none of that was apparent to me when I graduated, and none of it predictable at all. So if you had given me a piece of paper and asked me to write what President Feasel read today, forget it, I would never have written any of those words.

But what I’m doing now gives me such great joy and satisfaction. And I know that the foundation that was laid and the foundation that’s been laid for you is what sets you up for what’s to come. The same adventure awaits you. It awaits all of us.

I spoke to some students earlier today. And I said, I love to think of it like popcorn. You’re all in this pot, the heat comes and then you pop at different times. You don’t know what’s going to happen. And that’s the beauty of all of it. Step into all of it with confidence. Step into it with curiosity, lean forward, not backward, and take every single opportunity you get.

You have all come here from around the world, around this country as well. And you engage in a unique learning journey, I assure you it’s unique because it’s beautiful. It’s relevant. It’s responsive to what is needed. And your experiences here at SUA have set you up. You came to learn, you came to study, you came to have some fun, I hope, and indeed this place lends itself I saw some beautiful spaces, beautiful choirs, clubs, diversity, learning, dance, all of it. So much that SUA has offered you.

This campus is indeed a special place. It is. Your founder, Mr. Ikeda, of this university, I met in Japan and his conviction that peace and environment are so inextricably linked. And that to be a good citizen is a critical mission that we should all carry, that we all need to understand peacebuilding. All of us need to consciously understand human rights, that we need to understand community engagement. We need to understand social activism. That is so prophetic. It is the foresight of a founder who understood the transformative power of education and that it is exactly what is needed today. When we bring about the sort of global understanding, and create a cohort of leaders who engage with people actively, confidently, passionately, this is exactly what the world needs now.

SUA graduates, you are absolutely on the right path, brilliantly anchored in exactly what is needed, I want you to appreciate that because not every university is as SUA, it’s a special, special place.

We all know now, and today, I have to say that climate change is the most significant challenge out in the world today. It shows up in different ways, but it is the most significant hindrance to achieving sustainable development. And it really threatens to drag millions of people back into poverty. And we are not OK if so many people are in poverty. And at the same time, we have never had better knowledge, better solutions, and better prepared talent to address these issues available to prevent the crisis and the opportunities for a better life for people around the world.

But it requires patience, commitment, and persistence. Much like I know, you have now been granted. Graduates, you’re entering a reality that is completely different from when you entered this university, even more different from a decade ago. We know more today about the impacts of climate change than we ever have, the science is so clear.

But we also have a huge role to play in helping the human family take responsibility for what needs to be done. If we are to survive the worst impacts of climate change, it will take all of us and the sort of education you’ve had and you’ve been granted. You will all have heard about the broken finance system that’s needed actually to resolve this, these issues will not resolve themselves.

Our dear Prime Minister of Barbados Mia Mottley reminds us all the time. And the world is running out of time to fix the international finance system, because it is broken, it is outdated. And it is outright unfair. And yet at the same time, it’s absolutely necessary for us to achieve the sort of success that we need in this world, in the climate crisis.

This year in Dubai, we’re going to meet yet again, at COP 28. And at that meeting, there will be a stock take, we will need new and fresh minds, to take on these challenges to think anew, to break the systems that we have, the lack of accountability, to think these things afresh, and you will leave this beautiful campus prepared to be those people.

As you do that, I wanted to leave three nuggets with you that I hope will guide you because they have guided me. And if I’m here receiving this award, it’s worth something. And I want you to take these three with you. The first one is to take every single opportunity you get and opportunities come in different shapes and forms: an invitation to volunteer, an invitation to teach in a new and exciting place, an invitation to visit a friend in a new place, to host a friend who’s keen to know where you’re from. These are never, or at least I should say there is seldom a clear answer. But what I have learned is that every single step you take will lead you to the next, will be a portal into the next. Take those steps.

After my graduate university education at the Emory University, I started working, I was telling some of the trustees today, at the Carter Presidential Center. I worked there and loved the work I was doing on neglected diseases, monitoring and evaluating what was going on around the world. And then I started to feel a few nudges and nudge to go back, to go back home. And every friend, I told would tell me why? Why would you do that?

And then I felt the nudge get stronger and stronger, I needed to go back. I loved it in Atlanta, I wasn’t keen to go back. But the nudge was so strong, I decided I would just step into it and go back. I decided to pack and go back home. And I did that, and I’m so glad I did. Because it introduced me to the next chapter of my life that I didn’t even know lay ahead of me. It introduced me to the environment and development in ways I had never seen. It thrust me into the work that my mother was doing and deepened my relationship with her and with her work. That was exactly what I needed to do then. And I didn’t know, because 12 years later, my mother was diagnosed with cancer and passed away.

But I was left with a gift, the gift of having spent every single day with her for 12 years. And finally, it created the leadership opportunities I continue to step into, and would only have dreamt of. But it started with a nudge, and nudge to step into a space that seemed uncomfortable, to dance on the edge, that I needed to do. So I urge you to do that. Close to 30 years ago, I wish somebody had told me don’t worry, step into that space. Knowing that the true unfolding of my purpose lay ahead of me. I believe the same for you. We really rarely hear that voice. But if we listen, it’s there. It’s sometimes a nudge, it’s sometimes a friend, it’s sometimes an odd sort of voice. Seize every step that comes with purpose, conviction, and curiosity; I can finally say that it’s never a straight line.

And I’m still walking, I’m still taking the journey ahead. But when I look back, the greatest gift has been the ability to listen to the nudges in my life. To make the turns I needed to take, sometimes scary, sometimes not, to step in with a sense of adventure. Because you have the time to do that. You have the energy and the enthusiasm to do it. And there’s always a portal waiting on the other side.

Sustain your global perspective is my next nugget. So rarely are you in a situation where for four years, you spend your time being nurtured and cultivated to be good global citizens. Meeting some of the graduates today was a highlight for me, so much passion, for the things that actually matter. I heard things like, be authentic. I heard words like step into your purpose. I was so inspired today, to learn of the diversity of your student body. That gift, friends, the diversity of this world is a sheer gift. It’s so beautiful to behold, that you have one in two international students is a gift of the highest order. Make it a point before you leave SUA to connect with somebody, make a few contacts. I bet you already have. And visit, even if you visit just one.

Your founder, Mr. Ikeda, is someone whose vision is rooted in the principles of peace and human rights and global citizenship. And a lot of that is fostered by building a conscious sense of understanding. You have it right here. But when you leave this campus, make sure that you have a string to somebody who’s not in your neighborhood, someone who’s a little bit farther away.

The truth is that today, your society needs graduates like you, graduates who understand the environment, and the critical questions out there, who are curious and understand the interdisciplinary nature of the issues that we face today. And it takes sometimes stepping into spaces that we’ve never been to, with, again, a sense of adventure, because indeed, actually, climate justice and issues of justice for others is at the heart of the work that we must do today, because we know around the world black and brown people face the worst impacts of climate change.

Seek to understand what that looks like. Because, as I said, this is the greatest issue of our time. This moment calls for you to be an active part of whatever community you join. Let that community know whatever it is, you’re there and you care. And that you understand those connections. Be bold and aware of the relationships around you and definitely call out injustice when you see it.

Different people will come into your life at different times, some of them just to bring you an idea—poof, and they’re gone. If you do nothing with that idea, that idea moves to another person. Others will come and stay and they’ll work with you, and others will always be there for you. What I share with students everywhere I go, whether they’re graduate students or young students in Kenya, where I live, is the third nugget that I want to share with you today.

Whatever you do, consider the impact that it has on other people, and the role that you play in championing others, as others will champion you. I often talk to young people and I tell them, you are the beneficiary, as I will now to you graduates. You are the beneficiary of the gift of an amazing SUA education. So you must then consider who else other than yourself will be the beneficiary of this gift. And as you think about the person, the place, the thing, you must always consider that and make sure there is someone, something that you can mention.

Remember others in every space you’re in and just be conscious of what’s going on. Challenge, ask questions, be the champion. And whether you end up in a bank, in a lab, in the kitchen, in a theater, in politics, it really doesn’t matter. All of us can be potent agents of change. I often tell the story of a University of Nairobi student who listened to his father talking about the grabbing of a public land in Nairobi. Today, Nairobi holds one of the largest green spaces 1,000 hectares large, thanks to this law student who heard what injustice was about to happen, and brought that information to the Green Belt Movement.

You don’t always have to be the one who did the action, you may feel completely powerless like this young student did. But he didn’t stay quiet. He was the catalyst. He could easily have said, I’m a student, and there is not much I can do. But there’s always, always something you can do. And somewhere you can go.

And finally, as you head out, so many things will be on your mind. So many financial obligations, you have a lot of things, including sleep, to do. Remember that in all of this, that the dignity of human life will always be the currency that matters. So be kind, be curious, be generous, and be caring.

So now graduates, it’s your turn, to take up the cause for global citizenship that has been passed on to you by your mentors, your professors, your friends, you are absolutely ready. Go forth and shine. And as you step into the real world, know that the road ahead may not always be easy. But that’s not what you’re here about. You will face challenges, setbacks, and obstacles. But that won’t stop you, you are from SUA. And that’s what the preparation here has done for you.

Don’t forget to express gratitude to those who have supported you throughout this journey, your family, your friends, your mentors, and maybe even sometimes you will remember some of the professors who taught you and you’ll send them a note. Just say … 30 years since since I left my college, I still remember my choir director and I send him a note every so often: “Thank you for allowing me to stay in choir even though my voice was a little bit off.”

Ladies and gentlemen, the mission of Soka University of America is to foster a steady stream of global citizens committed to living a contributive life. Remain true to that and never compromise your values and your beliefs. Stay grounded. Stay humble. Remember that success is not just achieving your goals. It’s not just about achieving your goals. But it’s also in seeing the humanity in others, making a positive impact.

In Africa, mainly in South Africa, there’s an expression—Ubuntu. It basically speaks to our shared humanity. I am because you are.

Congratulations graduates. Congratulations to your friends and family. This is your day, enjoy it. Thank you.