Best Commencement Speeches: Khaled Hosseini

atkins-bookshelf-educationKhaled Hosseini, author of the best-selling novel The Kite Runner and founder of the Khaled Hosseini Foundation, delivered the commencement speech to the graduating class of 2010 at Vanderbilt University. Hosseini was awarded the university’s Nichols-Chancellor Medal that honor individuals that define the 21st century and exemplify the best qualities of the human spirit. Below are excerpts from his speech, titled “Philanthropy in an Interconnected World and the Role of the Individual,” delivered on May 13, 2010, on the eve of the main Commencement ceremony:

On the eve of your graduation from Vanderbilt, one of our most distinguished houses of learning, I would like to ponder with you a question: Why do we educate? Why do institutions go to the considerable time, trouble and expense of building colleges and universities, peopling them with the best and brightest they can attract, and teaching them to the best of their ability? Why do students work for years to get admitted, scrounge for the funds to attend, and then spend a fifth of their young lives in study? The students might have a ready answer — education is the key to greater opportunities and prosperity in their lives. In college, students gain the skills they need, earn a degree that stands as a mark of their experience and knowledge, and often form the relationships and connections that will give them chances to put their learning to use.

But what stake do the rest of us have in this institution? Why should we teach, or contribute to our alma maters, or mentor the young people coming out of them? The answer is that for most of us, the college and its graduates are a part of our community. The people who learn today work and exercise their ambition tomorrow. We all have a vested interest in supporting the best thinkers and learners in our community. We also remember our own educations, and the countless people who contributed to who we are and what we have accomplished.

We recognize that there’s a debt that we owe. We have an appreciation for the value of learning. Let us consider for a moment what happens when we learn. It’s something you’ve all been doing with great concentration and motivation for the past four years, and I’d like to examine it more closely. Learning is change. It is not a confirmation of fact or opinion. It is not elaboration on familiar sets of knowledge. Learning occurs in the moments when we meet revelations. It’s a challenge to what you know, or think you know. It’s a remapping of the world around you. This process and these moments are not always comfortable. The can alarm you, or even make you angry. But they always make you think.

As you leave the structure of school, where you have support to help you confront these moments of learning, please bear in mind that you are not done yet. These challenges will always find you. The real test of your education will be how you face these challenges on your own…

A community is not just a set of people who have things in common. It is a complicated organism, one which requires different people and points of view to thrive. A complete community needs people who work with their hands, and people who work with their minds. It demands an older generation that’s had years of experience, and new blood to bring about innovation. It must have people who are cautious, and people who are bold. It needs women and men. It needs loyalists and also critics. A community must recognize want and care for its own. Sometimes the people who need the most help are the hardest to see.

I’m going to ask something difficult of you. I ask you to seek out those in your community in need. To try, not just to understand them, but to help them. It is hard to make a connection with suffering. It requires you to take on some of that pain for yourself. It makes you see a kinship with misfortune, and to see how it could happen to you, or how you would feel.

But there’s an impulse to turn away from those in need, from a beggar in the street to images on television. This impulse comes partly from this pain, but also from apathy, and its insidious, enormous negative power. It was Helen Keller who said, “Science may have found a cure for most evils, but it has found no remedy for the worst of them all — the apathy of human beings.” …

We need tools to help us make that connection, to make the abstract real. How is this accomplished? In your time in college, you no doubt took a great many classes geared towards a specific career. The practical applications of your science classes, or your economics lectures, or your engineering schematics, were probably always in your minds. But a full education requires humanities as well, classes with art and books and music. We need this kind of education to give us a window into the minds of others.

So with a recognition of the need to support your community, and the compassion to drive you to help, what next? It is important to consider the practical course and the action you can take. A mantra of the world of volunteer and philanthropy work is the idea of “give five percent”. It can be five percent of your time, or five percent of your money. It has echoes of the biblical idea of tithing. It is a small piece of your luck and prosperity that you owe back to the community. It’s something that everyone can manage. If you work forty hours a week, two hours spent with someone less fortunate than you can make a world of difference.

I know this is a tall order and a formidable challenge for people who have so much before them already. It’s not an easy world you’ve inherited, and right now you might be wondering how you will face the personal changes life has in store for you. But I would say that to consider others is not an additional burden but an increased opportunity. Here is a place you can always help, and be appreciated for who you are and what you are capable of.When you see the difference that you make in other people’s worlds, you must be alive to the change you can make in your own. It is a way to be strong, to be wise, and to know the measure of your own powers.

Read related post: Wear Sunscreen Commencement Speech
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For further reading: http://news.vanderbilt.edu/2010/05/kite-runner-author-tells-grads-to-continue-learning-give-back-to-community-115517/
Way More Than Luck by the editors of Chronicle Books (2015)

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