Convocation Address, October 2013

October 11, 2013

Madam Chancellor, honoured guests, members of the Board of Governors and Senate, faculty members, staff … and, most especially, graduands.

It is my privilege to preside at this celebration of your success – this culminating event of your education at Simon Fraser University.

It’s also my pleasure to welcome those who have come to help you celebrate – parents, family members and friends – for whom this occasion is as special as it is for you.  They likely are as proud as you are that you made it here today.     

Thus, before I go on to congratulate you for your dedication and commitment, let’s all take a moment to acknowledge theirs

Whether their influence took the form of encouraging, mentoring, pleading or cheque-writing – or some combination thereof – it’s probably fair to say that many of you would not have arrived at this day without them.

So think for a moment on all those here who helped you through the years – your parents, family members, mentors and friends – along with those who wished but are unable to be here – and join me in offering them a round of applause.

And now to you: What do you take away on this momentous day? What have you earned from your efforts at SFU?

Well, there will be a high-level description on your degree – and some greater detail on your transcript.  But in both instances, the references will be incomplete.

When you consider what you gained from SFU, I hope that you will credit some things that don’t show up on your parchment:  I hope you will value not just your knowledge of a particular subject, but also the learning aptitudes, the critical thinking abilities, and the research skills that will serve you throughout your lifetime.

I also hope that you cherish the sense of social understanding and global awareness that comes from studying at Canada’s “engaged university.”  

And I hope that you will continue to engage.  Given the challenges facing our world, we need you to do so.

Consider the environmental risks of climate change, the financial risks of an unsteady global economy, and the social risks of rising income inequality.

If we aspire to live in a sustainable, prosperous and equitable society, the world needs you to do a lot more than pursue your own self-interest.  It needs you to look upon these and other risks as challenges to be taken on.

As cultural anthropologist Margaret Mead once observed, “We are continually faced with great opportunities which are brilliantly disguised as unsolvable problems.” 

Addressing these challenges will require you to draw upon all of the knowledge, skills and aptitudes that you have acquired at SFU … and to proceed with equal amounts of optimism and scepticism.

By scepticism, I don’t mean you should go through life pre-disposed to rejecting novel or controversial ideas.  On the contrary, such ideas should be welcomed and seriously considered. 

What I mean is that you should test and interrogate all ideas, old and new, to reach answers that are evidence-based.

You should honour expertise – for example, by attending to scientists on matters of science.

At the same time, you should never abandon your own values.  You shouldn’t leave politics to the politicians.  Whether you’re casting your ballot or taking a position on a matter of public importance, you should again stay engaged.

Fortunately, you have excellent role models in those who have preceded you – in former SFU graduates who are making a difference locally and globally:

  • People like Vancouver Police Chief Jim Chu, who has revolutionized his department’s use of information technology and strengthened its relationships with the city’s diverse, multi-cultural communities.
  • Graduates like Cary Fowler, who conceived and helped establish the Svalbard Global Seed Vault in Norway, a sort of Noah’s Ark for seed crops and a safe storage area for the world’s plant genetic resources.
  • Individuals like Professor Robert Turner, whose research has helped to develop magnetic resonance imaging, resulting in MRI machines that have transformed many aspects of modern health care.

These people are proof of another Margaret Mead insight:  That “[a]ll social change comes from the passion of individuals.”

They also provide reassurance that, as you go forth to engage the world, you are not alone.  Today, you join a family of over 125,000 alumni spread throughout 130 countries the world over.

When you need friendship, an SFU alum will never be far away.  And when you need advice or support – information, further education, whatever it may be – this university will be there for you … now and always.

For today, congratulations!  As you cross the stage in a few minutes, revel in the fact that you have earned this honour.

The degrees we are about to bestow are testament to your achievements at SFU.  Be proud of yourselves – work hard, stay engaged – and you will do us, your families and your communities, proud as well.

Good luck to you all.