Convocation Address, October 2014

October 10, 2014

Professor Andrew Petter
President and Vice-Chancellor
Simon Fraser University

Madam Chancellor, honoured guests, members of the Board of Governors and Senate, and most especially, graduands, family and friends.

It is my privilege to share in this celebration of your success ... and to honour you for having reached this important milestone.

I would also like to honour your family and friends – indeed all those who made sacrifices to help you get here today.

Earning a university degree is no easy feat. 

It takes talent and time.  

It takes energy and hard work.  

But most of all, earning a degree takes conviction:

  • The conviction that curiosity and knowledge lead to greater things – for yourselves and for communities.
  • The conviction that in a world defined by change and uncertainty, education enables you both to seek personal fulfillment and to serve a larger social purpose.
  • The conviction that pursuing a university degree equips you to help build a better society.

It’s a conviction that has guided generations of students.

It’s a conviction that fuels our democracy.

And it’s a conviction that has animated some of humanity’s deepest inquiries about our place in the world.

Three questions posed by the ancient sage and scholar Hillel explain this well – how our personal success is attached to a broader social purpose – to a larger public good

Hillel asks:

First… “If I am not for myself, who will be for me?  “

Second… “But if I am only for myself, what am I?”  

And third…  “If not now, when?”

Three challenging questions that are as relevant today as when they were first asked two millennia ago.

And when I look upon your faces, I see answers to each of them.

You came to this university for your own reasons and with your own expectations.

Some of you had your eye on a specific career path.

Others of you were driven by a simple passion for learning.

And many of you were likely uncertain about where a university degree might lead.  I know that’s how I felt when I first stepped onto a university campus so very many years ago.

Yet while you had different reasons for coming to SFU, the sacrifices you made to earn your degree expressed a common conviction you had in yourselves – in your talents, your abilities, and your intrinsic worth.

To paraphrase Hillel, in coming here, “you were for yourself.”  And that is important.

What you have learned at SFU has prepared you for personal fulfilment and rewarding careers. 

Cynics abound when it comes to the value of a university education.

But those cynics are wrong – the countless hours spent in the classroom and the library, the late nights and the stress – have been well worth the effort.

In personal terms, there is no better investment than the time and energy it takes to earn a university degree.

Higher employment rates.  Higher incomes.  The evidence shows that what you learned here will help you succeed in whatever career path you choose.

You did it for yourself.

But as important as that is, Hillel’s next question – “If I am only for myself, what am I?” – challenges us to consider how our personal worth is connected to the well-being of others.

After all, you may have earned your degree for yourself, but you did not do it by yourself.

You benefitted from a society that provided you opportunities to attend outstanding institutions of higher learning.

Past generations of citizens – most of whom could never have dreamed of earning an advanced degree – sacrificed so that you could be here today.

And your family, friends, teachers, mentors and colleagues have all played important roles in shaping whom you have become.

So on this day I hope you will consider the debt you owe to others, and the responsibility you assume to contribute something in return.

This is the gift of a university education. The knowledge you acquired here not only enriches your own lives, but also gives you the power to enrich the lives of others.

And it is a gift, for there is no greater reward than the gratification to be gained from making a positive difference to the world around us.

Simon Fraser has given you an extraordinary education.

As an “engaged university,” we have cultivated your capacities to think critically and to learn for yourselves, while providing you opportunities to gain practical experience and to broaden your understanding of the world.

We have equipped you to engage in research that contributes to our store of knowledge, and to mobilize that knowledge to meet the challenges of our time.

And we have encouraged you to engage communities by applying your ideas, skills and experiences to enrich our social fabric and strengthen our democracy.

So, after earning your degree at SFU, you can answer Hillel’s second question – “If I am only for myself, what am I?” – with purpose and conviction.

You are an engaged citizen with knowledge and skills to make the world a better place.

But I hope you don’t stop there.

In answer to Hillel’s third and final question – “If not now, when?” – I urge you not to waste precious time. 

Urgent and challenging questions abound – from a warming planet, to growing inequality, to the constant need for new ideas and innovations to generate shared prosperity.

Confront an increasingly complex and challenging world with hope, optimism and purpose.

Thus, on this wonderful day …

Be rightly proud of yourselves. 

Be grateful to those who helped get you here.

And, above all, commit yourself to carrying forward the spirit of engagement that we have sought to nurture in you.

Your community, your country, your world needs you.

Congratulations.  And good luck.