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Commencement address by Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf
President Wright; Members of the Board of Trustees; Members of the Faculty;
Parents; Family, Friends and the Graduating Class of Dartmouth College;
Ladies and Gentlemen:
I am indeed deeply honored to be here, to receive a distinction from this prestigious university. As I said last night to the faculty and other honorands, this award signifies in the eyes of the world, that Liberia my country has embarked on an irreversible journey to reclaim its place among those nations that uphold fundamental freedoms, including freedom of speech as the foundation of political discourse. Indeed, this is a hopeful indication that in spite of the generations of instability and wars, our struggle for democracy and civil liberties in Liberia has not been in vain.
We know that we face a range of challenges in building the foundation for rapid, inclusive and sustainable growth, to build dilapidated infrastructure, weak education and health systems, malnutrition, high unemployment. But my Government is committed to facing these challenges and creating much more equitable and inclusive economic and political structures, generating opportunities for the historically marginalized groups, and widely sharing the benefits of growth and development. Liberia's economic growth strategy will focus on creating widespread public sector opportunities for unskilled and semi-skilled workers, including the unemployed, disenfranchised young men and women, and will establish a labor-intensive framework that keeps business costs low. The private sector will be the primary driver of growth, from small family farms and roadside shops to medium and large-sized investments in agriculture, mining, construction, hotels, financial services and increasingly, light manufacturing. But we know that economic growth alone will not lead to rapid reduction in poverty. We know that we must build the institutions of justice, human rights and participatory democracy, strong systems of governance in which rights are respected and institutions serve the public good and natural resources are used for the benefit of all.
Yet, there is no doubt that Liberia is on a new path and we thank all of those who have inspired us to work toward this new era in my country.
But today is your day and I am particularly pleased to join in congratulating you graduates for your achievements.
You will walk away from here within the next few days, ready to take on new responsibilities in the public or private service, ready to put into practice the concepts and principles that you have learned here. The diversity of your experience - instructions from renowned professors, access to information from a well-stocked and functioning library, interaction with scholars and students from all over the world - will help to propel you toward the achievement of your professional goal.
Several of you will reach the zenith of your professional endeavor, and will come to be known as those who have made a difference, particularly in the lives of others.
There are those before you whose footsteps you can follow, who have inspired and challenged us to go the extra mile. A few of those heroes come to mind.
I recall Mahatma Ghandi, the epitome of passive resistance in the struggle for freedom. It is freedom generally defined as the power to act, speak or think freely, the inalienable right to self determination.
I recall Eleanor Roosevelt who blazed the path to ensure that women's right to vote was made universal, indisputable and inalienable.
I recall Rosa Parks, my hero in the simplicity of her resistance, the refusal to move to the back of the bus because her feet hurt - her assertion, "No, I won't go" that unleashed the civil rights movement that brought equality and equal opportunity to the African American population.
I recall Martin Luther King who turned the Rosa Parks resistance into a national civil rights movement whose resistance to injustice, whose submission to suffering and personal sacrifice led him to pay the ultimate price for the liberty and equality of African American citizens.
I recall our own African icon, Nelson Mandela, who despite 27 years of dehumanizing hardships, demonstrated character and inner strength by endorsing compromise and tolerance in the quest for national unity.
Many of you may not achieve the distinctions of these heroes and role models that dominate our history but I want you to know that each of you has the potential to make that difference in whatever you do.
You will be expected to be highly competent with knowledge and understanding that enable you to stand out among your colleagues. To be successful, you will need to be prepared to go the extra mile and to spend time to improve the structures and systems with which you are called to work.
You will need to maintain a high level of integrity, sometimes going against the accepted norms and procedures, particularly in countries and conditions know for corruption.
You will have to be courageous, standing firm and sometimes alone for those policies and strategies that represent the best approach for achieving development goals. When you see something wrong, you will need to have the courage to stand up and say so. You will need to demonstrate leadership, the ability to inspire, to motive others to emulate you and to join you in the achievement of the goals.
But you can draw strength and comfort from the fact that the lessons of history will be on your side. The achievers of this world are those who are ready to be persistent, work hard, remain consistent and stay focused on your goals to make the world a better place.
In so doing, you will need to become agents of change - change for a better world; sometimes change for a world uncongenial to human happiness; change that makes the world a better place for all humanity; change that actualizes the universal values of freedom, liberty, justice, equality; change that ensures the unity and progress of the human family. For positive change to make a difference in one's life and in the lives of greater humanity, people must be inspired to challenge, reform and transform existing conditions of life, especially where our most cherished universal values are trampled upon by those whose goals are to circumvent the path of peace and human upliftment, or to wrest the good things of life for themselves at the disadvantage of a weaker humanity.
In human experience, to make a difference in one's life is to be successful; and success requires a continuing struggle to overcome adversity as a basis for our preparation to serve mankind.
Today, I stand before you as an example of the power of determination and persistence to overcome the odds. Today, I represent the aspirations and expectations of women in Liberia, women in Africa, and I dare say women in the world. I am excited by the potential but humbled by the implications, but today, every girl child in every village in Africa can reach for their highest dreams.
As you exit this great hall of learning, I urge you to continue to seek the excellence which is embodied in your alma mater; seek to make a difference in your lives and the lives of those with whom you will come into contact. Go forth, proud of your achievement. Reach for your greatest potential. Seize the moment and the opportunity of professional life. Stand strong in your faith and in your conviction. Aim to be counted in your actions as those who will inspire great movements to change the world.
Just look at the changing American political landscape and know that what seemed impossible is possible. Go out, be what you want to be, but whatever it is be the best at it. You have earned it, you can do it. Yes, you can!
Thank you and God speed.
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