Naeem Ahmed, Class of 2000, Goodwin Commencement Prize Winner, "The Debt of Our Degrees," Bowdoin College Commencement 2000
Story posted May 27, 2000
Ms. LaChance, Honorands, Mr. Kurtz, President Edwards, distinguished guests, members of the Bowdoin community:
Member of the class of 2000, it was September 1996, almost four years ago, that I last had a chance to address all of you. I spoke to you at one of our orientation exercises, when we were invited to attend a lecture on diversity and tolerance at the Pickard Theater. The lecturer invited us to share our personal experiences of being stereotyped and labeled.
I was eager to say something, which, as many of you know, is what I am most fond of. So I raised my hand, was handed the microphone, and I asked you, "If I were to tell you that I am a Muslim fundamentalist from Pakistan, what would you think of me?"
And there was silence. Ominous silence.
Suddenly, I wasn't so eager to say anything anymore. You gave me blank stares. And I thought to myself, "have I made the faux pas that will haunt me for the next four years?" In a split second I saw my entire Bowdoin career pass before my eyes... four years of finger pointing.
I really wanted someone to answer, so I asked again, "what would you think of me?" And then, just as I was about to run out of there and catch the next flight back to Pakistan, a voice from the back of Pickard, a nameless faceless voice from the dark, called out, "terrorist!"
Thank you, whoever you were.
For you the typical Pakistani fundamentalist was a terrorist. Possibly someone supporting child labor, having no respect for democracy or civil rights, and taking an unhealthy interest in smuggled nuclear materials. And I really could not blame you because that is the only narrow perception of Pakistan the news media portrays. So I set a path for myself, to correct these misperceptions. And I set forth, quite nobly, on my 'crusade' of self-effacement.
I was so naive. There I was, thinking I had all the answers and that I was ready to dispense them, but absolutely clueless as to what I was about to learn from you. I also had my stereotypes and media-driven misconceptions about the United States. As far as I was concerned, I was making an educational pit stop in a land driven by wealth and power, who bombed into the ground any threat to their oil supply; a land bereft of moral values that lived for MTV Spring Breaks and Baywatch beaches; the Bill Cosby Show the only remaining evidence of any family values. In my eyes this was a land where I would have to guard my moral values against the vices that threatened to consume then, and believe me, I came here with my defenses up. Way up.
We've come a long way since then my friends, since that day in 1996. I've learnt that my biases were very biased, and I had to dispense with them so I could get to know you in all the unique colors and compositions that our class represents. And just as every one of you has educated me, I also hope that I have, in some small way, been able to do the same for you. I hope, at the very least, that I have been able to convince you that I am in fact not a terrorist.
We are graduating today with a liberal arts degree. What does that mean though? Beside our small size, broad curriculum and expensive price tag, what's a 'liberal arts degree?' Actually, it's pretty straightforward: liberal arts are the arts of liberty. Liberty is freedom. Freedom of speech, freedom of mind, freedom of communication. If you take just one thing with you from Bowdoin, remember that we have been educated in the art of communication, in the effective transmission of intellectual thought into the spoken and written word. We have also cultivated our capacity to listen. To listen without bias or prejudice, to listen critically, and then to raise our voice effectively and constructively - not the nameless, faceless voices in the dark we were four years ago - but bold, confident and strong expressions of the ideas and ideals we represent. And now, as we leave these hallowed halls of Hubbard, we are responsible for effectively and purposefully employing these communication skills. If ever we are faced with prejudice and injustice and we do not question it, challenge it and speak up against it, we are failing our responsibility to ourselves, to this institution and to everyone who made this day possible.
One of the things we must always guard against is taking too much pride in our own achievements. If you believe that this degree is yours, for you to treasure and frame and cherish as solely your own achievement, then you are oh-so-mistaken. It belongs to your family and friends, who have sacrificed to send you here, it belongs to every professor who has instructed and inspired you, every staff member that has supported you, every person, graduate or donor who has influenced Bowdoin's past, present and future - this degree belongs to all these people and we cannot ignore the responsibility that their sacrifices bear upon us.
I have taken my fair share of math and economics classes at Bowdoin - in fact, more than my fair share as President Edwards is constantly reminding me - and forgive me, but I cannot help but apply the math to our degrees. I mean, do you ever wonder how much these degrees are worth? I do. In fact, I learned that in monetary value alone, about 50 thousand dollars are spent on every one of us each year that we are at Bowdoin. So for a single year, the class of 2000 is worth 50 thousand multiplied by 450 = 22 million, 500 thousand dollars. Multiplying that by 4 years is 90 million dollars. 90 million dollars! That, my friends, is the price of the best four years of our lives.
Now don't get me wrong ... I am not suggesting that this was money ill-spent, but I believe it will have been ill-spent if we do not fulfill our responsibility to the people and institutions that made all this possible for us. I am also not suggesting money is the only important thing or even the most important thing, but money, unfortunately, is important. Every dollar spent on us could have been spent on someone else's primary education, someone else's health care, someone else's life saving drugs, someone else's hunger relief... I believe it is necessary for us to realize the opportunity cost of our degrees to society. I believe it is necessary for us to realize our debt to society, for us to realize that as we celebrate our achievements today, we must also celebrate the sacrifices that were made to make these degrees possible.
One of the persons who was responsible for bringing me to Bowdoin, was a lady at the Office of Admissions, Karen Guttentag. Three years ago Karen decided to join the Peace Corps in a small country of about 7 million people in western Africa. I learnt that war, drought and famine had led this country to being declared one of the poorest states in the world. This country is Chad, where over 80% of the population has never received formal schooling, and the per capita income is 160 dollars. A simple calculation helps put things in perspective: every year, about 150,000 people in Chad live off the amount of money spent on us in a single year at Bowdoin. 150,000 in Chad for four hundred and fifty of us at Bowdoin. And can you even begin to imagine how many people could have been educated in Chad with 90 million dollars? How many lives could have been saved from famine and disease? How many houses could have sheltered the homeless?
So my friends, why did we spend four years of our lives here at Bowdoin? Why did we spend all these resources? To live the American Dream? Nice job? Nice house? Nice car? Make lots of money in the land of opportunity? Sure we did! But do you know what happens when the American Dream is lived by only 5 percent of the world's population, a 5 percent that in fact consumes 25 percent of the world's resources? And what when within that 5 percent living the 'dream', 80 percent of the wealth is owned by 20 percent of the people? It means a non-sustainable dream that we cannot be so blind to aspire to.
This degree is not a passport for us to live that non-sustainable dream that only a fraction of the world can enjoy, but it is a responsibility to ensure that everyone else also has a chance to realize their right to liberty, and to satisfy their basic need for food, shelter, education and healthcare. With these degrees we will be choosing from a wide array of professions: bankers, teachers, lawyers, engineers, artists, social workers... but the denominating factor will always be that we are humanitarians. Through our time, our voice, our intellect and our money we will always fulfill these responsibilities.
We are the class of 2000, and aside from all the hype of the new millennium, there is something to be said about the twentieth century and our role as harbingers of the twenty-first. The last century was one of the greatest yet most tragic of human history; a century where the human race realized more power than ever before, but also abused it more brutally than ever before. The purpose of our education, my friends, is to be active participants in creating a world that is not marred by the abuses of wealth and power and the human tragedies characteristic of the last century. We must use our experiences and sharpened intellects to affect changes for a world where there is greater tolerance, sharing and understanding, and less bigotry, prejudice and violence. This is your mission should you 'choose' to accept it." No! This is what others' sacrifices have made incumbent upon us, this is what will lead us to realize the true worth of our degrees, and this is what will prove that these couldn't have been the 'best four years of our lives', for the best is yet to come. Anything less would be a waste.
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