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UMU Commencement Address

Graduates, parents, faculty and administrators: I wholeheartedly congratulate all of you on the occasion of this milestone achievement. This graduation ceremony would have been impossible without your various important contributions. On behalf of a grateful nation, I join in thanks to all of our faith-based institutions, all of which, despite the presenting difficulties, continue to serve the needs of our people especially in the areas of education and health.

You, our graduates, have proven to yourselves, and to our country, that challenges can be overcome, goals can be achieved, and in the end, success can and will come to all who are willing to discipline themselves and work hard enough to achieve it. In all endeavors of life, success is not a measure of where you were born, to whom you were born, nor is it a measure of the name of your family. As your graduation now proves, success is really a measure of discipline, hard work and determination.

And so today, I urge all of you to believe in yourself, believe that your dreams and ambitions are possible, and work, as diligently as you truly can, to achieve it.

The Chair and Members of the Board of Trustees;
The President and Members of the Faculty;
The Graduating Class and Members of the Student Body;
Parents, Guardians and other Relatives;
Distinguished Ladies and Gentlemen:

I am honored by the invitation, and thank you for this opportunity, to address you. I am not given to long speeches. The truth is no one ever remembers commencement speeches. And so, I will attempt to make three points which I believe ought to speak not just to this special moment in the lives of our graduates but also to the country because the realities of this graduation are not disconnected from the difficult realities of our country. We are all connected.

From our graduates, many of whom had to struggle on their own to make it, to the schools that are literally abandoned in the struggle to continue to educate our children; from the poor parents who have to battle through the difficult choices of putting food on the table, paying rent, tending to an illness, or paying high and often unaffordable tuition for their children; the reality is that our nation is failing. We simply cannot continue like this. All of us deserve better.

As such, my first point is that today’s graduation, and the successful attainment of knowledge by citizens of every nation, especially members of its youthful population, ought to extend the curve of possibility for what that nation can achieve. We must stop this foolish deception trafficked to some of our people that education is irrelevant in the growth and development of our nation.

Where the human capacities of nations are weak, a nation is doomed to be poor. The wealth of a nation is not measured in the heights of buildings but in the capacities of its citizens. This is why, when poor families sacrifice to send their children to school, when the children graduate, the families have a right to expect that their children will not lack equality in opportunity, to better their lives, in a country in which they are equal citizens.

However, the harsh truth is that those on whose shoulders we have assigned the responsibility to guarantee equality in opportunity have not governed well enough to do so for all of our citizens. Too many of our citizens, like you, our graduates, who now hunger for, and have earned the right, to the opportunities they need to lift themselves and their parents out of the claws of poverty, are finding the opportunities unfairly restricted and difficult to come by. Yesterday, the same people who called and agitated for change – who promised a new dawn of equality of all Liberians – are today, committing the same wrongs, and worsening the already difficult conditions of the country, and our people.

Rather than change, we continue to see the nation governed in a way that excludes one citizen from the rights and privileges to which all citizens ought to be equally entitled. Rather than change, we continue to see opportunities which are conferred by citizenship reapportioned not based on equality in citizenship but a warped sense of partisanship and the corruption of cronyism. Perhaps the failing of the nation, and the lack of equality in opportunity to all of our citizens, are best exemplified, in how our leaders are placing and prioritizing the interests of citizens of other countries over the interests and concerns of Liberians.

This is UNCONSCIONABLE, and for any nation on earth, it is WRONG and UNACCEPTABLE. In spite of our superficial differences in identities, the fact is that if Liberia cannot care for Liberians – if Liberians cannot find, at home, in the land of their birth, the best chances to succeed in life – no country will care for Liberians more, and no country will provide more for a Liberian success.

This does not mean that every Liberian will work in the government. But it means every Liberian, to the extent that they are ready to work hard, as well as discipline and invest in themselves, they must be enabled to own and participate fully in their economy, and have their interests prioritized in the management of and benefits from the natural wealth of the country. At the heart of it, this really is why nations exist – to provide the best possibilities for all of the citizens of a nation.

It may seem harsh, but our nation is bound to remain poor, rent-seeking and continue to beg for handouts and budget support to pay public officials and civil servants; we will continue to be ridiculed for celebrating donations of hand-pumps and a few transport buses, all of which a more responsible and less-wasteful government ought to provide for its people; we will continue to look to other countries to feed us and direct the course of our development and national decision-making which effectively undermines our sense of independence; our young people will continue to look to escape to “greener pastures” and away from the harsh realities in the incompetent and corrupt management of the nation’s resources at every available opportunity; our best minds will feel compelled to abandon service to their country; our hospitals and clinics will continue to be without the essentials for needed diagnosis and treatments of the sick; our public officials will continue to leak scarce and needed resources out of the ailing economy to travel abroad to get treated; indeed, our people will continue to endure the unbearable hardships just to get by, unless and until we seriously attend to reset the priorities of national leadership, be soberly honest about the choices we must make, and recommit to doing the required hard work, and be willing to undertake the needed sacrifices, to turn ourselves around.

Like your arduous journey to this graduation will prove, there will also be no shortcuts to turn our nation around. No one will do it for us. No one must do it for us. On the evidence of the numerous failing grades in the government’s report card, we are forced to conclude that our leaders are not up to the tasks we have assigned to them. They have not just failed us but they continue to show they lack the competence and capacity to learn from their failures, and to do the right things for the country.

They continue to divide, deny and deceive. Rather than the broader focus on building a nation, they are hellbent on building what they like to call a “mighty party” but what they really mean is a commitment to generate ill-gotten wealth for themselves and their friends as they render the country poorer, and drain the nation of hope.

Liberians do not need any foreign government, or their officials, to either tell us, or prove to us, that our government is kleptocratic and politically corrupt. Each day, the leaders of our government find a way to prove that they are kleptocratic – that they cannot control their insatiable appetites not to steal from us. And each day, the leaders of our government, either by commission or omission, act to confirm that they are politically corrupt and dangerously inept.

On this day of joy for what you have diligently achieved, it is with a heavy heart that I pronounce to you, what many of you perhaps already know: All is not well beyond the walls of your school. A struggling nation is not as yet ready to receive you with the opportunities you truly deserve, as a failing administration has lost its way, and too many of our people are suffering for the want of opportunity.

This brings me to my second point: You do not have to fail yourself because our leaders are failing us. You – each of you – today, and always, can choose to be different.

Along with the education you have received, may I urge you to adapt a set of values and principles that may seem uncommon, and even naive, to have at this time in the country. But I still urge you to do so, and to hold it so dear to yourself that you will not allow yourselves to compromise it. These include being honest, including to yourself, and demand nothing less of others with whom you are to interact. Hold yourself in high regard and to as high a standard as possible. Respect all persons but by no means must you put yourself down for anyone in demanding respect for yourself.

Never forget that our souls are priceless and therefore also must be the values with which we must cherish our thoughts, decisions and expressions. Guard all of these jealously so that they do not fall to the cheapness of manipulations and deceptions.

In your life’s undertakings, settle not for anything other than giving only the best of yourself. Be truthful, especially to yourself, about what you can and cannot do; and then whatever you know you are capable of doing, do it to convince that no one can and will do it better. Always stand, if even alone, for that which is just and right, because in the end, however long, right will prevail over wrong.

As it is often said, tough times don’t last – tough characters do. Toughen your character so that you do not bend easily and fall for everything. Embrace new opportunities to learn because it will constantly refresh and improve your value.
In the end, however you may choose to worship, trust God. Believe in His divine ways and extend goodness to all of God’s creation. Keep an open mind, and be just and fair to all, in the pursuits of your dreams and ambitions.

Finally, my friends, let me tell you a story of a boy from Point Four, on Bushrod Island. Everyone called him Junior Boy. He was the 3rd of 4 children. His father was an educator and an Episcopal priest, and his mother was a midwife and a business woman. His early school years began at the government-owned Monrovia Demonstration Elementary School, on Clay Street. He used to love to play football but never really became good at it. Early in his school days, he knew he was really good with numbers.

On Camp Johnson Road, where his parents first lived in a small apartment in the Jallah Compound, after which they moved to Point 4, he grew up learning the value of family, not just a family of parents, and sisters or those to whom he was directly related, but family extended to the entire neighborhood and community, as he ran about like every Liberian child, making lifelong friends and feeling at home in his community. Junior Boy would make it into the College of West Africa from where he would graduate from high school. He sought and gained enrollment at Cuttington University College in Suakoko, Bong County. He was not the first in his class, but he was never lacking in effort to give his best.

In his 3rd semester at Cuttington, he received a grant to attend Northern Illinois University in the United States from where he obtained his undergraduate degree. He returned home and was employed at the Liberia Bank for Development and Investment (LBDI) from where he would later gain another grant to pursue postgraduate studies.

He stuck with his love of numbers, and with nothing more than his faith in God, and belief in himself, the boy from Point Four, black and with a foreign accent, would climb a most difficult and improbable ladder, to reach the highest levels in corporate America, lived and worked across some of the best cities in the world, and attained heights beyond his wildest dreams, so far away from home. Today, hardly anyone calls him Junior Boy, and many have forgotten that it all started in Point Four, on Bushrod Island.

That boy is me. And while my story is not a common tale, it is also a measure of what is possible for every Liberian child born everywhere in Liberia. You see, it doesn’t matter if you come from Point Four or Saclepea – it doesn’t matter if you went to government-owned school or a faith-based institution – if a nation can truly afford the best quality of education to all of our children, they can rise to heights unknown not just in Liberia, but anywhere in the world.

Of course, I am proud to have retired from Coca Cola at the level of Executive Vice President and Chief Administrative Officer, with managing authority over several thousands of international employees as well as a budget of over USD 1billion. And yet, even that does not come close to how proud I am to be a Liberian, and to inspire all Liberians to believe that my story can be the story of many others.

This is why, without much noise about what we do, the Cummings Foundation has invested over 1.2 million in health, education, women and youth empowerment, and entrepreneurship across Liberia. We do not require anyone we support to be a partisan, or to be from a particular tribe, gender or religion. For me, it only matters that you are a Liberian, and that you are desirous of giving your best efforts to better yourself.

The more we have given – and we will not stop – the more I have realized that firstly, we must do more, for more of our people, and secondly, our people do not desire to be beggars or to be robbed of their dignities. What Liberians seek, like all people everywhere, is a fair and equal chance, to stand up on their own so as to care for themselves and for their families.

And so, it is that burning desire to do more for all of our people that has called me to politics. The truth is that through politics, and especially responsible, accountable and selfless service at the highest levels of a government, the real possibility exists to do more for all of our people.

All across our country, we have many Junior Boys and Teta Girls – many children with dreams that now appear to be fading fast. They, too, like all of you, deserve a better chance. I hear the cries of despair and hopeless expressions that our country may be cursed, and that we simply cannot change. I understand the frustrations.

However, I refuse to believe that our nation is cursed or that we are just doomed to fail. Yes, we must change the direction of our country. To do this, first, we must agree to change the discredited impression that leadership does not matter – because it does. Competence matters. Education matters. Values and principles matter. These important attributes do not just matter for individuals, they do for every nation.

Each day, I find a new reason to hope for our country. I find it in the sparks in the eyes of you who graduate today. I find it in the expressions of people so far removed from Monrovia, in the distant counties all across the country, some cut off by the lack of roads, and yet, are looking to a new day, and the possibilities of a new future. I find it in a young man who is trying to do business the right way despite all of the temptations from the government to harass and corrupt him. I find it in motorcyclists who are trying to do the best that they can to make ends meet.

I find it in school teachers who despite low salaries will not miss a day, and in students who without the suitable conditions for quality learning still give their best efforts. I find it across rural dwellings where our women, despite still being locked out and treated as less than equals to men, still carry the burdens of providing for their families. I find it in women daring to claim their rightful places around the national table of decision making.

I find it in doctors and nurses who can make so much more elsewhere, but show such love and dedication to remain here working under less than ideal conditions and in under-equipped and underfunded hospitals and clinics. I find it in our civil servants who despite being “harmonized” wake up every working day to get to work. I find it in the gallantry of our service men and women who are willing to sacrifice their lives and limbs for the country we love.

To all of you, I say that I know it is hard. But may we never give up on ourselves and on our country, nor let ourselves stop trying, despite the many bad examples from those who have the duty to set good examples – may we never stop doing the right things for ourselves, our communities, and for our country.

Yes, Liberia will overcome. Good will prevail. And Liberia will be better for all Liberians.

May God continue to bless you, and our nation, as we travel together along the challenging road that lies ahead.

I thank you for your kind attention.

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