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Think big, never say never

Commencement Address at University of West Indies St Augustine, October 26, 2012
Published: 
Sunday, November 4, 2012
Michael K Mansoor

I am privileged and delighted to receive this honour on the same day that you are graduating from this great and prodigious university, and pledging yourselves to bring to all a light rising from the west. Let me also say that I am as humbled as you are as we acknowledge our huge debt of gratitude to parents, teachers, our distinguished faculty and so many persons of goodwill who spared no effort to bring us to this proud moment.

 

Let us be measured and grounded in this time of triumph and let us affirm the powerful boast of the Psalmist that the Almighty has done spectacular things for us. You have all worked incredibly hard to arrive at this happy juncture. I congratulate you and your families for this great achievement.

 

All of you can look back at the long hours, the sacrifice and the discipline that your qualification required, and feel the satisfaction of a job well done. I encourage you to savour the moment and treasure this day and your experience at the UWI.
We have the good fortune to be marking these accomplishments in a year when as a region we have been given so much to celebrate with Jamaica and Trinidad and Tobago commemorating 50 years of independence.

 

We can also recall the spontaneous eruption of merriment from the streets of Gouyave in Grenada, the idyllic village of Toco and the verdant hills of Trelawney, Jamaica, as Kirani James, Keshorn Walcott and Usain Bolt, among others, dazzled the world with their athletic prowess.

 

Not to be outdone, our enigmatic treasure, the West Indies Cricket team brought unbridled joy to every son and daughter with the T20 Championship victory over Sri Lanka, reminding us once again why we must heed David Rudder’s cry...never say never. I have always liked the edge, the resilience and the defiance of those words. As you contemplate your dreams and aspirations think big and never say never.

 

In the midst of all the euphoria and elation of this occasion, I am here to tell you that every serious person discovers that life is sometimes wonderful, but always difficult, and, if for any period the opposite seems true, you may well be on a path to mediocrity and complacency.

 

You may indeed have already known this. I hope you have also found out that you are at your best when, like Rihanna and Machel, you do the things that you enjoy most …even if it means operating outside of your comfort zone. Staying in your comfort zone is perhaps the biggest mistake that you can make. The second most likely error is that you give up when the going gets tough.

 

So if I had to give advice to you it would be thus. Take the time to discover your passion, always challenge yourself and avoid your comfort zone. Finally when you set about your life’s calling, never give up, and if you fail or get knocked down, pick yourself up, dust off and fight with all you got.  

 

Let me talk a bit about the comfort zone. You can easily become the victim of circumstance, the victim of other people’s expectations, even the victim of privilege. You can take the first job that comes your way. You can decide that Trinidad and Tobago is the centre of the universe and not pursue opportunities to work in world renowned centres of excellence, where you will be challenged. You can short-sightedly insulate yourself from world-class competition.

 

The alternative is to become your own hero, create your own dreams, and persistently pursue your true calling even if it means going to the ends of the world. Another alternative is to be relevant and take on significant projects and ventures that can change your world.

 

 

Let me put this in some context. Most of you would be keen students of caribbean history and would have an opinion as to how well we have competed as small nation states over the last four or five decades. You will have an opinion as to whether the levels of economic growth, employment and national indebtedness augur well for the future.

 

If you live in Trinidad and Tobago and believe the economic problems of our Caricom partners do not affect you, I ask you to read and study a recent lecture by your Campus chairman Ewart Williams, about the impacts of Dutch Disease, spending too much and saving too little, and come to your own conclusions.

 

You will have a view as to whether the level and quality of education, security and health  showcase our Caribbean democracies as solid examples of development or whether they evidence tell-tale vestiges of stagnation. As good students of our history you would also have a view as to how and why so many West Indians have been so successful in the professions, academia, the arts, sport and athletics and yes, business.

 

Let me remind you of some of our successes:
• The petrochemical sector in Trinidad and Tobago;
• The light manufacturing industry in this country;
• The tourism industry in St Lucia, Jamaica and Barbados;
• The international financial services sector in the Cayman Island and The Bahamas.

 

 We have also created impressive world-renowned Caribbean brands. Bob Marley, Kitchener, the Mighty Sparrow, Sandals, Beeches, Appleton, Carib, Red Stripe, to name a few. Even with all of this success you would have a view as to whether good governance, compassion and entrepreneurship are the defining hallmarks of our societies. Thinking deeply and profoundly about what works and what does not work will make every difference in your lives.

 

As students of the Social Sciences it is incumbent upon you to study the reasons and circumstances of our successes and failures so that you make a positive difference in your world. I believe that now more than ever the Caribbean needs a burst of genius and leadership, so that we can take stock, up our game and transform our world.

 

I believe that the tide and the time are running against us, and I say if not now, when? And if not the graduating class of this university, who will lead us to the sunny uplands of flourishing democracies and economic prosperity? You are among the privileged in our society. Your academic achievements set you apart and have prepared you for opportunities of the 21st century.

 

You hold in your hands the tools of transformation and the magic of innovation, technology and science. What ails us is the absence of systems and inadequate models of governance, accountability and management. This university has provided you with the basic tools to remedy and fix all this.   

 

You are the generation that will determine whether Caribbean societies are condemned to merely eke out a meagre living or whether Caribbean societies will become shining examples of accomplishment, compassion and hope. On your shoulders rest the responsibility to ensure our intellectual capital is harnessed and converted into real income and real jobs for our people.

 

As an example, there are several opportunities to capitalise and advance the pioneering works of James Husbands and the late Professor Oliver Headley in the field of green energy. Again in the area of agriculture and food production, there are numerous options to convert the singular research capabilities and findings of this university to large scale and productive enterprises.

 

Why, for example, do we have a world famous Cocoa Research Unit with a world famous International Cocoa Genebank and we rank nowhere among the cocoa producers of the world? Further, consider the myriad opportunities of today’s technology. We are in the same time zone and are culturally attuned to the largest economy in the world, yet call centres and data support facilities abound in India and are scarcely to be found in our region.

 

Have we thought about the impact of having people now dependent on unemployment relief programmes exchanging their ten-day assignments for the higher paying jobs in the information industry?

 

I hope you share my view that there is important and critical work to be done in the Caribbean lest we miss the boat and not capture the potential and promise of the 21st century. You may say that some of the examples I have used are outside the subject areas of your electives of politics, government or politics and psychology.

 

This is what I meant when I talked about avoiding your comfort zone and doing everything to follow your passion and take on the significant problems of this era. Do not put limits or boundaries on what you can do because, your innate creativity knows no bounds.

 

I am optimistic that when you choose your life’s work you will set about the transformation of Caribbean economies, the transformation of our culture of governance and even the modernisation of our constitutional arrangements. I am optimistic that this graduating class will answer the call of history and the silent pleadings of generations yet to come.

 

So good luck, work hard to find your passion, avoid the trappings of your comfort zone and never, never give up. Be inspired by our successes and be determined to fix what ails us. Labour for causes that are grander and bigger than yourselves. And may the graciousness of the Almighty prosper the work of your hands.

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