Words of Wisdom to College Grads: ‘Engage the World’

Dear Friend,

This time of year, I have the pleasure of engaging in one of the favorite parts of my job: offering a few words of wisdom to graduating college students.

In years past, I’ve spoken at commencements across the country, from the University of San Diego on the West Coast, to Siena College and New York Medical College in the East, and Villanova and the University of Notre Dame’s business school in between. This year, I had a trifecta: the University of Great Falls in Great Falls, Montana, Cabrini College near Philadelphia and the College of Notre Dame right here in Baltimore.

In each place, I am constantly inspired by the achievements of the graduates and the enthusiasm and hope they place in their future endeavors.

All commencement speeches have a few common elements. You extend congratulations to the graduates, their families and friends on making it to this great day. You convey some words of inspiration as they embark on whatever comes next. And you offer a bit of advice on how to approach the future.

Here’s my two cents:

First, take a risk. Breaking out of your boundaries will broaden your vision and enrich your life.

Looking back to my own college years, I recall that I was finishing my degree at the Boston College business school, doing the requisite interviews with corporations like Standard Oil and AT&T. I was destined for a career going to an office tower every day wearing a suit with a starched white shirt and black tie. And then one day a buddy and I were walking through campus and we saw a recruiters’ table for the Peace Corps. And he says, “Hey, let’s sign up!” And I said, “Sure, why not?” So we filled out some papers and I promptly forgot about it. A few months later, I came home the night of my senior prom and my mom tells me, “You got a letter from the Peace Corps.” I opened it up, and I said, “Mom, I’m going to Ghana.…Uh, where’s Ghana?” She said, “I think it’s somewhere in South America.” That leap of faith began my four-decade career in international humanitarian work. And it has been many things…but it has rarely been boring.

Second, your education doesn’t end with commencement. Now begins the seminar called “life”. And you will have many teachers along the way. Some of them you may find in unusual places and circumstances. When I got to Ghana, I got a crash course on the latest in agricultural technology and the Twi language that was spoken locally. So then, this city boy was sent to an agricultural cooperative to learn how to help the local farmers improve their crops.

What I uncovered was a treasure of immense wisdom among illiterate farmers, hunters and market women. The calculus they adopted to measure their important life decisions—decisions on their farms, their major purchases, how they balanced social commitments—often were made in a context that meant the difference between having enough food to eat, or sending their kids to school or going into heavy debt. But it took me a while to realize what I had found.

Finally, I try to give graduates a sense of the wider world out there beyond our borders and how they are connected to it. As I told the Class of 2009 at the University of Great Falls:

Move beyond your safety zone. Move out of your comfort area to embrace the wider world. Those immigrants who you have seen at the 7-Eleven, they have values of family and faith that are to be admired. Those folks you see on the news in Pakistan actually have values that they hold dear, just like you. Engage the world, open yourself to others. You will find that it makes you a better person.

Indeed, by embracing our brothers and sisters around the world as one human family, we can all be better people.

Thank you for your continued support and your prayers. And congratulations to all the graduates out there!

Ken Hackett

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3 Responses to “Words of Wisdom to College Grads: ‘Engage the World’”

  1. George Says:

    I shall pass this along to my son who just graduated from UVA without a job!

  2. Jim Rademaker Says:

    Ken, your advice of embracing our brothers and sisters around the world as one human family is right on!

    Today I received an email from a man who said,”I wanted to thank you personally and to say that we are very lucky to have been able to have such wonderful sponsors that helped us in our first steps in the new country. We are all doing well.” In 1975 this man was one of 7 children along with his mother and dad who came as Vietnamese Refugees. Our family, along with two other families sponsored this family.

    Another, still continuing story, can be found at our website. This is the story of an amazing young man who had a dream and has been an inspiration to many, both here and abroad. It all started when a poor young man showed up on our door step with a desire to get a college education and go back home, Mangochi, Malawi Africa to become an advocate for people like him with disabilities.

    No, I have never been nor will I ever be wealthy, but I have been blessed beyond belief with relationships and the knowledge that one person can make an incredible difference by being open, just showing up and trusting that God will find a way!

  3. Kevin Cushing Says:

    When I was a senior in high school, I found out about a group called Amigos de Las Americas. It sends volunteers for short spans of time during the summer to a number of Central and South American countries for health care – related projects for the poor people in urban and rural areas. I spent six weeks in Venezuela (four in Caracas and two in Merida), assisting in an eyeglass distribution/ hearing testing clinic.

    That experience has changed my life focus to one of service to the poorest of us, along with a renewed Catholic faith and commitment. Thank You for your story, Ken

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