First, Verma said he wanted to acknowledge the special and unique role the Americans play in the world. “I’ve seen your government do heroic things overseas – provide critical aid after disasters, defend democracies under siege, help rebuild war-torn societies. At our Embassy and consulates in India, I saw every agency of our U.S. government hard at work, often in difficult conditions, promoting U.S. interests and building deeper ties with key partners in health, clean energy, defense, trade and so much more.”
And government workers are not alone, he said. “Ordinary Americans – teachers, retirees, health professionals and students like you are working in schools, in medical clinics and development projects – and they are having a big impact.”
Drawing on the heroic sacrifice made by 18- to 28-year-old “soldiers of democracy” in the infamous D-Day battle of Normandy, he asked graduates not to forget about the good we have done and continue to do in different corners of the planet. “You will have the opportunity to chart America’s course in this century,” he said. “I hope you will draw upon the best of our traditions, the big hearts of our people, with the humility and responsibility that comes with power.”
Secondly, we are much better working together with friends and allies than working alone. Today’s challenges, Verma said, are far too complex to be solved by any one country, and solutions can only be forged by treating friends and partners with respect.
“This will require empathy and understanding and perhaps reminding ourselves that history did not start yesterday, and that map we studied growing up in grade school with the U.S. at the center and all the other countries on the edges is not actually how the world works,” he said. “We can’t cut ourselves off from the rest of the world. Isolation and retrenchment are not options.”
And as the graduates set out to do more globally, they cannot ignore how internal divisions are hampering U.S. efforts overseas. “Our country seems more and more polarized,” he said. “We are divided by seemingly everything these days: political camps, social and economic groupings, geography, even by those who went to college and those who haven’t. And it seems like the rift is only getting wider, with political leaders seeking to incite and exploit our divisions, blaming others and degrading national discourse.”
Members of the Class of 2019 have the world at their fingertips, and carry the potential to stamp out diseases like TB and malaria, put an astronaut on Mars, create an energy surplus for the first time in history, and work toward a more just and inclusive society.
“Don’t get sidetracked,” he said. “Reject the noise. Stand up for what you believe in, and do so with the humanity, heart, grace and respect for others both here at home and abroad.”
Finally, Verma urged graduates to consider more than professional advancement, fame, notoriety or material acquisition when taking measure of success in life. “What I’ve learned is that the most meaningful barometer of success will be whether you were there for others when they needed a hand. Did you speak up for those whose voices not being heard? Did you stand up against unfairness and injustice or the way someone was being treated? What did you do to contribute to your community, your school, your church or family, to the environment or to a worthy cause?”
This advice doesn’t apply only to those who seek public service, Verma said. “The great Eleanor Roosevelt used to say that the real battle for social justice and equality are ‘in the small spaces, close to home – so close and so small that they cannot be seen on any maps or the world.’
“So when the joy and celebration of this passes, when the clicks, likes, friends and posts from our social media feeds are quiet, when this stadium stands empty, when you are alone, asking yourself years from now: Did I make a difference? Am I living a good life? Have I served others? Was I there when my family, my friends or my community needed me? I know that answer will be yes. That’s what Lehigh prepared you to do.”