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The Citizen

My Proposed Commencement Speech

By Varun Bhandari

Graduation is one of the key inflection points in our journey towards adulthood. For many of us, this could be our last time spent in an academic environment. It is a time for reflection about the experience we shared, and the journey ahead.

I remember so clearly the first week we spent here: The weather gods were being deliberately kind with us, perhaps anticipating the cruel winter that lay ahead.

I remember sitting out in the courtyard – yes there was such a time – and listening to stories about escaping the civil war in Sudan, educating children in rural India or serving in Afghanistan. I remember getting lost in the maze that is the forum, hearing chatter in exotic and foreign accents, bumping into strangers, and ending up chatting with them for hours. It was one of the best weeks of my life. I felt like I had come home.

Since that time almost two years ago, I have had a chance to reflect. We come from over 80 different countries, in different shapes and sizes, in various hues and colours (it could be an advertisement for the united colours of Benetton). And yet, despite all our differences, we are bound by invisible ties. What brings us all together? What is our DNA?

There is passion: We wear our emotions on our sleeves. It could be about removing poverty, changing political structures or reforming infrastructure – anything, anything that makes our heart beat faster.

There is a dreamy idealism: if there was a soundtrack to my HKS experience, it would definitely contain Imagine by John Lennon. We have all nurtured a dream – against the status quo – for a better, fairer, more just and more equitable world.

There is action: passion and idealism cannot operate in a vacuum. It is action that translates them from academic theories into the real world. Everyone I met here has inspired me with his or her tales of courage and determination.

And, there is internationalism: I could throw a stone in the Forum, and ask whomever it hits a simple question: Where are you from?  And I know that before they answer, there will be a long pause, and perhaps a follow up question:

“You mean where I was born, or where I live, or which passport I hold?”

Because, of course, those three can be completely different.

When you bring such passionate, idealistic, action-oriented and diverse people together in one melting pot, the concoction is heady and potent.

We bonded over Forum events, conferences and class discussions. We bonded over shared dislike for cafeteria food, in between ironic bites of pizza.  We bonded at Quorum Calls, the Dean’s Reception and the HKS Talent Show. (Some of us bonded in the library too, but that’s another story.)

But HKS also brought out our darker side. I learnt what FOMO meant for the very first time: Fear of Missing Out. We experienced envy of the sort that we have never seen before. You could see it on the faces of those who had been outbid into the popular courses. Or in the desperation of those begging for a spare ticket to a celebrity Forum event on the HKS Facebook group.

But in between these ups and downs, the one constant was growth.

We learnt technical skills to do great good for our communities and the causes we believe in – be they in diplomacy, international development, education or politics.

We learnt time management: On any given day, on any given hour, we had decisions to make: Should I go for class? Or this lecture I really want to hear? Or this study group on a subject matter that I am passionate about? Or writing that paper that was due last week. (No prizes for guessing what was last on the priority list).

And, we learnt perspective: That we could miss out on that course (cough, Leadership, cough) that we really wanted to take, and it would be OK.

Through this continuous assault to our senses, we all survived.  Overstimulated. Overcaffeinated. And under-rested.

Life after HKS will be different. No more turning up to a Forum event and bumping into Aung San Syu Ki. Or having breakfast with the Former President of the European Central Bank. Our Facebook stock will see a collective decline. But more than that, we will miss being in this wonderful environment that has challenged us, taught us and shaped us. There will be a vacuum in our lives that will be hard to fill.

But hopefully after taking Heifetz we have got a lifelong membership to a cult, uh… I mean club, of confidantes and allies, who will remain with us forever.  With the grace of Mandell, we have learnt how to negotiate our way to reach a deal that is well above our BATNA. We can now write columns to express our well-considered opinions on the issues of the day. Some of us have learnt how to be a politician. Others know the dark arts of organizing and mobilizing for collective action. And I’m sure many of us can now give a rousing speech with logos, ethos and pathos.

Friends, it has been a pleasure to be on this journey with you.   I wish you well – may you get the positions of formal or informal power that you aspire to. And we shall meet again – especially if you get into those positions. If nothing else, just for a selfie.