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See challenges as possibilities

Richard Verma 

Richard Verma

As a parent, I look forward to the day when I will watch my children graduate - although we just had a fourth grade graduation last week for our 10-year old, which was pretty emotional, so I'm not sure I can handle thinking about college just yet - but what I do know is how much work, time, sweat and tears are put in by the parents and the families and friends. I know that first hand.

The truth is, we need your leadership now more than ever. It's a cliche to say the world is changing rapidly, but it is. You will simultaneously confront huge opportunities as well as tremendous challenges. When I graduated from college, a "tweet" was something a bird would do, a tablet was something you wrote on with a pencil - not an electronic device that could connect you to millions of others. We did not recycle our trash, the world was just awakening from its Cold War slumber, and there were no direct flights from India to the US. Fast forward to today, and you embark from here into a truly interconnected world of ideas and commerce, you will stamp out deadly diseases and confront new ones, you will live longer and in a country that has emerged as a global powerhouse, you will learn more about the power and complexity of the human mind, and during your lifetime, someone will walk upon the surface of Mars. Wow - to be you, with that future at your fingertips, with your talents and the instruction you have been given here - there is no bound to what you can accomplish!

And, of course, there will be challenges. Our increasingly globalised, populated, mechanised, and resource-limited planet is in some ways straining to accommodate the political and economic dreams of all of its inhabitants. The news is filled with challenges ranging from political struggles, economic inequality and climate change. And, of course, the scourges of violent extremism, racism and intolerance still impacts too many of our friends and neighbours across the globe. Some see these challenges as impossibilities. It's sometimes easy to get depressed or down on where the world is headed when we watch news on television or open up the daily papers or get the latest news feed on our hand-held devices. Others, and I hope this includes many of you, see these challenges as possibilities for positive change.

I am hopeful, and I am excited about the future and the role that all of you will play. I am also proud of the leadership role that United States will continue to play. This past week in the US was one of those historic weeks where democracy, the rule of law, and ordinary people played such a powerful role in shaping our future. All three branches of our government were doing their part in an often noisy and untidy American democracy - the Congress passing landmark trade authorities that could help further integrate and develop Asia; the Supreme Court upholding universal health coverage and the rights of gay Americans to marry; and the first African American President, an Indian-American Governor of South Carolina and the brave families and victims there coming together to unite the country after an act of terrible racial hatred and violence. There was leadership and courage on display at all levels.

In India, too, we see this leadership on display. When humanitarian disasters impacted ordinary people in Nepal and Yemen, India was there to respond. With the scourge of human trafficking, particularly among young children, plaguing this region, it was an Indian national and his NGO that stood up and spoke out - earning him the Nobel Prize. And who would have thought that hundreds of millions of people from over 170 countries would get together on June 21 to celebrate Yoga, one of India's gifts to the world? This is leadership in the 21 st Century.

As you finish your fellowship, I urge to remember these examples and to think about what changes you might inspire in the next year or five or ten. I urge you to remember that leadership is not a degree or diploma. It is not reinforcing the status quo or giving up or finding ways of working around problems instead of through them. Leadership is what we do between a challenge and the next step forward.

For me, I am extremely humbled that my path has led me from a modest upbringing in Western Pennsylvania to become Ambassador - the first Indian-American Ambassador - to the country my parents called home. Many of you may know that my father graduated from DAV College in Jalandhar, Punjab, over 60 years ago, before immigrating to the United States to teach. My mother was also a teacher. I am certain I don't need to tell you all what it's like to be the son of two Indian teachers! I remember coming home in the ninth grade with a report card of five A's and one A minus. Yes, you guessed it, we spent the next days reviewing what happened, and what could have caused this A minus! But as an adult, I am ever grateful for the important values of education and service that they instilled in me. I also know that from the alley-way of the Basti-Sheikh neighbourhood of Jalandhar where my family grew up to the road leading to the US Embassy is not a likely path or one easily traversed - not without a lot of help, a lot of friends, teachers and mentors and a dedicated family. I am also very mindful of the extra obligation - we all have to help others who today may be living down that path or alleyway like we did, but who also dream of what the future holds. So, leadership is also not forgetting where you come from and not forgetting about those who may have been left behind.

Another area where we can be stronger is working together on the challenges and opportunities created by climate change and clean renewable energy. We, in the United States, have had our own battles with air pollution and some successes, too. We are working with Indian partners to share that experience. Tackling air pollution makes cities more livable and marketable, improving outlooks, inviting investment and lowering health care costs. It will also help in addressing some of the causes of climate change.

With regard to education, India and the US have been natural partners for years, but we can also do more. The Prime Minister (Narendra Modi) has recently announced efforts to make India a global "education hub." I look forward to the day when US and Indian universities are collaborating even more closely, including through the establishment of branch campuses of leading US universities, and similarly with Indian universities increasingly involved in educating American students.

Edited excerpts from a convocation speech by Richard Verma, US Ambassador to India, for the fourth graduating class of Young India Fellows, 27 June 2015 at Ashoka University, Sonepat, Haryana

First Published: Sat, July 04 2015. 21:47 IST