December 2011 Graduate Commencement Remarks

Charles Wood

Dr. Charles Wood, Lewis Lehr/3M University Professor of Biological Sciences, delivered these remarks for the graduate commencement ceremony on December 16, 2011.

You are the World

Chancellor Perlman, administration and faculty, distinguished guests, friends and loving families, and most of all, the UNL Graduate Class of 2011. I am deeply honored to be here and it is a tremendous privilege for me to be addressing you today. First let me congratulate all of you. This is the moment of life when you should be celebrating your successes, the outcome of your perseverance and hard work. Today is your day. As a matter of fact, today, the world is yours. I know that I am the one who is standing between you and the receiving of your degree, and beginning your celebration, so I will be brief.

Now what about the future? What can I say to people who know almost everything? Especially to all of you who have just successfully defended your thesis. What I want to say is that I believe that you are the future, and you are the world. As the award-winning writer Thomas L Friedman has been saying, our world is flattening. The flattening of the world actually started many years ago, not only with our ability to travel between countries easily, but also from our ability to automate more work with computers and software and to transmit that work anywhere in the world so that it can be done more efficiently and cheaply. This flattening of the world has provided challenges, such as outsourcing and offshoring of jobs from the US, but at the same time it has opened up a wide variety of opportunities for you and for all of us, not only for career development but also a chance to enrich our own lives and the lives of others in every corner of the world.

I recall two specific experiences of mine where the flattening world has forever changed my life. The first was decades ago when I first time boarded a plane to leave Hong Kong and came to the US for school, where I remain today. My travel to the US opened up a once in a life time opportunity for me, not only to further my education, but also to realize the world of opportunities that awaited me to explore, to experience the excitement and challenges of academic scientific research, and so, here I am as a faculty of this great Institution. The second experience was in 1997 when I first travelled to Africa, to Zambia. I remember vividly in downtown Lusaka, the capital of the country, when my colleague and I had finished our fried chicken lunch, and immediately after we threw the bones into the trash, there were boys going after it, fighting over the bones we had thrown away. It was then that I realized the extent of poverty and the issues that many countries in the world are still struggling with, issues that far exceed what you are all thinking about regarding your career and future.

In Africa alone, thousands of people are still dying every day because of starvation, because of lack of clean water, and because of preventable, treatable diseases like AIDS. Having experienced this indeed completely changed my perspective of life, making me realize how a little something we can do to help will mean a lot for many others. These countries and their people need your expertise and your help. The flattening of the world can now provide us with all kinds of opportunities not only to see the world and broaden our horizons, and more importantly to contribute and help those who are less privileged than us. I think of an ancient Chinese saying "reading 10,000 scrolls is not as effective as travelling 10,000 miles." I believe that there is a lot of truth to it. Therefore, I urge that every one of you to find every opportunity that you can to travel, to seek opportunities overseas, to volunteer, to enrich the lives of those who are less privileged than us, and to experience the rich culture that every country will bring you.

The flattening of the world will not only enable us to help others but will also provide exciting career opportunities for you all. For example, I recall when the first time I visited China, in 1983, with a tour group in Canton, a city bordering Hong Kong and Macau. There were only dirt roads, no vehicle except ours, people were all on bicycles, and everyone was wearing the blue Mao's suit. The only shops were government owned and many only allowed foreigners to go in. Now, almost 30 years later, walking into the same city, one cannot imagine the transformation, you would not recognize that you are actually in China because it is now similar to any other western city: cars are everywhere, bicycles are disappearing, traffic is congested, businesses are booming, growth is at all levels, and more importantly, career opportunities are plentiful.

I encourage each and every one of you to move to or experience a foreign country as early as you can in your career. Learn a foreign language, if you have not done so already. Go to China, to Southeast Asia, to Africa, or to India. That is where the future is, this is where opportunities will be for you, because you are well endowed with knowledge and skills that the world needs. You are the world. These countries are growing, and they need your expertise, and the world of opportunities is awaiting you there.

I want to leave you by telling you about one of my favorite animals, it is the turtle. The turtle has longevity, and as the well-known psychologist Dr. Ruth Westheimers has put it: "The reason is that in order for the turtle to move, it has to stick its neck out. There are going to be times in your life when you're going to have to stick your neck out. There will be challenges and instead of hiding in a shell, you have to go out and meet them!" and so graduates, go out and meet the world.

The world badly wants your brains and energy: give them freely, but try to stay conscious of what it is you're giving of yourself and why. Go spread the Big Red spirit throughout the world. Meanwhile, celebrate your successes at UNL and bask in the pride we all feel for you this very day. Thank you and good luck.