On college campuses across the country, May is graduation month. After four years or more of college preparation, students are transitioning into jobs and careers for which they hope they have been prepared. Trailblazers in various fields are invited to speak at graduation ceremonies on campuses across the country to inspire the graduates with their stories of success and about overcoming challenges in their field.
This year, Vice President Kamala Devi Harris, Republican presidential candidate Nikki Haley, attorney, journalist, and author Fareed Zakaria, surgeon, writer, public health researcher Atul Gawande, and author and entrepreneur Reshma Saujani, were some of the Indian Americans who spoke at college commencements.
Haley addressed the May 6 commencement at Regent University, a private Christian university in Virginia Beach, Virginia. The former South Carolina governor and U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations ‘incorporated some key elements of her White House campaign,” in her speech titled ‘Believe in America’,” the Washington Examiner reported at the time.
Congratulating the graduating class on “their accomplishments,” she offered “a warning that the future of the country lies in their hands — noting their “generation is the most important in American history.” She “briefly touched on a number of key social issues such as gender identity and abortion, which have become political flashpoints ahead of the 2024 campaign cycle,” the report added.
In New York, Dr. Atul Gawande, assistant administrator for global health at USAID, delivered the graduation address on May 17 to the Columbia University Vagelos College of Physicians and Surgeons Class of 2023. In his address, “Gawande recounted the story of his father, who grew up in rural India and was inspired to become a physician after caring for his mother, who died of malaria,” according to a Columbia press release. “During his 50-year career in medicine, Gawande’s father saw an explosion of change in medical practice, including new drugs, devices, and therapies and increased physician specialization,” the press release added.
“In medicine, the definition of what it means to win the game is ever-changing,” Gawande said, according to the press release. “The goal of a patient is individual and subject to modification. We all have hopes and fears and priorities beyond just living longer. Learning the goals that people have for their lives and using your ever-expanding kit of tools to accomplish them is what it means to deliver care. It requires human caring and human creativity and expertise. Whatever you do in medicine, know that it evolves, but also know that you need to find your way to bring world-class medicine to everyone.”
Before his appointment to USAID, Gawande was a practicing general and endocrine surgeon at Brigham and Women’s Hospital and a professor at Harvard Medical School and the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health.
A Day of Victory
Speaking at the 222nd commencement ceremony at the University of Vermont on May 21, Sethuraman Panchanathan, director of the U.S. National Science Foundation (NSF) underlined the need for perseverance and collaboration, connecting it with the unique experience of being a graduate of the University of Vermont, guided, he said, by “the spirit of excellence.” He described the day as “a day of victory,” the university said in a press release.
He began his address by acknowledging that he didn’t remember the commencement speech that he’d heard upon graduating from college—“Nothing,” he said, eliciting laughter from the audience. But, he said, “You are the graduates of the University of Vermont, and that you will never forget.” And, he said, to help them remember his speech, he was going to attach his key points to each of the letters in the word “Vermont.”
He emphasized the honor he felt in standing before his “fellow Catamounts” —to loud cheers—and encouraged the graduates to embrace their victory—the “V” in Vermont, he said—over the challenges they’ve faced during their academic and personal journeys so far. “There will be days where you will be challenged, where you will find moments of despair. Then close your eyes again,” he said, and recall the “E” in Vermont—for excellence. “Remember this day and think of that spirit of excellence that permeates through you,” Panchanathan said, “and will guide you and make sure that you continue to be successful in your life.”
Graduates also heard from university president Suresh Garimella. “Each of you has a compelling story ahead of you – and the skills and tools to live it with confidence. And so I say to you, UVM Class of 2023: Go forth and write your next chapter in bold strokes. Bring those invisible words to life on the page and dauntlessly go wherever your stories take you.”
Fixing the System
Graduates at Smith College in Northampton, Massachusetts, heard from gender equality activist and author Reshma Saujani. Speaking that the college’s 145th commencement, the attorney, author, and founder of Girls Who Code and Moms First, gender equality activist advised graduates to “focus less on being perfect and more on being brave,” the college said in a press release.
She questioned the notion that to achieve equality, women must overcome so-called imposter syndrome by adopting “tips and tricks” for individual self-improvement. “It’s never really been about whether we’re qualified enough, or smart enough, or prepared enough,” said Saujani—the first Indian American woman to run for U.S. Congress. “Instead, it’s always been about the political, the financial, the cultural barriers that are designed to keep us out of those rooms in the first place,” she continued. “The problem—and the solution—is bigger than any of us,” she added. “It’s not your job to fix yourself. But it is your job to fix the system.”
Saujani also received an honorary degree at the event along with five other notable women: journalist Lulu Garcia-Navarro, former congresswoman Gabby Giffords, psychologist Susan Goldin-Meadow, family physician Camara Phyllis Jones, and writer and publisher Kelly Link.
Other commencement speakers included Fareed Zakaria, renowned journalist and bestselling author, who delivered the keynote address during the May 24 commencement ceremony for the Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS). Similarly, Ravi Ahuja, chairman of Sony Pictures Television, spoke at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School of Business’ Executive MBA graduation ceremony in San Francisco on May 6.
On May 21, Sharran Srivatsaa, a Luther College alum and entrepreneur spoke at the college’s commencement ceremony. He graduated from Luther in 2001 and is now president of Real, among the fastest-growing publicly traded real estate brokerage companies, according to a press release from the Ohio-based college. “For the last 19 years, Srivatsaa has nurtured, grown and sold five companies,” the press release said. Most recently, he led Teles Properties’ unprecedented growth, resulting in a four-year consecutive streak on the Inc. 5000 Fastest-Growing Private Companies list. In addition, he mentors CEOs in his exclusive Legends Program, hosts the top-rated podcast titled “Business School” and is the creator of the popular 5 am Club for Entrepreneurs.