Commencement 2016: "We are not the product of our circumstances but rather the product of our aspirations," says Class Speaker Festus Emmanuel Jartu '16

Nana Oteng-Korankye II; Nananom; Distinguished guest speaker, Mrs. Lucy Quist; Representative of the Vice Chancellor of the University of Cape Coast; Representative of the Vice Chancellor of the University of Mines and Technology; The Executive Team and Trustees of Ashesi University College; my fellow graduates; ladies and gentlemen.

It is with the greatest humility and honour that I stand here representing the collective voice of this most amazing, talented and inspiring class: the Class of 2016. I will forever cherish having been entrusted with the responsibility of being your voice at the end of this long journey. I hope that this address will help us to recollect some of our experiences together, as well as the impact this institution has had in transforming us. As we step into the shoes of those who walked this campus before us and join the wider world, perhaps these words will serve as a light to guide our way.

At every graduation ceremony throughout our time here, we have heard speaker after speaker stand on this podium and say something about “recognizing how far they have come”. However, it is impossible to stand here today and ask you to do anything different, because it is the truth: we have come a long way and it deserves recognition. Class of 2016, look at the person sitting beside you. Once a stranger, you have shared experiences that have changed you both. No longer disconnected, you are now family: part of a network of collective enthusiasm and potential. Now expand that network to include our parents and loved ones, who have invested so much to get us to this point. Broaden it again to include every lecturer and member of staff who has been pounded like fufu on the Berekuso road these past years, all for our sakes. To you all, we say thank you.

But we have been pounded too. Think about the late nights, and every time you woke up at lifting your head from a desk, with papers plastered on your cheeks. Remember every early morning pop quiz; or the great amount of time you spent looking for a bug in your code, only to realize you were missing a simple semicolon. Remember the time you had to give up those 20 points in the Accounting exam room, because no matter what you did, your sheets were not balancing. And then remember how despite all of this, Mrs Awuah still managed to add one more POD - the PreCalculus Problem of the Day. Yes: we too have struggled! And together, we have prevailed. In our darkest moments, we should each remember that. We have prevailed. We are overcomers. Thumbs up.

We are going to miss this place, because our time here has been much more than just struggle. Ashesi has been our safe space. On this hill and within this family, we have found purpose and a sense of community which is absent in the world out there. A world governed not by love or by truth but by personal gain. Our economic systems are failing because they are run by people whose interests lie solely in what they can acquire and not what they can produce. Our politics is filled with men and women with pessimistic ideologies that only serve to divide us. A right, like education, is separated into inferior and superior. From a basic level, we are taught to regurgitate; to “chew and pour.” We are raised to be more competitive than we are collaborative, forgetting that alone you can go fast but together we can go far.

There are – of course – exceptions; people like Aung San Suu Kyi and the late Nelson Mandela, who stood for ideals and community in the face of great personal sacrifice. People like Paul Kagame of Rwanda and Lee Kwan-Yew of Singapore, who raised their countries up through sound economic policies from the ashes of genocide and underdevelopment respectively. Funmilayo Ransome-Kuti, who led changes in the Nigerian education system, much like our very own Dr. Patrick Awuah; a man who traded a place in Microsoft, to return home to Ghana and establish an unconventional liberal arts university. As they say here in Ghana, “what a shock!” These men and women have shown us the importance of selflessness, the power of dreams and the impact of vision.

Ethics. Civil Engagement. Innovation. Curiosity. Leadership. I see many of the qualities of these great men and women captured in the Ashesi Learning Goals mounted on the walls of every classroom on this campus, and I smile as I imagine all the different ways in which we will take these qualities and create new futures for our continent.

Four years ago, I had just one desire: to do well in my SATs and try to get into a reputable university outside of Africa. Instead, Ashesi happened, and now I realize that applying to a college I had never heard of in a country I had never been to was the greatest set up for my success. Some may have called that decision irrational, but I was guided by faith; and given the fact that 2016 is the most diverse graduating class in Ashesi’s history, it is clear that I was not alone in my belief. Ashesi brought me – from Gambia – into a family that includes Qui Chen from China, Ibrahim from Ivory Coast, Lydia Kinyari from Kenya, Makani from Zambia and all my other classmates seated here today.

At Ashesi, we don’t just graduate with degrees in MIS, Computer Science, Business Administration or Engineering. We graduate with a mission to serve, and a mandate to give to society more than we take from it. We are not just gifted for ourselves, we are a gift to others. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr once said, “If you have nothing to die for, then you have nothing to live for.” Class of 2016: more than being taught what to think, we have been taught how to think, how to question and more importantly, why it is important to do both. I encourage us all to continue to seek purpose that is connected to a contribution to society.  For it is only in doing so that we can find out how best we can give back.

During the past four years, we did not only make GPAs, but we also filled GAPs. Our colleague Daniel Bonsu, recognized a need to inspire others. Armed with little more than a camera and his imagination, he started chronicling something many others would consider boring: the stories he heard and saw every time he took a trotro. Today, his Troski Journal online platform informs, inspires and educates young Ghanaians to see value in their lives and effect change wherever they are.

Grace Amponsah too saw a gap in the sex education of young girls and to fill that gap, she started the “New Dawn” initiative. Sali Sam and Emmanuel Ampadu gave farmers in Berekuso new ways of farming and processing their pineapples through the “Sesa Mu” initiative, producing beautifully packaged smoothies, cakes and dried pineapples. Vanessa Amoako and Fridah Karwitha added value to the education of children in Berekuso through the “NewLeaf” initiative, creating space, time and support for pupils to do their homework. Dorcas Mensah and her team also changed lives by impacting remote communities through their “Star Fish” project. These are just a few of the numerous initiative led by our class.

Class of 2016, as we step out there as world changers and history makers, please do not let the voices outside drown the voice within. Our four-year journey has challenged everyone to reflect and understand that we are the only versions of ourselves. Yet we sometimes fail to live the lives we aspire to, because we succumb to the pressure of society. The world needs the real you. If you dream of becoming a writer, then do not be afraid to put pen to paper. If you enjoy speaking, then do not be afraid to speak with conviction and share your thoughts with the world. If you are an artist, a dancer, or musician, then so be it. Bring your personality to the world. You have been equipped for this cause, so go out there and manifest the glory that comes with your story.

As I conclude, please permit me to share with you the simple story of an African child as my last words to you. On the 13th of December 2002, he lost a parent; the breadwinner, father, and sustainer of his family of six. He was a ten year old at the time, and the first male child living in a society, where he was expected to assume the responsibilities of his father. However, as he struggled to make his life great, things began to deteriorate in his single parent home. His feet were kissed by dust, his hands bruised from the day’s toils and his face smeared with sweat. Nevertheless, optimism kept him going. He walked the streets with no shoes; he struggled to find a vest for his worn out chest, as he went through his days with a mind as blank as his mama’s savings account. Somehow, he still kept a dream alive within him, and he made it through primary and secondary education, with a hunger for university education.

He kept hope alive as he engaged his mind with teaching, till one day he heard a knock on his door; it was Ashesi University College, offering him a life-changing opportunity at no cost, as a MasterCard Foundation Scholar. He put faith to work and like a miracle, he found himself a new home, a new family, and a new purpose. At Ashesi, he saw the world from a different perspective. That ten-year old boy, Festus Emmanuel Jartu, has now been empowered to be a leader, and is today delivering the valedictory on behalf of his fellow classmates, who have equally profound stories.

Ladies and gentlemen, my being here today proves that we are not the product of our circumstances but rather the product of our aspirations; we don’t dwell on what we have been through; our struggle, the inequality, poverty or our broken environments. We are a group that carries the ambitions of scientists, engineers, business leaders, artists, teachers, entrepreneurs, and many others.

To everyone here today, the Class of 2016’s message to you is this; do not let your history determine your glory; because the past is an experience, the present is an experiment, and the future is full of expectation. Use your experience wisely, experiment, and with the right choices, you can achieve your expectations. Congratulations Class of 2016. God bless you. I love you all.