"Do not look where you fall, but where you slipped." - Dr. Patrick Awuah at Commencement 2013

Nananom, distinguished guest speaker, Pro-Vice Chancellor of the University of Cape Coast, parents, family and friends, and dear Class of 2013, welcome to the ninth graduation ceremony at Ashesi University College.

Class of 2013, we applaud you for successfully completing this important chapter of your lives. Many thanks too, to your families, friends and members of the Ashesi community whose dedication, hard work and generosity have helped bring you to this moment.

As you close this chapter of your journey and commence the next stage of your lives, I would like to share a few thoughts with you about the essence of learning.


Universities such as this one are all about exploration, discovery and learning. Over the last four years, you experienced the revelations, the sudden profound insights that come from engaging in intellectual debate with your peers and faculty. You experienced the satisfaction that comes with grappling with and solving problems, and the confidence that comes with surviving an intensely rigorous academic experience.

Your experience here has taught you something about the value of friendship and teamwork: the fun of healthy camaraderie, and the multiplication and quality of ideas that occurs when teams work well together. I suspect that many of you finally understand the meaning of the proverb, "If you want to go quickly, go alone. If you want to go far, go together."

As such, I would first like to remind you of the immense learning and achievement that comes from collaborating with others. As you commence the next stage of your life's journey, I urge you to go together, and to know that you are part of a larger Ashesi family that can, and will help you go far. Your ability to learn from others, and to share your knowledge and skills with others, will play a critical role in your future success. The others I speak of, are not only your colleagues who graduate with you today, but your families, the Ashesi community, the members of new teams you will join throughout your professional careers, and your peers around the world. Never forget that we are all a part of a larger human family that we can learn from for the rest of our lives.

As future leaders of Africa, you have a unique responsibility to find ways to collaborate with others, in a way that benefits your continent and the world.

Recently, I have attended conferences and listened to intense debates about whether Africa should accept development assistance from other nations. I have read blogs that accuse any African who borrows ideas from the West as one who has succumbed to a supposed new colonial movement in the world. I have read articles warning about the danger that China's engagement with Africa poses to the African people.

Although I understand some of the fears expressed by those who advocate a retrenchment in Africa, I think they go too far in imagining a world full of terrors for Africans. They fail to recognize the incredible advances that other regions of the world have made by pursuing a more open and collaborative approach to development. They even fail to recognize the advances that Africa has made as it has embraced externally invented technologies.

Certainly, the Marshal Plan, a relatively recent application of development assistance, made a positive difference in post-World War II Europe. Certainly, the opening of China's economy has improved the economic prospects of China's citizens. Certainly, the well-being of Africans has been enhanced by our adoption of externally invented technologies, including advances such as vaccinations and modern communications.

The question, I believe, should not be a question of whether we accept and adapt ideas and assistance from other societies, but rather a question of how we do so. The question should be about the nature of the collaborations we engage in. The world that you will be operating in is an increasingly interconnected one. I urge you to see this, not as the dusk leading to a fearful night, but rather as a dawn leading to a hopeful new day.

There is much that we can learn from the world, from East to West; and there is much that we can share with world. China has as much to offer Africa, as Africa does to China. The Americas and Europe have as much to offer Africa, as Africa does to them. As future leaders of this continent, your responsibility is to determine how to engage with other societies for our mutual benefit.

From the East, perhaps China can be a source of financial capital for projects in Africa. Perhaps, because of its relatively recent rise, China can share valuable information about their successes and failures – information about what to do and what not to do, that might be especially pertinent to Africa's ambitions. That information might help African governments to chart a course of rapid development without repeating failures such as the environmental degradation that China has experienced. Similarly, from the West, perhaps Africa can borrow and adapt processes of technological innovation to solve problems on this continent and to create value, not only for Africans, but for the world.

The person who truly sees himself as equal to another has no difficulty learning from or sharing information with others. Learning from someone else does not take anything away from you.

Learning from mistakes

Second, let us ponder the profound learning opportunities that our mistakes present to us. There is a proverb that advises us, when we fail, to not look where we fall, but rather look where we slipped. Do not look where you fall, but where you slipped.

Often, when we fall, we focus on where we fell, the bruised knee we got, the pain that we feel. But the path to real learning is to probe the source of the fall – the uneven surface that tripped us up; the thought that distracted us from noticing the danger; the inappropriate speed with which we navigated unknown terrain.

Educational systems often have great difficulty teaching students that error and failure are an intrinsic and even necessary part of the learning process. In the classroom, we assign grades for how well you accomplished your various assignments. We give the highest grades to those who make the fewest mistakes and the lowest grades to those who make the most errors. Students who violate our code of ethics –who make moral errors – receive sanctions with varying degrees of unpleasantness. Those poor grades and sanctions cause pain, just like bruised knees do. Sometimes, they injure our egos. And yet, those errors represent important learning opportunities. I wish we could device a system of grading that awards high marks to those who make mistakes and learn from them.

No doubt, you have each made mistakes during your time here at Ashesi. In spite of our insufficient performance measurement systems, I hope that you recognized those instances as great opportunities to learn, and thus gained some useful insights about yourselves and the world we live in.

Remember this fundamental lesson about errors as you enter this next stage in your life. And during those moments when you feel lost, don't forget to ask a friend or a mentor for directions; for "The one who asks questions doesn't lose his way."

Working with integrity

I would like to end my talk this morning by reflecting on the importance of seeking the truth, and of working with dedication and integrity. As Plato put it, "You should not honor men more than truth."

A strong commitment to integrity is essential for learning because the ethical mind is more able to recognize mistakes and correct them. And ethical individuals make for high trust teams that not only go far, but work faster as well.

I recently heard President Olesegun Obasanjo, Former President of Nigeria, share his thoughts about what we need to ensure that Africa's future is a bright one. He listed advances in education, public health, agriculture, infrastructure, and good governance as central requirements for a new Africa. And he described his biggest fear: the problem of corruption, particularly in public governance. To his mind, without ethical leadership, Africa's development will be greatly impeded.
I could not agree more. The success of the Marshal Plan in Europe required leaders who acted with integrity, who applied funds for the task of development, and who maintained an ambition was to remake their continent. Asia's recent rise depended on dedicated and ambitious leadership. And it required the confidence and humility to learn from and collaborate with others.

Class of 2013, your generation and mine have a tremendous task before us: the challenge of transforming a continent and changing the world. We stand at the dawn of a new and hopeful day, and we must begin our journey with an ethical compass that points north. The future of a continent depends on it.

I wish you great success as you go out into the world. I am confident that the lessons that you have learned here at Ashesi will be a real asset to you throughout the lifetime of learning and achievement that lies before you. Thank you for being part of the Ashesi dream and for giving us the opportunity to celebrate today. We look forward to your many more contributions in the years to come.