Defy gravity: Patrick Awuah’s address at University of Toronto’s convocation on award of Honourary Doctorate

For his outstanding commitment to global education and deeply rooted desire to do good in the world, Ashesi President Patrick Awuah received a Doctor of Laws, honoris causa, from the University of Toronto. Watch his address to the 2024 graduates of the University of Toronto’s Faculty of Applied Science & Engineering, in the Edward S. Rogers Sr. Department of Electrical & Computer Engineering, and the Department of Materials Science & Engineering.

Chancellor Patten, President Gertler, Members of the Board, distinguished faculty and staff, family and friends, and Class of 2024, thank you for the invitation to spend this special day with you, and for awarding me an honorary doctorate at this esteemed institution of higher learning. I feel very privileged to be here.

Class of 2024, congratulations! Let us take a moment, with loud applause, to celebrate you, and to thank all those whose contributions have helped bring you to this day.

I would like to tell you a story about my motivation to start Ashesi University that I haven’t spoken very publicly about.

It is a story from my time at Microsoft about the actions of a senior executive there during the genocide in Rwanda 30 years ago: a call to action that he made during a gut-wrenching historical event that none of us had anticipated, but that gripped the attention of the world. His name is Mike Murray. He headed the business unit I worked in, and he started a grassroot fundraising effort to provide humanitarian assistance to the citizens of Rwanda who were caught in a nightmare.

I contributed to that campaign, and I started paying even more attention to what was happening in Rwanda. As an African living in America, I was impressed to see a man who didn’t have any connection to Africa, take the steps that Mike did. I was embarrassed that I had not even thought to engage with a problem that felt frankly, beyond me. But this event, in a way, got me to start thinking more intentionally about what I could or should do to contribute towards a brighter future in Africa. And when my son was born, not long after the events in Rwanda, I felt an even deeper sense of responsibility for the continent that he and future generations would grow to represent.

As you have heard from my introduction, I would eventually choose to step away from Microsoft, to return to Ghana, and to help advance higher education in Ghana and in Africa – an education tailored towards preparing a new generation of leaders whose integrity and positive sense of purpose would usher in a brighter future for the people of Africa.

Thirty years since the 1994 Rwandan crisis, I am grateful that I made this decision.

Today, in classrooms at Ashesi University, I get to see future leaders of Ghana, Rwanda, Kenya, Nigeria, and many other African countries sitting together and thinking through what it means to build a good society. I get to hear their ambitions for their societies and see them working to develop the skills and character to pursue those ambitions. I get to see Ashesi alumni building businesses and doing impactful work that is helping change the lives of millions in Africa. I get to hear the stories of Ashesi alumni who are supporting peacekeeping and peace enforcement efforts on the continent – including right now in Sudan.

Sometimes I wonder whether I would have embarked on my present course if Mike Murray had not sent out that invitation to engage with Rwanda.

There are three important aspects I would like to emphasis about what Mike did. First, he acted, which is to say, he did something instead of nothing. Second, he invited all of us to join him in doing what we could. Third, it was an act of love; pro-positive; filled with light. In his engagement with Rwanda, Mike did not see “us” and “them”. He just saw us: fellow humans.

We do not –as individuals– get to determine what major historical events our generation will be called upon to deal with; what major technological advances might emerge in our time; what challenges, what opportunities may present themselves. We do not have the ability, individually, to direct the big movements of human history. But we do have the ability to play –each of us– some small role within the larger narrative, to push humanity forward. And we should.

Your education here at the University of Toronto, one of the world’s pre-eminent institutions of higher learning, has prepared you especially well to be among those whose decisions and actions can advance the world we live in. Out of this institution have emerged great scientists, engineers, educators, physicians, leaders in national and global politics; some celebrated and famous, many making their mark quietly. You will walk and work among men and women such as these.

I love the charge of the University of Toronto, to “defy gravity”. It holds a vivid image of escaping the gravity well; of resilient upward motion; of reaching beyond our current circumstance towards the stars. It urges us toward action; in communion with others; towards the light. I have every confidence that you will defy gravity and make your mark.

Congratulations on your achievements thus far, Class of 2024. I wish you a life filled with purpose, accomplishment, and above all, with love. Thank you, and Godspeed.

 

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