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Remarks by Deputy Chief of Mission James R. Moore at the American College of Higher Education Graduation and Transfer Ceremony

November 2, 2008

Mrs. Sherryn Yaseem Mangalagama; members of the faculty and administration of the American College of Higher Education; Dr. David Moore, Professor Patrick Smith, and our other friends from Broward College; Dr. Sudhir Mehta from North Dakota State University; students, parents, and distinguished guests.

Good evening.  It is a pleasure to again have the opportunity to address the graduation and transfer ceremony of the American College of Higher Education.  I spoke at your graduation last year, and amazingly enough Sherryn has invited back.

I’d like to open my remarks by commending the American College of Higher Education for its unstinting efforts to promote academic excellence and provide an opportunity to students from Sri Lanka, the Maldives, and other countries in the region a chance to study in a high quality, private educational setting.

Speaking of the Maldives, Sherryn told me today that some 300 Maldivian students are enrolled in the American College of Higher Education.  I’d like to take this opportunity to congratulate the Maldivian people, the Maldivian Government, and the opposition for conducting earlier this week the first multi-party presidential elections in the country’s history.  The elections went very smoothly, and they represent a tremendous step toward implementing democratic reform in the Maldives.

Let me say at the outset that the Embassy of the United States appreciates all that the American College of Higher Education, with its six campuses around the country in Colombo, Kandy, Galle, Negombo, Matara, and Kurunegala, is doing to build bridges – both academic and personal – between the people of the United States and Sri Lanka.

The world which you, as university graduates, will enter is truly different from the world that your parents entered just a generation ago.  In our 21st century world of improved communications; faster travel; and the rapid international movement of information, money, technology, there will be extraordinary opportunities for you and other young people in the world who have strong educational credentials, strong English language capabilities, and the willingness to take risks.
There is and will continue to be a global war for talent from which all of you can benefit if you have the right skills.

A recent survey by the Economist Magazine found that even though Asia has more than half of the world’s inhabitants, the biggest problem facing employers in this region is the lack of employees trained in the skills that businesses need.  That is, in part, because schools and universities in Asia have been unable to provide sufficient opportunities for young Asians to pursue a university education.

Here in Sri Lanka you have an effective primary and secondary education system that has produced an impressive literacy rate of 93 percent, the highest in the region.

However, Sri Lanka’s system of 15 publicly funded universities and 10 associated institutes simply cannot meet the growing demand for post-secondary education.  As I have traveled around the country, I have met countless young people who would like to study at public Sri Lankan universities, but cannot do so because of the limited number of available spaces. 

And this is precisely where institutions such as the American College of Higher Education are making an important contribution to this and future generations of young Sri Lankans – both by providing them the option of a private education and by preparing them to gain admission to universities in the United States and other countries after an initial two years of study in Sri Lanka.

I can’t tell you how happy we are that many of you are planning to join the 2400 Sri Lankan students who are already enrolled in American universities.

I can assure you that you will be welcomed at universities in my country.  One of the pillars of the academic community in the United States is vibrant international participation.  The American people in general, and the American university system in particular, value diversity.  The students and faculty of our academic institutions derive great benefit from the new ideas and perspectives that you, as international students, bring.

As an American diplomat for 25 years, one of my highest priorities has been to do everything possible to promote educational exchange.  The simple truth is that there is no better way for the people of two countries to come to know one another better, to gain a deep understanding of one another’s way of thinking, and to establish friendships that will last a lifetime than through study abroad.

For that reason, we are proud that there are more international students studying in the United States than in any other country.  The number today stands at about 600,000, and they are scattered across most of the 4000 colleges and universities in the United States.

People often ask me to describe the essence of the American educational system.  While it is certainly true that an American education helps students develop the tangible skills and knowledge they will need in their professional careers, I believe what is far more important is the emphasis that the U.S. educational system places on learning capacity.  Our schools and universities strive to develop the whole person by helping students learn how to learn.

To that end, American education, with its interactive methods of instruction, focuses on critical thinking, leadership, problem solving, independent thought, and communication.  Important components of an American education include classroom discussions and debates, teamwork, and community service projects.  The focus is not only on preparing for the next examination.  Rather, the overriding goal is to develop the student as a person and make him or her passionate about learning.

No matter where you choose to study – in the United States, Sri Lanka, or another country – I hope you will take advantage of the diverse course offerings that are available and not worry about specializing right away.  In my own case, I studied literature as an undergraduate.  However, at the same time, I took courses ranging from philosophy to astronomy and from religion to plant biology.  None of them were required, but it was a wonderful opportunity to learn and to grow as a person.

The message I would like to leave tonight with the graduating class is the following.  It is a simple message, but, I think, an important one.

You have already achieved a great deal in your lives.  The fact that you are here means you have talent and have excelled.  You are also very fortunate – you are fortunate to have the means to pursue university studies and fortunate to be able to contemplate the possibility of studying overseas.

I know that you will make the most of the opportunities you have been given thus far in your lives, and in due course will succeed in a career in business, law, medicine, or another profession.

But I would strongly encourage you to take advantage of these next years when you don’t yet have commitments to a career or to a spouse and children.  I would urge you to give yourself the freedom and the space and the time you need to grow and develop as a person.  And to discover what you are truly passionate about.

Most people excel in what they are passionate about.  This is not necessarily the same thing as what they studied in university.  To mention just a few examples, Sally Ride, the first female shuttle astronaut, studied literature.  Former U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell studied geology.  Best selling author John Grisham studied accounting.  Sri Lanka’s best known architect, Geoffrey Bawa, studied law.

After I graduated from university with a literature degree, I worked as a short order cook in a restaurant and saved enough money to be able to spend six months travelling – admittedly on a tight budget – in your part of the world, in south Asia.  That was in 1979.  Those were different times, and I actually came to Sri Lanka by boat from Rameswaram, in Tamil Nadu, to Mannar, and proceeded by train from Mannar to Colombo.   Nearly 30 years ago, I spent two unforgettable months in your country, traveling the length and breadth of the island and meeting wonderful, warm, and wise people wherever I went.

Looking back, I realize that I discovered my passion during this trip, which also took me to India and Pakistan and Nepal.  My passion would be to represent my country as a diplomat, working abroad to build bridges and better understanding between the United States and the people of other countries. 

My point is that none of this would have happened had I proceeded straight into a serious career or jumped immediately into graduate school.

Looking out into the audience tonight, I know that each of you will find your own paths and your own passions in life.  Surely not all of you will want to be diplomats.  Perhaps none of you will.  But I hope that you will challenge yourselves, commit yourselves to making our world a better place in which to live, chart your own course in a way that questions conventional assumptions, live out your dreams, and remain constantly curious, inquisitive, and open to new ways of thinking.

Establishing the foundation, the personal foundation, which makes all that possible is the true purpose of an education.  Trust me: education doesn’t end the day you leave university.  It truly is just the beginning.

Congratulations again to each of you, and I wish you the very best of luck in all that lies ahead.

Thank you.