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Ambassador Leonard’s Remarks for the University of Abuja Convocation Ceremony
March 2, 2022

“Want to Help Nigeria and the World?  Consider how you can Serve”

Minister of Education Adamu,

Chancellor and your Royal Highness,

Pro Chancellor,

Vice Chancellor,

Distinguished faculty and staff, students, ladies and gentlemen,

All protocols observed,

Thank you for inviting me today.  I am awed and inspired to see all of you as we together celebrate the University of Abuja’s historic and joyous 25th and 26th Convocation Ceremony.

It is indeed a privilege and an honor to be here.  I understand you do not often invite a foreign diplomat or Ambassador to address graduating students, so I’m doubly grateful for the invitation.

You have spent years in the classroom learning and improving your reading, writing and analytical skills.  And, ah, convocation ceremonies, the golden opportunity to deploy fond cliches of growth.  You are like caterpillars that transform inside a cocoon.  With today’s degree convocation ceremony, you are metaphorical butterflies, now ready to spread your wings.  But whatever the framing, as you go out into the world away from this campus, I encourage you to strive for a life of service:  in personal growth, for your community, and your country.

We live in unusually scary and challenging times due to COVID.  The main reason you are having this combined-year ceremony today, of course, is because this awful pandemic made it nearly impossible to gather in 2021.  Social distancing, masking, and other necessary precautions made holding in-person classes and testing enormously difficult.  I congratulate you all for your resilience throughout the past two years.

You overcame the obstacles that came by adapting to a new normal – you used and leveraged available technology to adopt online learning, to conduct virtual classrooms and virtual meetings.  You put on your masks every day, (I hope!) and you found a way to socially distance while still making and keeping friends.

So, to those graduates assembled here today, give yourself a round of applause, – you met your academic goals, you succeeded in completing your university education, you are now ready and able to make a unique and positive mark.  And the world awaits you!

But you may ask, where to next?  How do I find my path?  What doors will open for me, and which ones will I open?

When I studied at Boston University, I discovered my affinity for the field of economics, but I also remained interested in foreign languages and continued to study French.  This combination prompted me to look for ways to look towards development economics, and Africa.  So, next I pursued a Master’s Degree in international relations, with an emphasis on African studies, from the Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies.  And by good fortune and effort, this helped me through the door to a career at the U.S. Department of State.

Over the past few years, the community of the University of Abuja has given you the knowledge and tools to prepare you for your future.  As you step outside of this university, you have the responsibility to make the most of the opportunities and networks that you have both created and been exposed to during your time here.  While you are choosing your path, do not neglect further developing your skills.  Even if you consider yourself a great writer, keep working at it.  If you struggle in making oral presentations, think about how you can improve those skills.

Don’t be afraid to try new jobs or positions in fields outside of what you may have studied.  You will find that each professional opportunity can enrich you, and maybe lead you to possibilities you hadn’t already considered.

Regardless of which path the road ahead takes you, your attendance here today in the morning sun in your beautiful caps and gowns speaks volumes about your resilience and commitment to professional and personal growth.

As you prepare to leave the University of Abuja and move on to YOUR next personal challenge, I’d like to share a few thoughts today about three critical elements of service, how you can serve yourself, your community, and your country.

Let’s start with Service to Yourself.  That sounds a bit selfish, but it is actually very beneficial.  It means taking good care of your physical and emotional needs, your health needs, and your spiritual and intellectual needs.

Service to self comes naturally to most people, as it is part of being human.  With Service to self and the resilience it brings, you have a much better chance of becoming the best you can be, whether your career path is in the arts, or in business, or science, or law, or engineering, or any of the other many academic disciplines offered at this fine University.

The second important type of service is service to community.  I think you all have a pretty good idea already what that means. Volunteerism.  Lending your neighborhood or your district a helping hand, either individually or through partnering with an NGO or civic-minded corporation, to solve a local problem or meet a specific need.  For example, the United Nations estimates in Nigeria only 61 percent of 6 to11-year-olds regularly attend primary school and only 35 percent of children aged 3 to 5 years receive early childhood education.  You as college graduates can mentor children to keep them on the path of education.  You can help parents or guardians of these children understand the importance of school.

Serving your community can also mean staying connected with the University of Abuja, by mentoring students, expanding professional networks through collaboration, and by innovatively contributing to the institution’s sustainability.  Look to your left and to your right and stay connected with fellow alumni too.  Building an alumni network might just be the springboard that will help you succeed.

One example of a successful alumni group I admire was formed by Nigerian participants of the Mandela Washington Fellowship for Young African Leaders, or YALI.  This program provides outstanding young leaders from Sub-Saharan Africa with the opportunity to hone their skills at a U.S. higher education institution with support for professional development after they return home, empowering young people through academic coursework, leadership training, and networking.  I hope the stories of the following two YALI alumni will motivate you to start thinking how you too can make a difference.

My first YALI example is Segun Odunaiya, who started a company in 2010 with the goal to end power blackouts in rural communities.  The deaths and sicknesses caused by fires and toxic fumes fueled Segun’s determination to look for solutions.

Today, Segun’s company has successfully provided solar powered electricity, water, and additional school facilities to three off the grid communities in Abuja.

Segun’s work succeeded because he was highly focused on a specific problem, and he had learned through YALI how to network and bring in other partners, such as the U.S. Africa Development Foundation.  His work reduces both greenhouse gas emissions and poverty.

I want to highlight another YALI alumni who is improving her community through engagement in political and civic life, her name is Abiodun Essiet.  Abiodun serves as the Special Adviser to the Executive Chairperson of the Abuja Municipal Area Council (AMAC).  Through her role on the council, she created a gender unit in AMAC to help develop gender sensitive policies and ensure the inclusion of women and girls in decision making.  She is also helping connect civil society organizations with the local government by facilitating the signing of an open government partnership, which will elevate the role of citizens, community groups and civil society in the creation and adoption of community policies.

I hope that this talented group of graduates sitting before me today will tap your creative and innovative minds and find ways to work together to develop solutions to the challenges you may identify in your community.

And the third critical service is service to the country, that is, service to Nigeria as a whole.  Arguably, success in personal growth and community service automatically serves the national interest, but there is more.  Seeing the big picture, and how you fit into it, is part of being a responsible and caring democratic citizen. You have a head start too, having attended a truly national university with students from all parts of Nigeria, you have experienced first-hand the benefits of diversity and inclusion.  I hope you develop into citizens who look for outcomes rooted in the will of the people, for the people, recognizing that the key to accountability lies in transparency.

My hope for you is that you use your intelligence and creativity to benefit Nigeria.  With your background and experience, it will be up to you to recognize the path of service that fits best, but don’t forget that service to your country can take many forms.  Some of you might become entrepreneurs, whose quest for efficiency and advancement will create meaningful employment and sustainable economic growth.  Your innovative generation will no doubt lead inventions to address climate change and health challenges.

Should you choose a path of public service, I enjoin you to prize good governance practices attuned to delivering outcomes responsive to the concerns of citizens.  You may consider a career path running for an elective office, working for a national company or authority, or becoming a diplomat and representing Nigeria abroad.

And to those of you inclined to express creativity through the arts, remember that art leads to discussions and can change attitudes and opinions.

I think it safe to say that Chinua Achebe, for example, served Nigeria by writing books that are now assigned at schools and universities all throughout the world, showing the effects of colonial rule on traditional societies and the legacy of racism.  I look forward to seeing the stories the artists of your generation will tell.

There are also abundant ways to serve your country at the individual level, such as simply participating in your democracy, advocating for a cause you believe in, and casting your VOTE.  All of you can give back to your country and to shape its policies and direction simply by following the issues, by making your voices heard, and by VOTING.  By exercising these rights, you advance public trust in the institution, and provide the necessary direction that every democracy requires.

Voting is THE way to make your voice heard and to ensure that issues affecting you and your community remain a priority for lawmakers and elected officials.  Make clear to those who wish to earn your vote what matters to you!

Voter apathy is an easy trap to fall into. We see this in my own country all the time.  I know it is easy to get discouraged and to doubt that your vote will make a difference.  But I would ask you to ignore that voice of doubt.  Some years you may not love the candidates on the ballot.  You may not want to fight the crowds or venture out on election day.  But voting is your voice.  It is only through voting that you can hold those whom you vote for accountable.  It is you, your generation, that has the future of Nigeria in your palms as you become the preponderant demographic in Nigerian elections.  And you owe it to yourself and to your country to demand and elect leaders who will govern and provide security, justice, and services for all Nigerians.  The U.S. Mission looks forward to partnering with Nigeria to support the upcoming local and general elections.

Before I conclude my remarks today, I would like to say a few words about the importance of being vaccinated against Covid-19.

You have heard it from your leaders, and from the United Nations, and from the media, but so far only 5-6% of Nigerians are currently vaccinated.  But vaccines are becoming more readily available.  I’m proud that the U.S. has donated 22 million vaccine doses to Nigeria to date, and more are coming.

Just this week international health experts met in Abuja to address the challenges of getting vaccines in arms, and the U.S. announced $33.3 million in new funds to further that vaccine delivery end-game as Nigeria has been named as a surge country for the U.S. Global Vax program.

I mention this also because you will be performing all three kinds of Service if you decide to get vaccinated.  You will of course be protecting your own health and the well-being of your family.  Second, you will reduce the anxiety and stress levels of people who interact with you daily, in your neighborhood, public places like restaurants and hospitals, and places where you study, work or pray.  So, getting vaccinated is a form of Service to the Community.

And finally, if you have the COVID vaccine, then you can more easily travel around Nigeria and around the world, bringing us all back to a state of normalcy.  You will therefore be providing a Service to your country and to the world.

In sum, dear graduates, Nigeria is counting on you on many different levels. Beyond your own borders, this region and the world are counting on you to come together to solve problems, promote prosperity, and strengthen democracy.

I hope you will choose to serve your community, in some form or other, to help yourselves and to help others.  You represent the best hope for the largest country by far in Africa.  If not you, then who?  If not now, then when?

As you embark on your journeys to become leaders in your respective fields, never forget the lessons you have learned in your years here at the university.

Never forget that good scholars and good citizens are those who keep growing and learning.  Keep challenging yourself.  Do not rest on your laurels.  Serve your country.  Be a Leader.  Trust your abilities but also listen to others and be the best you can be.

Again, my heartfelt congratulations to all of you.  God bless you, and have a great, great career.  I will always remember this glorious, memorable day on your campus.  Thank you again for inviting me, and my sincere best wishes to you all!