Remarks by United States Chargé d’Affaires, a.i. Maria Brewer The American Dream (September 30, 2015)

As prepared for delivery

Professor Babajide Alo, Deputy Vice-Chancellor for Academics & Research,
Professor Muyiwa Falaye, Dean, Faculty of Arts,
Professor Olufunke Adeboye, Head, Department of History and Strategic Studies,
Dr. Irene Osemeka, Departmental Orator,
Distinguished guests,
Students, and faculty of the University of Lagos:

To use one of my favorite Nigerian phrases: “All protocols observed.”

Good morning!  I’m pleased to speak with you as you begin a new school year.  The start of a fresh academic season brings many hopes and challenges.  The decisions you make today will shape your future for years to come.  As faculty and staff, you will have a lasting impact on the lives of those you mentor.  As students, you enjoy an opportunity and responsibility to chart your own course.  Each and every one of you represents Nigeria’s boundless potential and limitless opportunities.

This morning, I would like to challenge you to define and seize those opportunities.  Your choices will evolve as time passes, but if you keep your goals firmly in mind and continue to put in your best efforts, you will find opportunities exist you never thought possible.  I am reminded of a saying sometimes attributed to American President Thomas Jefferson: “The harder I work, the luckier I get.”

But I would also like to urge you to think about creating opportunities for your fellow Nigerians.  To illustrate my point, I would like to talk about my country, where we have many experiences, positive and sometimes negative, in creating and taking advantage of opportunities.

People frequently speak of the American dream.  This refers to the firm and foundational belief that even for those from the most humble beginnings, anyone through hard work and ability can rise to the highest levels.  From its founding through today, Americans remain rooted in their belief that anyone can succeed.

Stories of American entrepreneurship abound, from the early titans of industry to Walt Disney and Bill Gates.  These individuals all came from humble beginnings but achieved greatness through hard work and initiative.  In politics, many of our most noted leaders arose from similar modest backgrounds.  Several U.S. presidents, including Abraham Lincoln, who was a self-educated rail splitter in his youth, Ronald Reagan, the son of a salesman who lived above a store, and our current President Barrack Obama, raised by a single mother,  all came from relatively poor families yet rose to assume the highest office in the land.

For the best to succeed, society must reward innovation and provide a level playing field.  To live the American dream means to accept a meritocracy and reject patronage and inherited privilege.  These concepts, enshrined in our founding documents, provide all citizens with a right to “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.”

In my own life, I have been able to benefit from the American dream.  I am not from a wealthy or long-established family in the U.S.  My grandparents on both sides were immigrants, and my mother was born in Mexico.  My father was a mechanic for most of his working life and my mother completed her college degree at the age of 40, and then became a schoolteacher.  We were not wealthy, but I was encouraged to study and work hard at school.  When I was a young teenager, my parents told me that they would not be able to send me to university without the assistance of scholarships.  While they would help me as much as they could, they could simply not afford to pay for a college education on their own.  So, I knew my challenge – to get the highest grades, to take every opportunity to make my academic career as strong as possible, and to begin to search out scholarships and loans.

I also began working at age 15, while still in high school, and have held a job continually ever since.  I started in fast food – you may have heard of McDonald’s – and then took jobs such as babysitting, telemarketing, as an assistant in a local bank, and basically anywhere I could find flexible hours that would allow me to remain a full time student.  I remember at age 20 holding down 3 part time jobs while taking summer courses so I could graduate with a double major and a double minor in 4 years.  I still don’t know how I was able to exist without sleep all those years.  I miss the resilience of youth!

And so I was able, with the help of my parents, teachers, mentors, and so many others, to graduate from high school in the top of my class and then to win a partial scholarship at a private university near my parents’ house, which allowed me to save on living expenses.  My various part time jobs gave me enough savings to study in Mexico for a semester, and U.S. government-supported loans covered the rest.

During my senior year at college, I learned about a test that, if you scored high enough, would allow you the chance to compete for a job with the U.S. government to become a diplomat.  Until then, I had not thought of a government career – I was planning to seek a job in private industry.  I took the test, which was offered free of charge, scored enough to pass to the next round of testing and interviews, and finally was offered the opportunity to join the U.S. Department of State about 20 years ago.  (Incidentally, my first posting was in Lagos, Nigeria, but that’s a story for another time.)

I am grateful to my parents for instilling in me an understanding of the value of hard work, I am grateful to an education system that provided me a chance to excel in a regular public school in the unremarkable state of Indiana, and I am grateful for a government that helps students obtain low cost loans they can pay over years after graduation.  Perhaps most of all, I am grateful to have been born in a country where my gender, ethnic background, and lower middle class roots did not serve as a barrier to my being able to achieve my goals.  That has been the embodiment of the American Dream in my life.

In addition to the American dream, I am here to speak to you of a “Nigerian dream.”  A dream of the unfettered potential that you will bring to Nigeria as you successfully complete your studies and take your place as leaders of your country.  Your energy, optimism and entrepreneurial drive could propel Nigeria into the next century with ever brightening prospects.

As a diplomat, I look for ways to strengthen relations between my country and my host nation.  I have been pleased to see that Nigerians share a common spirit with Americans.  So, the American dream does not have to remain solely with America.  Rather, this is a dream Americans wish to share with the world.

As one example, a woman named Tara Fela-Durotoye embodies the spirit of the the American and Nigerian dreams.  Tara founded and now manages the “House of Tara.”  She pioneered bridal makeup as a profession and created a broad range of products including perfumes and the H.I.P. cosmetics line.  Forbes magazine recognized Tara as one of the 20 Young Power Women in Africa.  Her inspiring example of business success demonstrates that Nigeria remains a land of opportunity.

As agents of change you can realize the Nigerian dream for yourselves and your families.  Transformation begins when we set aside regional, cultural, tribal and religious differences.

As another example of the Nigerian dream, Hassan Rilwan, CEO of Focal Point Drycleaners, chose a dual path of service and commerce.  He spent many years founding and managing a variety of business ventures in construction, agriculture, publishing and printing.  In addition he served as a member of the Madrasa educational ministry.  He helped draft a curriculum that included both Western academics and traditional Islamic education.  He continued his public service by establishing a foundation for the care and education of orphans from the North.  Most recently, former President Jonathan nominated him to serve as a delegate to the National conference in 2014.

How can you as students and faculty expand the Nigerian dream?  The path forward, to capitalize on and expand opportunities, requires engagement with the rapidly changing international economy and social environment.  Predict where trends are headed, and develop the knowledge and tools that will empower millions.  Help all of your fellow citizens to innovate and thrive in the world market, and build better futures for their children.

In America, we continue to face great challenges ourselves.  You may have heard President Obama discuss his concerns about the growing gap between rich and poor in America.  We as a nation have to find the political and social solutions to that divergence, as it represents a threat to the American Dream.

While we recognize that some inequality drives people to succeed, we can’t afford for the gap to grow, and reach the point where the poor can never think of being successful.  We cannot afford a country where a portion of our population believes they cannot access opportunities, so has given up striving, and given up hope.

How do we ensure everyone has the opportunity to success?  Part of the responsibility lies with national policy, by deciding to invest in education, to incentivize research and development, and to support the development of small businesses.

That especially is important for knowledge and skill development for your fellow Nigerians who will otherwise be left behind if they don’t share fully in what you know and do.  As we have learned in America, you shortchange your national economic possibilities if you leave women, or minorities, or persons with disabilities outside the economy.  Include them!  Diversity and inclusion make you far stronger than before.

But part of the responsibility to ensure access to opportunities, lies right here, in academia, and in the private sector, by investing in people and knowledge.  You need innovation across disciplines.  Your greatest creativity will be where physics meets marketing, where engineers talk to biologists and social scientists and artists.  We should all mix and match our brightest human capital, so they can grab ideas from each other.  Google and Pixar in the United States already do this kind of cross-fertilization in the private sector with astounding results.

Universities are catching up, changing their curricula and re-designing laboratories, meeting spaces, living spaces, and information systems.  Our universities are partnering with each other, and delivering online education well beyond the walls of the classroom, to expand avenues of learning and make it more accessible.

In closing, while it can be challenging to preserve access to opportunity for all, we are far from vanquished.  On the contrary – by recognizing the fragility of opportunity for many of our co-citizens, we have already made it possible to take action.  We have made it possible to widen opportunity for those who need it most.

The American Dream is still vigorous.  We fight for it, through daily hard work and searching for the next creative leap.  Not just for ourselves, but for our neighbors and for our children.  I hope you are able to share in that spirit as you contemplate the academic year and your career ahead.

If you take away only one thought from what I have said today, let it be this: the American Dream should not be limited to America.  You have the ability to establish and develop the Nigerian Dream starting right now.

Best of luck to you all as you begin this academic year.  I am excited to see where your dreams will carry Nigeria, now and into the future.