Dear Class of 2020,
It's nice to see your faces at this particular time. COVID-19 has kept you home for about three months, and this fact alone has set you apart from all the classes that have graduated from this school. I still remember hearing some students saying “for the first time I'm dying to go back to school!" Fortunately, we have kept this pandemic under control and managed to make it back to school for the remaining three weeks. I am honored to be here to be part of this big moment of yours.
Commencement is an occasion of feelings, a mixture of delight, and melancholy. I am sorry that your parents cannot be here in this hall to relish this moment next to you, but the sense of hope, I believe, will stay the same. Class of 2020, you are ready for this moment. You are ready for the next chapter of your life.
Just like other high school graduates, you will enjoy the greatest ever scale of freedom in the next sojourn of your life. You will have many academic and life decisions to make. But as students of international education, the roads ahead might be a little different for you from the one for your peers—leaving high school means parting from the land on which you have spent all your life so far and starting a new life in a country with different languages and cultures. Not to mention the fact that the fluctuations of 2020 will bring an extra set of challenges for you. You might need to face a world no recent graduating classes have ever faced in decades.
Times of change are perfect for reflections, so let's reflect upon the road we have trekked so far. Over the past two decades, educational exchanges around the world have boomed—especially for China. The number of Chinese students in the US has long claimed the top spot, surging from over 90,000 to over 300,000 between 2008 and 2018. The past 20 years also witnessed the growth of globalization, from which China has reaped great benefits: capital, technology, and talents flushing in, people going out to every corner of the world for study and business. Neo-liberalist economists have told us that globalization makes this world a more "efficient" place—the economic way to say “better”. Inspiring, right? But according to the World Bank, the total volume of world trade has stagnated since the economic downturn in 2008. At the height of the US-China trade war, the pandemic has thrown yet another blow to the already perilous world. We are at the deep ends of populism, protectionism, and waves after waves of xenophobia around the world—People blame globalization and other countries for their misfortune. The influence of international organizations such as the U.N., E.U., W.H.O, etc. are declining, a case in point being the US’s threat to withdraw from W.H.O.
But what do all these mean to you? Simply put, “going out” is getting increasingly difficult. Living in different countries and experiencing different lives will not be as easy as they were before.
2020 is probably the most difficult graduating year, especially for those who are going to the US for education. The pandemic cut international flights, forced universities to delay or not kick off their fall semesters, and the flames of protests and riots are burning high. The virus has accelerated the trend of deglobalization and we have now come to a point where reason and philanthropism are being taken over by violence and prejudice. The values we believed in-- liberty, peace, and harmony—were left behind in the past two decades and the future is filled with disconcerting factors.
Let me take a guess. Probably many of you, as well as your parents, have asked this question at some point this year: why study overseas? Isn't it now the worst time possible to do that? Out of consideration for personal safety, pressing pause on your next journey is an understandable and reasonable choice. However, I would say studying abroad has never been more meaningful.
VMA wants to cultivate global citizens, because we believe the world should be, and is already, deeply connected. Education should prepare young people for such a world. To be completely honest, we want to be part of the grand endeavor that shapes the world--and educating you is how we do it.
I have no intention to preach you on globalization, I just want to share with you a mainstream view in the field of academia. The cause of the prevalent deglobalization is this: in each country, there are a great number of people--the silent majority--that have not benefited, or think they have not benefited, from globalization. Globalization hence becomes a game of elites, and what we see now, the reversal of capital globalization, is the consequence of elites' oblivion to that majority.
Do we really understand what it means by "globalization"? We are obsessed with efficiency, but terrible at cooperation, which in turn has led us to many encounters with the "Black Elephant" - a phrase coined by environmentalist Adam Sweidan that combines "Black Swan" and "The elephant in the room". It refers to the unlikely incidents that have great and lasting impacts. The sad thing is we are all aware of the cause of Black Elephant incident, but counteracts are seldom adopted until catastrophes hit - the financial crisis in 2008, and now, COVID-19. Another recent black elephant case is the killing of George Floyd by the police. The outrage ignited people's anger toward the unjust social structure that has perpetuated institutional racism.
Dear students, I want you also to reflect and ruminate on the fact that you are among the lucky ones. That fact comes with certain responsibilities: the responsibility to care about the life of ordinary people under the impact of globalization; the responsibility to put efforts into changing the current social-economic structure so that more people can benefit from it. These are the responsibilities of global citizens.
Yes, we need more world citizens. We need them to see the elephant in the room and stand with each other before it turns into the black elephant. But in many cases, it is not the elephant that we do not see, but each other—we succumb to our basic instincts and prejudices so much so that cooperating beyond nations, races, cultures, and languages becomes impossible. But it is time we stand together because we have SO much to deal with that demands international cooperation—global warming, potential virus, the development and use of artificial intelligence, deforestation at the Amazon, and the yawning economic gaps... If you can break free from your bias and fear, and learn, communicate, understand and think in a way that you believe can keep you away from repeating last generations' mistakes, then you are already on the way to be the talent both China and the world are in dire need of. But understanding other cultures and speaking foreign tongues are not enough—you will act as bridges that connect different lands. Living in another country is not to forsake your own identity, but to explore and enrich the diversity of this world, to coexist with other people, to cooperate and address issues AS who you truly are. At this difficult moment, I would like to applaud you for simply willing to go out for higher education, and you should be proud of yourselves for that, too.
Lastly, I would like to quote another line from Friedman that speaks the truth about globalization and how it connects with us: Do unto others as you wish them to do unto you because more people in more places in more ways on more days can now do unto you and you unto them like never before.
Thank you for being here. I wish you a brilliant future and a better world, a world of your own making.
Note: This speech is given in Chinese. The script is translated by MA Xiao.
- School News