Becoming a Sparkling Diamond
Vice-Chancellor and President
Orientation Spring 2022
10 February 2022
Students, guests, and colleagues, good afternoon. Welcome to Brac University.
Students are like diamonds
This is the 9th time that I welcome our new students in an orientation. Three years ago, shortly after I arrived in Dhaka, Prothom Alo published, in Bangla, an interview with me entitled ‘Students are like diamonds.’
Since then, I have received correspondences from students, parents, faculty, alumni, and Bangladeshi diaspora from as far as Alaska, Argentina, Sweden, South Africa and New Zealand. Today is almost the 3rd anniversary of my tenure as the Vice-Chancellor, so perhaps I will elaborate a bit what I meant by ‘Students are like diamonds.’
A university is not just to teach knowledge to its students. Rather, a university should guide, shape and inspire its students. Many think that students are ‘customers.’ Rather, students are ‘products’ of the university. Students are like diamonds, raw diamonds. It’s a university’s job to shape them so they may shine after they graduate.
And that’s exactly the aim of Brac University’s student life experience – transforming you from a raw diamond to a shining, sparkling diamond, no matter what you study.
So, what do we do? Once the university is reopened, in addition to a variety of students clubs and activities, we’ll have programs that are uniquely Brac University for you, such as our revised general education curriculum of international standards, Residential Semester, Duke of Edinburgh Scheme, BRAC Immersive Program, and opportunities for international exchanges and participation. The list goes on. Of course, I will have frequent townhall meetings with you.
But before then, I will now share with you the objectives of Brac University’s student life. It aims to guide you, shape you and inspire you – to help you find your positions in life, in the society, and in the world.
Be true and do what you love
First, finding your position in life -- be true to yourself and do what you love. Why? Because you are unique. I want you to learn to be true to yourself, find your heart’s calling, follow your heart, dare to be different, and do what you love.
The reason is very simple. You’ll spend most of your awake hours working in your adult life. There is nothing more rewarding than waking up in the morning and looking forward to doing what you love. You’ll perform to the best of your abilities if you do what you truly love.
Note that you find your heart’s calling, not your parents’ or your friends’. And you do what you love, not what others love. You are uniquely you. To paraphrase a few lines by French writer Antoine de Saint-Exupéry from Le Petit Prince (The Little Prince):
“It is only with your own heart that you can see rightly;
what is essential to you is invisible to others but you.”
What if you don’t know what you love? Then start thinking and looking. What if you have started but have not found it? Then keep thinking and looking -- looking for something that makes your heart tick.
I myself had zero exposure of the notion of ‘love your study’ or ‘love your work’ until I went to America for my graduate study. It was a culture shock to me, but I welcomed it with all my heart. It turned out that I did not find what I love until I turned 40 and I did not dare to embark on it until much later. I am, in fact, still in the midst of that journey. In a sleepless night, I wrote in my diary,
“Long, long has been my road and far, far my journey;
I have gone up and down to seek my heart’s destiny.”
One thing I’d like to point out, however, is that love is not just passion. Passion without discipline cannot sustain. Discipline is about doing and making it happen – to err, to fall, to get lost, while daring greatly; to go the extra, to detour, to blaze a new trail, if must; and to suffer, to struggle, to sacrifice, if called for. Discipline is also about being ethical and of integrity. I will reserve this topic of ‘discipline’ for a separate time, perhaps in a townhall meeting.
So, be true to yourself is to find your heart’s calling, dare to follow it through, do what you love, and carry it on and carry it out with discipline. And then, if you’re lucky enough, you may be able to change the world. There are many such examples.
He was jobless for five years after receiving his degree in movies. But he did not give up movies since movie-making was his true love. Eventually, his films won him a total of 12 Oscars. One of his movies was Life of Pi, which is about a story of a young man and a Bengal tiger. He also made some very English movies like Jane Austen’s Sense and Sensibility. He is Taiwanese filmmaker Ang Lee.
She was unemployed and divorced and at the lowest point of her life. Then she realized she’d better focus on what really mattered to her. That’s writing. So, she sat at a café facing a castle and a graveyard, starting writing the magical stories of Harry Potter. She is British writer J.K. Rowling.
He is challenging the frontier of transportation and space exploration. When he founded SpaceX and Tesla, he was expected to fail miserably. But he is making some insane ideas into realities. He is South African entrepreneur Elon Musk.
Three people, with different backgrounds and interests, have something in common. They are true to themselves, follow their hearts and do what they love. I believe they have changed the world.
Be kind and have a purpose
Second, finding your position in the society -- be kind to people and have a purpose. Why? Because life is unfair.
Some people from humble socioeconomic backgrounds are struggling in their lives. They are struggling, not because they are lazy or not smart, but because they were born with very few opportunities.
Some people are struggling because of bad lucks. Philosophically, it has something to do with God’s will -- Inshallah. In economics study, the notion of luck, or ‘systemic risks’, has won a Nobel prize.
Life is never fair. So be kind, and be helpful to those in need, and to those who are less fortunate. Whether or not this will give you a purpose, that’s for you to decide. But, according to the English writer John Bunyan, “You have never really lived until you have done something for someone who can never replay you.” Or, as the Swiss psychiatrist Carl Jung said, “The sole purpose of human existence is to kindle a light in the darkness of mere being.”
I once visited a high school to give a speech. After that visit, I had actually learned more than what I had given. The school’s motto was Non Sibi. Non Sibi is Latin. It means Not for Self. Not for self, so also for others. That school has educated two American presidents.
What are the examples of Non Sibi? We don’t need to look far. This Bengal region has offered the best of such. Both Mother Theresa and Sir Fazle Hassan Abed’s legacies say it all.
Be curious and never stop learning
Third, finding your position in the world -- be curious about the world and never stop learning. Why? Because the world is big, really big.
The world is enormously vast. As of today, there are 200 billion galaxies and counting in the observable universe. The light will have to travel for 2.5 million years from our galaxy Milky Way to our nearest galaxy Andromeda. And afterwards, there are ‘200 billion minus two’ more to go.
And in each galaxy, there are on average 100 billion stars. The fastest spacecraft will have to travel for 70,000 years from our Sun to our nearest star Proxima Centauri. And afterwards, there are ‘100 billion minus two’ more to go.
I don’t know about you. My head is spinning. I cannot really imagine the vastness of the universe although I used to study also astrophysics.
On a timescale, the world is seemingly infinite. American astronomer Carl Sagan said, “Human beings are like butterflies who flutter for a day and think it’s forever.” Compared with the universe’s, our life begins and ends in a day.
The sheer size of the world shall give us a different perspective about life, about this pandemic and about what really matters. If you can see a big picture, you’ll be able to endure detours and struggles, for a greater cause.
Here is a true story in China. A family disputed with their neighbors over a wall separating the two houses. This family’s master was an influential minster in the government. So, the family sent a letter by express courier to the minister in the capital city and asked him to intervene. After receiving the letter, that minister replied, “Sending me a letter over a thousand miles is for mere a wall. What’s the big deal by yielding three feet to them? The Great Wall of China still stands today. But where is now the First Emperor who built it?”
Even during the short span of our life, the world keeps pushing our comfort zone. Today, iPhones run much faster than the fastest supercomputers when I was a student. Today, the world’s most admired companies did not even exist when I was a student. The world is changing fast, exponentially.
So, what do we do? We shall never stop learning. Lifelong learning will keep us current and relevant. I myself am still very curious about the world, still hungry for more, and still learning. Because, I have learned that the more I know, the more I know I don’t know.
Here is another story. He had worked in a physics laboratory for decades and thought this would be his whole life. One day, he learned that the budget of his project would be cut and he’d lose his job. He was already 54. He could not help but find a new job, starting a new project irrelevant to what he had done before. That new project eventually earned him a Nobel Prize in Chemistry when he was 97. He is American scientist John Goodenough. I believe that in Mr. Goodenough’s heart, he is never old enough to stop learning. He is 99 now.
Lastly, let me summarize the objectives of Brac University’s student life experience: first, be true to yourself and do what you love; second, be kind to people and have a purpose; and third, be curious about the world and never stop learning. All these words, it’ll be up to you to decide their heaviness or lightness, if you choose to listen. As for me, I wish someone had told me all these words when I was at your age.
Becoming a sparkling diamond
No doubt. Students are like diamonds. The question is what kind of diamonds. What kind of diamonds do you want to become?
Do you want to be a raw diamond, who has never found out who she is; never asked why she is here; never dared trying; never cared about whether the world would be a better place because of her; or never questioned where she is going?
Or, do you want to be a shining diamond, who has failed trying; got lost and found the way; struggled and emerged stronger; fallen and risen; and looked up to the sky, crossed her arms over her chest, and pondered her tiny position against the vast universe?
It is your choice: a raw diamond or a shining diamond?
I’d like to quote a line from American poet Mary Oliver: “Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?” And I ask you: “Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your precious four years ahead?”
I want every one of you to become a shining, sparkling diamond. And if you want so too, then we will be with you along that journey in the next four years.
Welcome to Brac University, where becoming a sparkling diamond is possible.