Commencement Address at Leigh-Sherman Community College

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Madam President,
Members of the Graduating Classes,
Distinguished Ladies and Gentlemen:

Once upon a time Theresa Leigh-Sherman had a dream. She gave life to that dream and sculpted it to fill empty spaces within Liberia’s administrative landscape. True to biblical orders, she honored her parents, and named it for two extraordinary public servants: her father, the Honorable T.W. Dupigny-Leigh (a soldier and legislator), and her father-in-law, the Honorable Charles Dunbar Sherman (an economist and finance minister under President William V.S. Tubman).

Now, four decades later, her dream presents itself as this Community College and Secretarial School. From the first 22 students you have grown to deliver over 5,000 graduates. Your graduates are the spines for corporate executives, international organizations, government leaders, and heads of state. Some have earned bachelor, master, and doctorate degrees. They are competent, efficient, and trustworthy.

Today, you graduates join that elite group. You enter a hi-tech global village. A world filled with technological advances never seen before. These days, one doesn’t even have to type. You speak to computers, and the computers type what you said. Cars are designed to move without drivers. Cars are finding their own parking spaces, and park themselves without a driver lifting a finger. A spaceship set in motion 12 years ago by the Americans has traveled into space and landed, just as planned, on a moving comet over 400 million miles away. Your smart phone through the Internet Google any bit of information you want. Telephones you carry can track your location, tell how many steps you take in a day, wake you up in the morning. Mobile money works! You know it. You’ve seen it. Some of you have probably used it.

Just this week, scientists revealed that from examining your telephone they can tell your favorite foods, favorite drinks, and favorite perfume. They can tell your habits. All this from molecules you leave on your telephone.

Facebook, puts your ‘business in the street’: reveals your friends and family; your likes and dislikes. These advances are fascinating, and sometimes frightening.

Can you for a moment imagine other new inventions the world will see in the next ten years? These things are being created by young people just like you. As you step out of this Community College, what will you do next? What choices will you make? The choices are yours.

So, let’s talk. Or as we say in colloqua: “com’ let lecture.”

My lecture is all on one word: “CHOICES.”

Begin by taking stock. What have you learned here? What have you learned about yourself during your own lifetime?

By observing, I learned something about each of you. You are like Hillary Clinton. When Donald Trump accused Hillary of using performance drugs during the recent American presidential debates, Hillary replied that the performance drug she uses is “preparation”. Yes, preparation. Each one of you knows the value of preparation. I also relate to that. I have tried never to participate in a meeting without being prepared – without doing my homework, without reading the relevant document, or studying the subject matter.

Preparation gives you an advantage. Graduates, you could have chosen to do anything or be anywhere. Yet, you chose to prepare yourselves. You chose to attend this college, this school. Clearly, you are ambitious. You want to shine. You want to lead. So, you are preparing yourselves. And you are smart for doing so.

I am told Dr. Benjamin Mays, once president of America’s Morehouse College, used to urge his students: “Study hard. Because he who out thinks you, will rule you.”

So, you must continue to develop your most valuable asset – your head, your brain. The information you put into your brain makes the difference. It is not so much your diploma or certificate – because the paper is less important than the knowledge you gain. In life, you are assessed by what you know and do. Continue to learn. With knowledge, integrity, and discipline, you will move. You could choose to leap forward or fall backwards. You could choose a positive or negative view of your country, your government, and your world. You could choose to help make Liberia better or join a complacent, complaining chorus that sees only the bad. Think positively. Choose to be Liberia’s winners.

Always take a keen interest in what goes on around you. It affects you. In less than a year, you will have ballot choices for Liberia’s leadership.

Choose leaders who encourage national unity, foster peace, and promote development; leaders with workable plans to really uplift our people. Choose leaders not because of where they come from; but because of where they can take this nation. Choose leaders interested in government service for the people’s well-being; not for their personal gain.

Seek always to improve yourself. Choose not to be a faceless, unknown traveler in life’s journey. Choose to leave your stamp on this world. Leave a wholesome stamp. Impact others positively.

We come from a small nation of 4.5 million who have done big things in a huge world of over 7 billion people.

Yet, Liberia set examples that inspired African independence; signed the original charter in 1945 that gave birth to the United Nations; the founding of the Organization of African Unity (now the African Union); conceived the African Development Bank; conserved West Africa’s largest patch of tropical rainforests; rallied the world to defeat Ebola, etc.

Besides that, individual Liberians have made choices that stamped history and, by their examples, inspire others. Think about some fellow Liberians:
(i) James Skirving Smith – Liberia’s 6th president – first black person to graduate from medical school in the USA;
(ii) Martin Henry Freeman – president of Liberia College (predecessor of the University of Liberia) was the first black college professor in America;
(iii) Samuel David Ferguson – first black bishop of the Episcopal Church of America; founder of Cuttington College (now Cuttington University);
(iv) John B. Russwurm – co-founded the first black newspaper in America (Freedom’s Journal); edited Liberia’s first newspaper
(Liberian Herald);
(v) Angie Brooks – first black woman president of the United Nations General Assembly;
(vi) Charles Dunbar Sherman – first black president of the World Alliance of YMCAs;
(vii) Joseph N. Togba – first African chairman, Governing Council, of the World Health Organization;
(viii) George “Oppong” Weah – first African footballer of the year, world footballer of the year, and winner of the ballon d’or, all at the same time;
(ix) Lymah Gbowee – Nobel Peace Prize winner;
(x) Sakui Malakpa – professor, lawyer, who despite blindness, earned a Ph.D from Harvard University;
(xi) Anne Fredericks Cooper – first African woman to earn a doctorate degree from America’s largest Episcopal theological seminary (Virginia Theological Seminary) in its 200-year history;
(xii) Ellen Johnson Sirleaf – only woman ever elected president of an African country; awarded the highest decorations from France, India, Kenya, USA; won the Nobel Peace Prize; and together with the British Prime Minister and the Indonesian President was one of three world leaders asked by the UN Secretary-General to chart for the whole world the Sustainable Development Goals.
(xiii) Theresa Leigh-Sherman – distinguished peacemaker/visionary/educator; college founder; first woman chairperson, Board of Trustees, University of Liberia – one of Africa’s oldest tertiary institutions.

Within each of you lies the zeal to make your name. Show that zeal. Act with it. You have the brains. You are disciplined. Be adventurous. You don’t have to be shy or afraid to try and fail. There is no one alive who has succeeded at everything they tried. You know the old adage: “If at first you don’t succeed, try and try again.” Both success and failure offer lessons to be learned.

When I graduated from high school at the College of West Africa (CWA) many years ago, we were inspired by a poem. I’d like it to inspire you as you make your “Choices.”

Let me paraphrase the poem penned about a century ago by Rudyard Kipling. The poem is titled: “If.”
If—
IF you can keep your head when all about you
Are losing theirs and blaming it on you,
If you can trust yourself when all doubt you,
But make allowance for their doubting too;
If you can wait and not be tired by waiting,
Or being lied about, don’t deal in lies,
Or being hated, don’t give way to hating:
If you can meet with Triumph and Disaster
And treat those two impostors just the same;
If you can bear to hear the truth you’ve spoken
Twisted to make a trap for fools,
Or watch the things you gave your life to, broken,
And stoop and build ‘em up with worn-out tools:
And yet don’t look too good or talk too wise;
You shall be exceptional, my child, exceptional!”

GRADUATES (stand): Remember, you are walking because you know how to stand up; that’s precisely why in a crowd you have the capacity to shine, to stand out. With faith in yourself, listen to that small, inner voice; to your intuition; to your gut; to God’s voice, and God will direct your path.

Now, go out of this College, out of this School determined to be bold, committed never to stop learning, convinced of the power within you that will make the positive difference.

Bring honor to yourself, your family, and our country.

Let works of this Class motivate others wherever you go.

STRIVE FOR PEACE WITHIN YOURSELF. MAKE GOOD CHOICES.
MAY YOUR “CHOICES” BRING HONOR TO YOUR ALMA MATER.
MAY YOUR CHOICES BE ACCEPTABLE IN GOD’S SIGHT.
MAY YOUR CHOICES BE TO GOD’s GLORY.
PLEASE, NOW, CHOOSE TO ACCEPT OUR CONGRATULATIONS!

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