Khadija Khaja, PhD
Keynote address: School of Social Work
Thank you Father Garanzini, Provost Pelissero, and Dean Wheeler, esteemed members of the faculty. And of course to the proud parents, family members, and friends of every single graduate, good evening. Today is about you, the graduates!
I am deeply honored to be here this evening in your house, and I congratulate you. Last October, I was invited here to speak on global sustainability. It was my first time here. I was so impressed with the students, the staff, the faculty and your Dean that I was humbled and honored to be invited back.
Tonight we celebrate your incredible journey that in many ways is just a beginning. I know at times the process of study may have felt like agony, but the victory is priceless and humbling.
As I look out at all of you, I can’t help but remember my own graduation. I was so excited and recall being so nervous and terrified that my hat would fall off my head when I went to accept my degree.
I want you to take a moment to reflect and take all of this in. Look at the person next to you, the person in front of you, and the person behind you and celebrate this remarkable moment and your accomplishments.
I was born in Africa, my family migrated to Canada, and eventually I made my way to the United States. I had so many dreams just like every single one of you. I had supportive people along the way and also people along the way who told me what I wanted to do was impossible. However, my late father, my hero, always said, take one step at a time, do not under any circumstance procrastinate, believe in yourself, and surround yourself with people who want you to succeed! Most important, wherever you end up working, get into an area you are 100% passionate about. Social work has been that for me, and I hope you feel the same.
After my graduation, I worked in community development, then in child welfare and ultimately became a teacher/researcher, which was my dream. My career took many twists and turns. And I needed to remind myself everything happens for a reason. Remember this in your own journey. Follow your heart, follow what feels right, and know there is a reason.
As you embark on this great professional journey, we know the work is not always easy. We are not dealing with fixing mechanical or electrical parts. We are dealing with the human mind, body, and spirit. We are usually trying to help people cope with human tragedy, suffering, and anguish. No pressure, right?
Graduates, well, I have news for you. You are among the nation’s chosen few and finest who have received the sacred honor to ensure the well-being of the most vulnerable in our society. You have earned this place. You have been entrusted this place. Your school bears witness to this.
Your—no, our—social work journey will of course not be complete until there is economic and social justice for every person. The journey is not complete until we eliminate all forms of inequality. This journey is not complete until poverty is eradicated.
Thomas Edison once said, “If we did all the things we are capable of doing, we would literally astound ourselves.” My challenge to you tonight is to astound yourselves.
Some time ago, I met Richard Reed, a social worker who has both BSW and MSW degrees. He started a career with the Veterans Administration. After 20 years of different positions including the Federal Emergency Management Agency, he was brought to the White House. He later served as Deputy Assistant to the President for Homeland Security, responsible for overseeing things like hazard preparedness, resilience, individual and community partnerships, domestic incident management, transportation security (and in the light of recent events, we know how important this work is).
He dealt with efforts related to the H1N1 pandemic in 2009, the earthquake in Haiti in 2010, the BP Deepwater Horizon oil spill in 2010, the Fukushima earthquake in Japan and the natural disasters that affected many of us in the United States. Richard worked with both the Bush and Obama administrations. Today Richard is Senior Vice President of the American Red Cross.
This year Richard, a social worker, received the prestigious Government Security News/Raytheon Award for Distinguished Leadership and Innovation in Public Safety and Security. Previous recipients of the award include retired Admiral Thad Allen. This year it went to a social worker. Tonight you join the ranks of many such professionals who embarked on a journey and made a commitment to serve the most vulnerable and achieve the seemingly unachievable.
I share this example with you so you know that you not only are able to shape the resilience of local communities, but that your work is critical for our nation at this very moment.
Why am I sharing this story? I spent time with Richard, and I was struck by two things about him on my drive here. First, every single graduate here has the exact same traits that Richard has. Your passion, persistence, and your commitment to service is what enables you to graduate today. Do not take these for granted. And secondly, remember to keep your humility. It will make you a better listener, and it will allow you to be flexible in the critical times ahead.
Be transparent, clear, and truthful—even when it is difficult. Above all when it is difficult.
Ralph Waldo Emerson said, “The hero is no braver than an ordinary man, but he is brave for five minutes longer.” When I look at each one of you, I see a room filled with heroes.
In my own journey I have taken risks and changed careers at different points. I have learned the most from my mistakes. Through your social work program you have mastered many skills some of which include active listening, critical thinking, an honest examination of your own assumptions and most importantly, how to deal with and solve complex problems that affect the human condition.
Graduates, never let others define you.
Graduates, know your voice, honor it, and share it with your head held up high.
Chuck Noll, the former head football coach for the Pittsburg Steelers, the only coach to win four super bowls said, “Champions are champions not because they do anything extraordinary, but because they do the ordinary things better than anyone else.”
Graduates, always aim to do what you love. That is how you will and can shape your own destiny.
Graduates, go get ’em!