Commencement 2023


Alan Khazei
Commencement Address
May 21, 2023

Thank you Mark for that very generous introduction. If my parents were here, my Dad would have appreciated everything you said and my Mom would have actually believed it all.

It is a great privilege for me to share the stage with these extraordinary honorary degree recipients, each of whom has used their time and talents to serve and make a meaningful difference.

They are all exceptional role models for each of you graduates and indeed for all of us.

I have to give a special shout out to my friend and fellow Bostonian, Cyndy Fish, who has poured her heart and soul into building this special institution.

I’m so honored to return to Geneva and your wonderful HWS community to congratulate you all.

Way to Go! You’ve made it!

Can we hear it for the class of 2023!!!

But you know, you haven’t done this alone. You’ve had supportive parents, family, members, and friends alongside you for this journey.

So can we hear it for the parents, family members, and friends who are here today?

And for the parents, I’m sure you are feeling a mixture of pride and relief.

Pride in the accomplishments of your children and relief that you won’t have any more tuition bills to pay.

We should also especially thank your extraordinary President, Mark Gearan for his terrific leadership and his wife Mary, who is his wonderful partner in leading this community.

I don’t know of another college President who has his own Garage Rock Band and popular tik toks, or another Presidential spouse who holds open houses every Friday.

By the way, how was Mark and his band at your Senior Dinner last Thursday night?

I’ve been blessed to be good friends with Mark and Mary for 30 years now. They live their lives by their values and are among the most dedicated public servants I know.

We also need to thank the trustees, faculty, and administration at HWS who have supported you and set the bar high for teaching, learning, and preparing you all, as your powerful HWS mission statement says, “to lead lives of consequence.”

I also want to thank a group of inspiring students I met with to help me prepare for this talk – Jett, Irini, Seamus, Sreyan, Litzy, Kate and Zaheer.

They gave me excellent insights into your experience over the last four years.

After listening to them, I wish I could go back to college at HWS and will encourage my son who is in high school to apply here.

This has been a big year for you all in many ways.

You celebrated HWS’s bicentennial last fall.

You were ranked 4th in the nation of all colleges and universities for your commitment to community service.

Two first year students from Bangladesh and Sri Lanka won the national debating championship beating out Princeton and Cornell.

The Statesmen won the NCAA Division 3 national hockey championship.

And, the William Smith Lacrosse Team went undefeated, were Liberty League Champions and are competing for the NCAA Championship in a game today.

When I read the article in the Boston Globe about your hockey championship in overtime, I loved what Coach Taylor said:

“The experts will say it was an offensive game, a defensive game, but to me, it was a character game.”

And that is what your experience at HWS has done, helped you to deepen your character.

Here is some of what your classmates told me is special about HWS and what they’ve learned during their four years here:

– I learned how to be a critical thinker, solve problems and work in teams with people from different backgrounds.

– To take risks and follow your passion and the HWS community will support you

– That with the first two years of Covid and other issues going on in the world, many feel anxious about the future, so put your faith in what you believe in and look to our generation to make the future better.

– I find hope in my peers, so it is difficult to say goodbye.

– To be open to adventure and comfortable asking for help. Everyone at HWS really wants to see you succeed.

– The people made HWS special.The Faculty here are unmatched, staff and older students were so helpful to me. The mentorship and community is amazing.

One student summed it all up by saying:

“You come to HWS and leave not a different person, but a more full version of the person you were.”

You know, as your commencement speaker, I’m supposed to give you some important life lessons and guidance, but I think what I heard from your classmates is as good or better than anything I could tell you.

As I am sure is true for at least some of you today, on my graduation day in 1983, I didn’t have a job and wasn’t sure what I was going to do.

As a result, I don’t remember a single thing my commencement speaker said that day.

I tried to make a plan for after graduation. Pursuing my interest in national service, I applied for three different traveling fellowships to study national service programs in other countries and bring lessons learned back to America.

Amazingly and frustratingly, I was the runner up for all three of them.

And so I was totally bummed out about it and didn’t know what I was going to do.

My mom always taught me that when God closes a door, he opens a window, so I had to regroup and find that window fast.

During college, I studied a rising generation of younger democratic political leaders like Senators Paul Tsongas, Bill Bradley, and Gary Hart among others.

Hart was running for President and committed to establishing a national service program, and I liked his background and ideas.

But, he was running at the back of the pack. When I told friends I was thinking of working for Senator Gary Hart, most responded, Gary Who?

I decided to take the job anyway.

As it turned out, the Hart campaign was a terrific experience for me. Hart lost to Vice President Mondale, but we did win the NH Primary in a stunning upset and he was the runner up at the convention.

Working on the Hart campaign I learned to be entrepreneurial, part of a team and an effective grassroots organizer.

Most importantly, I made lifelong friends and have no doubt that campaign experience made a much bigger impact on my ability to start and grow City Year, than traveling the world on a fellowship ever would have.

So sometimes a failure may actually lead you on a path to ultimate success.

But the main reason I started City Year was because of my Mom and Dad and the values they raised me with.

My father was an immigrant from Iran. He had a chance to go to medical school in Switzerland. Dad was a big believer in democracy and in a man named Dr. Muhammed Mossadegh who became Prime Minister of Iran in 1951 and was leading Iran to democracy.

But Mossadegh was overthrown by the British Government and our CIA in 1953. So Dad decided that rather than go back to a dictatorship, he would come to America, a country of freedom.

My Dad raised me with a very interesting perspective on our country.

He often said, “Son, America is the greatest country in the world because of our ideals and a commitment to liberty, equality of opportunity and justice for all.”

He would add that America was a beacon of hope for people like him from all over the world.

He said he felt America was the one country in the world he could come to as a foreigner, be accepted, become a citizen, raise a family and pursue his dream of healing people and fighting cancer.

But Dad also taught me about America violating its fundamental ideals, such as when it overthrew Mossadegh and put the Shah back in power, or supported other dictators in the world such as Marcos in the Philippines and Somoza in Nicaragua, or not supporting Mandela in South Africa.

Dad taught me that when America goes against its ideals it always comes back to haunt us, and that you should love America enough to fight for its ideals and democracy.

My Mom was Italian and also a healer. She became a Nurse Anesthetist, sadly that was the highest women could go in her generation. She would have been a brilliant doctor and was always my Dad’s best counselor when he had his toughest surgical cases.

Mom was a classic Italian, she loved everyone. She was also full of wisdom and colorful sayings such as:

“You know, I’ve never seen a U Haul behind a hearse.

My Mom taught me the most important thing I’ve ever learned. She would say, “Alan, everyone has a special gift to give and you can bring out their gifts by loving them.”

For me, City Year was fundamentally a way to put into practice what my Dad taught me about building democracy through service and what my Mom taught me about having people discover and use their gifts to spread more love in the world.

And here are some of the life lessons I’ve learned from my experience with City Year and other social change efforts over the years, about living a life of consequence.

First, as the Brazilian author, Paolo Coelho writes in one of my favorite books, The Alchemist, you should start with listening to your heart, to your inner voice, and commit to follow your dreams – regardless of the conventional wisdom or what others may tell you to do.

Second, no one does it alone. I started City Year with my best friend and college roommate, Michael Brown, and the first thing we did was recruit others to join us.

Third, try to learn from adversity and rejection as much as from victory and success. Everyone faces roadblocks along the way. No one has a clear and straight path.

I’ve also learned that If you listen to your inner voice and pursue your dreams – you will experience what I like to call “the guardian angel effect.”

People will come out of the woodwork to help you. Your commitment, your passion, your dreams will inspire others and they will support and join you.

Your classmates confirmed this truth to me when they spoke about HWS and I’ve seen this happen over and over again. You can count on it.

And ultimately, it was the many people who supported the dream of City Year, not me or Michael, who made City Year happen.

I also started City Year because I deeply believe in the power of young people like you, to change the world.

And as your classmates told me, you as students, have already shown the ability to make change right here during your time at HWS.

It was your activism after the horrible murder of George Floyd that pushed the board of trustees to not only create a Board Committee on Belonging, Diversity, Equity and Inclusion, but also to renovate and restore the Alger Adams house. And it is so fitting that Patricia Adams is an honorand today.

It was your activism in the face of Covid and the lockdown that convinced the administration to reallocate funding to support students who had lost their jobs due to the lockdown or needed funds to travel home and then back to HWS when classes restarted.

It was your activism that created the international students success office to provide international students with the support they need to succeed at HWS.

And it was your activism that led HWS Votes to win several awards as you doubled your voting participation from 2016 to 2020 and made a big effort to turn out the vote last fall.

And it is a credit to the administration and faculty here at HWS that they responded to your concerns by listening to you, empowering you and taking action.

I’m so inspired by you and your generation, Gen Z.

I’m the proud parent of two Gen Z children. I continue to learn so much from them and their friends and other young people I’m fortunate to know and work with.

Your generation is the worlds’ first truly global generation and the most socially and politically active since the 1960’s.

You have faced extraordinary challenges and traumas and have responded with remarkable resilience and new efforts for change.

Your generation has grown up with mass shootings and yet you have responded with March for our Lives and unprecedented activism to confront the horrible scourge of gun violence in our nation.

Your generation lives with the existential challenge of climate change, and you have created the Sunrise Movement and other actions to heal our planet.

Your generation has no majority race and has been at the forefront of Black Lives Matter and the fight for racial justice.

Your generation doesn’t judge people based on their gender identity or sexual orientation and has been on the cutting edge of fighting for LGBTQ plus rights. Something we need you to continue to do.

Your generation, like all of us, have faced mental health challenges due to covid and social media, and you have responded with compassion and insisting that mental health be acknowledged, brought out of the shadows, de-stigmatized and treated.

Your generation has faced economic disruption and the covid crisis and has responded with resilience, entrepreneurship and calls to fight poverty and for a much more fair economic system.

So as you tackle the everyday challenges of finding a job and paying your bills, I hope you will also tackle the bigger, tougher questions, and ask yourselves:

“What can I do in my own way, with some of my time, energy and talent, to try to make my community, my country and the world a better place?”

As it says on the arch across this yard I believe that you and your generation “are the hope.”

Your passion and leadership can bring us to a fairer, equitable, inclusive and just America and world. We need you to do that.

But, just as your parents, teachers and administrators have supported you to get you to this graduation day, I also believe that it is up to my generation to work with you, listen to you, empower you to lead, and join with you, to address the unprecedented challenges of our times.

I believe that Hobart and William Smith has prepared you well and cannot wait until your generation is in charge.

As I look back on my time in college, it was the relationships that I made that have stuck with me. As my best friend Michael Brown likes to say:

“You can always make new friends, but you can’t make old friends.”

I hope you will continue to nurture the friendships you’ve made during your time here at HWS.

You have grown up together and your college friends will know you and understand you in unique ways.

As life goes on, these friendships will celebrate the highs with you and carry you through the lows that life puts on your path.

Today, you graduate from a terrific college that has prepared you well to live lives of consequence.

I’m so excited to watch and learn how you choose to live those lives and write the next chapters in your story.

Thank you, and congratulations, Hobart and William Smith Class of 2023!