Editor’s Note: Dr. Gebisa Ejeta is a native of Ethiopia and the winner of the ‘2009 World Food Prize’ for his major contributions in the production of sorghum. The following is the full text of Dr. Ejeta’s commencement speech given on May 14, 2010 at Purdue University’s Elliott Hall of Music.
President Córdova, members of the Board of Trustees, distinguished guests, fellow faculty, members of the Class of 2010, ladies and gentlemen: I am honored to have been invited to speak to you today. It is a great honor to be asked to be a commencement speaker at any college or university, but when the honor is bestowed by one’s own alma mater, and a university that I – perhaps with a tinge of bias – consider one of the finest institutions of learning in the land, the enormity of the honor reaches greater proportion.
Let me start by sharing with you a personal testimonial on the value of education and the pursuit of knowledge, the business that you have been at for several years now, and one that I hope you will be in for the rest of your lives as lifetime learners.
As you may have learned already, I was born in a remote Ethiopian village with no school. I seemed destined for the life of most others in my village: As a child, you herd the cattle. When you’re old enough, you get behind the plow and till the land; then you get married, have a family, and carry on that endless cycle with the next generation.
It was my visionary mother who dreamed bigger dreams for me. And though illiterate herself, she recognized the value of education as my passport out of that way of life, and she was determined to make it happen for me. I walked 20 kilometers to the nearest elementary school every Sunday evening and walked the same distance back home again on Friday afternoon.
Through discipline and hard work, I earned a scholarship to a boarding school that in turn enabled me to enter Alemaya College of Agriculture. I graduated in 1973 with a degree in plant science, with highest distinction, and at the top of my class.
I came to Purdue University in 1974 and earned both my master’s and PhD degrees by the end of 1978. Upon completing my graduate program, I returned to Africa and served for five years before I came back to join the Purdue faculty nearly 26 years ago.
Education opened up a new world that was unimaginable to me and to most people in the small village in rural Ethiopia where I grew up. It gave me the opportunity to engage in science and discovery, and to have the audacity to aspire for excellence in advancing knowledge and serving humanity. It also made it possible for my wife, my five children and I to have had a very different way of life from that into which I was born, and we are very grateful for that.
Class of 2010, you may not all want to or need to follow in my path. At the end of this ceremony, however, all of you will have something in common with me: We will all be proud Purdue University alumni. As you take your next steps out into the world, you will find, as I have, certain truths:
1. Purdue’s exceptional reputation extends far and wide. We are known not only as the “cradle of astronauts”, but also as a center of great science and technology, and perhaps most importantly as an institution committed to service — from the Extension educators across Indiana to the many unsung heroes of social workers, pharmacists, and nurses who provide badly needed services across the land. Purdue faculty and staff also routinely assist, collaborate and synergize with other educational and research institutions, with private businesses and industrial programs, and with philanthropic agencies and civic organizations, helping build successful public-public and public-private partnership models in this nation and in so many countries around the world.
2. Just as Purdue’s reputation extends around the world, so does its network of alumni. You’ll find that more than 40 alumni networks exist around the world. But it’s more than numbers. Purdue has a solid reputation for excellence that opens many career doors and professional networking opportunities. You’ll find that your Purdue diploma will continue to add value to your prospects in the years to come.
3. Purdue’s impact can be seen and felt, from the earliest days of space travel and discovery, to current efforts to feed our hungry world and achieve global food security. I would like to believe that Purdue’s global impact has been generated not serendipitously, but by design — through leaders with the wisdom to encourage and value a culture of research with purpose, educating and nurturing each new generation of leaders, and building a community of students, faculty and staff with a collective commitment to the pursuit of excellence in the advancement of knowledge suffused with service to humanity.
There are many rewards in being an alumnus of Purdue University, but with those rewards comes responsibility: a responsibility to uphold the legacy of this great institution and use the excellent foundation you have received here as a spring board (or perhaps a launching pad) for a life of accomplishment, dedication and service.
I have dedicated my professional career to the service of humanity through the science I practice. How appropriate, therefore, that I would be addressing you soon-to-be graduates of Agriculture; Consumer and Family Sciences; and Pharmacy, Nursing and Health Sciences. This is because, in my view, while education in every field has elements of service to humanity, these four colleges are the quintessential embodiments for human service in the sustenance and well-being of personal and family life throughout human civilization.
Since being awarded the World Food Prize last fall, I have been honored and humbled by the many, many accolades that have come my way. Nothing honors me more, however, than being considered the face of hope and advocate for science and the cause of the poor everywhere, particularly those in the part of the world I come from. I have worked very hard since my early school days. The aspiration to excel and dedication to service are mine, but I could not have accomplished what I have without the environment here at Purdue that nurtured my vision and the many kind folks who encouraged and supported me all along the way.
I am often asked what the World Food Prize meant to me personally. Well, several years ago, I heard a make-believe story being told, wherein a grandfather took his young grandchild to a high school graduation. Upon hearing some nice things being said about the valedictorian of the class, the grandfather, wishing to inspire his grandson, whispered to him and said, “I want them to say some nice things about you too when you graduate from high school.” To which the curious grandson said loudly, “What did they say about you, grandpa, when you graduated?”
It is possible, just probable, that one of the advantages of my World Food Prize recognition is that my grandchildren may not ask me that same question.
I have been blessed to have had a very fulfilling personal and professional life, filled with opportunities to do well and to contribute to the service of humanity. I have come from sleeping on a dirt floor in rural Ethiopia to residing in a comfortable bungalow in West Lafayette, Ind.; from an isolated village in west central Ethiopia to literally traveling around the world on behalf of science and the cause of the poor; from a childhood with limited opportunities for learning to a successful career in academia at one of the foremost institutions of higher education in the world.
I draw on this personal legacy in declaring to you that I expect nothing less or wish nothing less for you. There is much joy that comes from trying to do what is right while earning an honest living. That is a deep-rooted American tradition that is worth revitalizing. I have a hunch that yours is the generation that may do so.
I have no doubt that among all of you soon-to-be graduates of Purdue University, there are many who also have aspirations to excel and desires to serve. If you do that, you will be satisfied with your professional success, you will feel gratified with your service to humanity, and you will have made all of us proud.
As you commit to a professional career and pick a cause with which to serve humanity, I encourage you to define the geographical domain for your service based on your personal degree of comfort – whether it is your local community, your state, your country, or other places around the world. Regardless of where you work or who you serve, I advise you, however, to guard against instant gratification or keeping shallow scores. Nothing good is accomplished easily or overnight.
One of the 20th century’s greatest American scientists, George Washington Carver, once said, “There is no shortcut to achievement. Life requires thorough preparation – veneer isn’t worth anything.”
I acknowledge that economic times are difficult right now and prospects may not look encouraging. I would remind you that I came from a much more doubtful beginning, but through perseverance, focus, hard work, sense of commitment, great education, and the helping hands of others, I have arrived at what may be considered the pinnacle of an academic career. I was born into a world of very limited possibilities, yet here I am. I made it, and I know that you will, too. For we have one very important thing in common: We have received a great education from a world-class university, and we live in the land of opportunity, where anything is possible.
Class of 2010, congratulations and best wishes. Now go serve the world!