You have now arrived upon that moment that nearly a year ago seemed not so certain. Soon you will depart our shores and return to your homes in your countries, one year older, many experiences richer, and a lifetime wiser. Be it in doubt to you or not: you are returning to your homeland a different person, enriched and invigorated by your months here in America. Indeed: you were blessed with an opportunity many of your peers were not, and we in turn were blessed also: with each and every one of you.
Our lives have changed by this meeting, and so have yours. None of this will leave this set of life experiences the same, and none of expected none should have expected to be the same, anyway. For of all those things we strive to keep unchanged, the only constant in life is that it will continue to change, evolve, and prosper in a new light every day.
I want to instill on you the importance of your experiences here in my country. You have been lucky to see with your own eyes what many back home have only gossiped and whispered about; that country of dreams and plenty, that place where our concerns are prom dresses and homecoming dances. Where apple pies and McDonald’s aren’t special treats, where cricket is an insect (and a cellphone company) and where football is something altogether not football. But beyond that, you have witnessed the excitements and tears and mundane of a group of people you never knew existed beyond Hollywood and really bad TV shows: the Americans.
As you prepare for what we Americans call the homestretch of your time amongst us, I have some final lessons to teach you both as your friend, chaperone, teacher, and yes, fellow student.
First amongst these lessons is the following: we each have a moral imperative to change the world for the better. I cannot begin stress to you the mortal dangers we all find ourselves in because the generation of our parents, and our parents’ parents, chose to change the world their better, and not for everyone’s, betterment. In simpler words: you and I alone can take what we learned from one another, and use it to help the animals, peoples, and institutions around us healthier for us all. You have no option for failure, and neither do I. As a wise Muslim once said in the desert, “God has put you and these difficulties in my path. I have no choice but to solve you, and resolve the difficulties.”
The second lesson I have for you is that: you are not alone. Thousands of you came to my country in search of a year of parties and fun, and those same thousands of you are going back to your countries after a year really easy math exams (don’t lie, I know you were laughing at us in Algebra class!), and really strange eating habits (eating in the middle of the night, chocolate cereal for breakfast, and/or pizza for dinner more than once a week ring a bell?). You have a network of friends who you must keep in touch with for the rest of your life. They will be just as confused as you will be when you wake up at 6 a.m. for the school bus, only to realize there is no school bus, and that math class all of a sudden got a lot harder. Those friendships among yourselves—and among us Americans you’re leaving behind for “cool” places (I’m sorry my fellow Americans, but Karachi and Cairo are not “cool” this time of year, they’re really really hot!)—are the most important asset you have gained for both yourselves, and the beloved home countries you are returning to.
Take it from me, (we’re still on lesson two), the friendships I have made with people from South Africa, Israel, Pakistan, South Korea, India, the Arab Worldand Eastern Europe throughout my life in Washington, DC, have made me a better person, and have helped me grow to appreciate each one of you. If it wasn’t for Phil Mok and Dave Kim whose families are from Korea, Thupe, South Africa’s indomitable beauty queen, and that girl on my high school bus from Ethiopia, I would not have learned to enjoy all of you as much as I have. I know that because of those friends, there have been many times in my work in politics that I was able to show people that I care and understand about their cultures, their families, and their concerns. More than once when misunderstandings have happened between Muslim, Jewish and Christian groups, my lessons from Catholic primary school, being president of a Jewish fraternity, and growing up (and remaining) a devout Muslim have helped to avoid huge problems, and helped to make new friendships. America was your chance to learn the same, and in six to seven years when you are my age, it will be your turn to do the same: help people understand one another.
And that leads to my third lesson: be a bridge builder. We Muslims like to say that Jesus Christ once said that, this world is a bridge. But each one of us belongs to one common world as well as the world we come from: Desi World, Muslim World, Arab World, Russian-speaking world, Francophonie world, East African world, West African world, etc. So build bridges that connect our worlds. It’s as easy as a Facebook group, or even a post on a timeline teaching about another culture, language, or even religion. Before some of you got here, I never knew how cool Moldova was (even though one of my closest friends in America, Alina Goldman, is originally from there!), or how interesting Sumatran and Javanese dances were in Indonesia. You built a bridge to me, and I built a bridge to you too. Keep at that.
My fifth lesson for you is this: Americans want to help, and we might know people in your country who want to help you do great things, too. You have seen with your own eyes what America is like, and what is not. Hopefully you have learned that we have little interest in attacking Mecca, or conquering Africa; that the truth is that we wouldn’t find cricket that boring if we hadn’t already invented baseball, and that we love football too! We just call it soccer for some very strange reason. Really though, you know us. We want to be your friends, and for you to be ours. Friends look out for one another, and so I am making myself available to at least try and connect you guys to people I might know to help you do big things to develop, teach, and make your countries even greater than they already are. Just promise to pray for my country in return, so that America can keep doing good things in the world, and move away from ever doing bad things.
My final lesson to you is one from the heart: each of you has a Qadr, or destiny. Your destinies are both written and unseen: meaning you won’t know what it is until you strive to achieve it. But do not think that you somehow coming to visit my country was a fluke (accident). It was not. It had a deeper meaning, that only you can discover. Each one of you has the potential to bring world peace, rescue the dolphins of the oceans, and end world hunger. Each one of you has the ability to petition the Higher Power (i.e. pray) to give you a destiny of greatness. A great teacher, doctor, lawyer, politician, army soldier, merchant, tribal chief–whatever. Live up to your destiny, and in the process, help me find mine.
Destinies are tricky business, and are as elusive as true love (stop crying over your prom date, you haven’t true love found it yet), and as awe-inspiring as a bolt of lightening. Do not underestimate yourself, and take that “can-do” attitude we Americans have back home, and solve the problems around you with the same confidence that you made friends here. And once you think you have found your destiny, pause for a moment. Reconsider. And make those castles in the sky you dreamt of while chowing down on a Big Mac in America, make them grounded on this earth by sheer will and even blunter tenacity. Never be afraid to fail, always be afraid to never have tried to begin with.
I leave with the following: if a tree falls in the woods, does it make a sound? The answer is immaterial. What matters is the journey you take to get to it.
Now the foundations of your souls have been set. You are no longer a mere exchange student traversing the murky path of self-discovery. You are now adventurers from whom the world expects so much, and for whom your countrymen hearken and beckon. Go back home knowing that neither one of us has an option to fail in making a better world, and that our destinies from hereon while separate, are forever connected. When the histories are written, when the words are spoken, and when the monuments are built to what you and I endeavored to achieve on this earth, there will be one truth that I hope we all will be held into account for: that these months for which we have each other are the moments in which we all decided: we have chosen to better understand each another for a better world.
Exchange students of 2012, you are dismissed.