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2010 Commencement Address

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    Nobel Laureate Ahmed Zewail addresses the Class of 2010 (Photo by Lucas Adams).

Here are excerpts from the Commencement Address Nobel Laureate Ahmed Zewail gave at Southwestern on May 8, 2010:

President Schrum, members of the Board of Trustees, provost, distinguished faculty, and above all, you – the graduates.

On this special occasion, I am thrilled to be with you, your family and your friends. But I must confess to you that it is also thrilling personally for me to be receiving an honorary degree from Southwestern, with my own daughter handing it to me in her capacity as a faculty member here. This is not usual. And is in fact highly improbable, to have a father who handed a degree to his daughter at Cal Tech in 1994 to receive a degree from her hands today. Indeed, this is a memorable occasion.

Dear graduates, today is a special day. You have worked hard to reach this milestone – surely supported by your parents love and I’m sure by their money, too.

At Southwestern you have received a unique education in a premier undergraduate university with fine and dedicated faculty, administration and staff.

Perhaps the best words to describe the value of a good education are those of Thomas Jefferson in 1782 when he wrote his notes in Virginia and this was a bill in Virginia, and indeed I quote: “The general object of a bill to diffuse knowledge are to provide an education adaptive to the years, to the capacity and the condition of everyone, and directed to their freedom and happiness.”

This education directed to freedom and happiness is just the beginning of a long voyage in your walks of life. Remember always that today is your commencement day.

When Southwestern announced that the speaker this year was a Nobel Laureate, you might have been curious how one achieves such a goal or thought “How can I, a graduate, walk or better, fly, to the avenues of success such as a Nobel Prize?”

Let me tell you, after I received the Nobel Prize I was asked numerous times how I succeeded in life – and incidently, nobody cared to ask this question before I received the Nobel Prize.

You would be surprised today to know that the answer is simple. To me, the recipe of success can be expressed in three words: passion, optimism and opportunity. Not fame, not money, as you will see.

When I came to this country in 1969, I was not dreaming of a Nobel Prize. Nor was I dreaming to acquire big head swell. Armed with the education I received in Egypt, I was simply after a Ph.D from a reputable institution in the United States.

America was a magnet for many in my generation because of its leadership in science and in technology. Not to mention the awesome impact of Neil Armstrong’s landing on the moon in 1969.

And also because of America’s unique democratic values which appealed to many of us all over the globe.

With optimism, I worked very hard and took advantage of the great opportunity provided in this country. It was the passion that supplied the energy, and it was the optimism that made it the almost impossible possible.

I was aware of Thomas Edison’s dictum: “Genius is one percent inspiration and 99 percent perspiration.” And I took advantage of being in the right place at the right time – of being in America and of being at Cal Tech.

In fact, it was Cal Tech’s ambiance and a campus system of support that made it possible for a young professor to carry out with his team at Cal Tech research that would be recognized by the Nobel Prize only 10 years later.

My dear graduates, success comes to the prepared mind. Success is not rain which falls from the sky. Success is what you reap when you plant with passion and optimism.

Time has changed. The world is more complex, and the America of today is not the one I came to in the 1960s. We are now in the so-called age of globalization – threatened by chemical, biological and nuclear disasters, and by climate change and spread of disease.

The United States is facing real challenges – the rise of economic superpowers such as China and India; the conflicts and wars overseas; and most importantly, in my view, the change in culture, educational and political values.

Yes, we have these challenges and changes, but you still can make your own success in your own way because you are fortunate to receive a good education that is compatible with 21th century developing world society.

The education you have at Southwestern is not affordable to at least 80 percent of the 6 billion people on this planet Earth who make merely a dollar a day − a total of about $400 dollars a year. That’s only a factor of 100 of the tuition your parents paid.

And as importantly, America continues to provide you with the opportunity that you would not find anywhere else. You are free to speak, to worship as you desire. And you can sleep at night without fear from government police.

These values are in the foundation of this country, which is built on the pillars of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. Only with your passion and your optimism can this country overcome the challenges and maintain its leadership in the world.

You will be busy forging your own life and character, but you must defend the liberty and the values that make America what it is. Despite the myriad of problems that exist today, and the many issues we are concerned about, America is still the land of opportunity, and you can make a difference in the outcome of its future.

Remember, the majority of people in the world are neither enjoying life as you do nor have the liberty that you were granted by the founding fathers of this land. And you must work hard to preserve the cherished values of the American constitution.

Please don’t listen to pessimists, as every generation has its own problems. I’ll just give you a few examples of where this country is going, which is truly exciting. In science and technology, the latest now in Washington is that we are going to Mars. We are going to circle Mars and we are going to land on Mars. This is an incredible achievement that this country is leading in outer space.

In medicine, the latest discovery that I know of is the fact that we are going to transfer your adult stem cells into an embryonic stem cell, and therefore we can build tissues for you – whether it is the eye, or the heart or the ear. It’s all coming with leadership in the United States.

In my own field, this is the first time we are able to examine the heart of matter both in space and time. We can visualize cells and hopefully in the near future we will know why drugs interact with genes in a specific way.

In the humanities and social sciences, think of the emerging legal and ethical issues concerning economic, education, culture and world affairs. The door is open to so many opportunities and this country is still leading the world in it.

My dear graduates, with the education you have received and the liberty you are enjoying, you will be able to commence a new and exciting life. This privilege, however,

comes at a price. The price is the new responsibility that you are about to take on for yourself, your country and the world. So be prepared. Be prepared to help yourself and your family by being alert for the opportunity and passionate about life. Be prepared to help your country by being optimistic and committed to liberty. Be prepared to aid the world’s have-nots by being sincere about the pursuit of happiness.

The investment of your family and your country in you is for a good reason. You need a good education to lead a fuller, richer life. The country needs you to build its future. And the world will be a better place only when knowledge replaces ignorance.

I wish you every success and congratulations for the Class of 2010.

Thank you.