Discussing my last blog “Dissent” with friends brought to mind my Convocation address to students at North Maharashtra university six years ago and I thought I would share it. It also brought back memories of my guide and mentor Prof. Udai Pareek who, days before he passed away, read the speech and approved it. The thoughts I expressed there are still valid and important to me.
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Hon’ble Vice-Chancellor,Dr.K.B.Patil, distinguished members of Senate,
Management Council, Academic Council and other authorities of the university,
members of the teaching and non-teaching staff, graduates, invitees, media
persons, ladies and gentlemen, 

It is indeed a great honour for me to be invited to address you on this momentous
day, the 18th convocation ceremony of North Maharashtra University. I have had
the pleasure of seeing this university at different stages of growth under
successive vice chancellors, and its present position with its significant growth in so many dimensions of modern technology, research, industrial linkages and
national and international outreach, presents an exciting place equal to any
eminent centre of higher education in India. We remember how the first Vice
Chancellor Dr.N.K.Thakare saw a dream take shape on these barren hills, as he
laid the foundation of NMU. When Dr. S.F.Patil was here I saw lakhs of teak
saplings planted by students under the Campus Diversity Initiative of the Ford
Foundation and the environmental development program was a visible Green
Initiative. I returned and saw a flourishing campus under the stewardship of Dr.
Mali. Today under your leadership, Dr. KB.Patil sir, I see your vision in expanding horizons, a vibrant community and seeds of ideas you planted that will
undoubtedly see this university reach new heights. For institutions are not only
green campuses, modern infrastructure and technological excellence. The
bedrock of values, integrity and honesty of purpose in human relationships and
interactions, are the unseen ingredients that will have had an impact by your
leadership on all those who pass through these portals.

We are all gathered together here as learners. We are not only receiving
knowledge and skills, we are learning about ourselves. This self-development is
a learning far more important than the degrees we distribute today. For it
increases our effectiveness as citizens, members of a family or community, as
human beings sharing a small planet.

My address to you is first an expression of my appreciation, faith and confidence
in this generation of graduates that I see before me. My congratulations to you on your achievement which is evidenced by a cap and a gown and a diploma that
indicates you have reached a significant point in your journey. In America a
graduation or convocation is aptly called a Commencement, for it is not the end
of a course of study but a beginning of the journey of life. Armed with these
degrees you are qualified to work, make a fruitful contribution to society and its development, to study further, research, and be in the forefront of a growing
knowledge economy. However, more importantly, this is the beginning of a
discovery of your own self. In fact, by now NMU would have set you on that
path, but you have undoubtedly been too busy finishing academic tasks, striving
for grades, anxious and stressed about passing exams, trying to meet the
expectations of parents and teachers who have invested their efforts in seeing
you meet this immediate goal.

On this occasion of your convocation, I ponder over many thoughts that I want to
share with you. I recall that I myself graduated fifty-eight years go. I am not sure that the degrees I have earned have given me the same satisfaction I now have in reaching out to young people like you. I recall very humbly that I did not sweat and toil to get a PhD, but the honorary doctoral degree I have – but which I do not like to use, officially– gives me greater satisfaction because it signifies my learning though interaction with students and teachers. It recognizes my work in the past two decades when I have spent considerable time working with students, and in teacher training. I have learnt – and continue to learn – from my training programs. Research by behavioral scientists has shown that academic excellence does not necessarily contribute to success in life. It seems that what we teach our students gives them qualifications for fruitful work but not necessarily the ability to cope with life. It is common to hear people talk about Life Skills. Basically these are coping skills, the ability to deal with failure without discouragement, to have the confidence to pick yourself up, and start again with renewed efforts, because these are the basic elements of optimism and a positive attitude to life.

The learning starts here, in school, college and university. The diversity of India is a huge laboratory where we can study cultures, languages, religions, economic practices, design of houses and modes of transport, different types of arts, music and dance, foods, and clothing styles. This diversity is overwhelming, exciting,and we are proud of it, because it is enriching. It is unique. Foreigners from western countries come here to learn from this diversity, but we look westwards, a little apologetic that we are “backward” and try to be like them. On the contrary, we should realize all this richness gives us a unique opportunity to learn from life and acquire these coping skills. But we do not seem to have learnt the core lesson: there is one important element we have missed, and that is the importance of learning to live with this diversity, to live with each other, to learn from each other, to respect each other, to develop an important attitude and that is one of inclusivity. We are uncomfortable when we come in contact with people who are different – they do not speak the same language, they are from different religions and caste backgrounds and we don’t like that; they have strange customs and food habits and we do not accept that. We are uncomfortable with their proximity. I learnt something important from a professor I admire greatly. He told me that “the greatest learning comes with a moderate degree of discomfort”

When we are uncomfortable in a situation, we call upon our coping skills to learn
to understand and adjust our thinking, change our attitude to see how best we
can come through successfully. If instead of learning from the situation we
acquire a prejudice, it blinds us, because prejudice comes from lack of
information, lack of knowledge about the basic elements of this difference.
I came to NMU first as the coordinator of the Campus Diversity program. My
learning began here. I met your students, your faculty and tried to understand
the problems faced by starting a university in a largely tribal area. I visited many small towns and villages in Khandesh, in the Satpudas. I tried to communicate with the people I met, even though I do not speak Marathi, or any of the tribal languages. Most people I met did not communicate well in English, or even Hindi. But communication is not entirely about language. It is about the
discomfort in not being able to communicate with spoken words, and instead
observing, sensitizing oneself and developing an empathy for what people are,
what they want, and what they are trying to become.

Students in this university I am sure, face this situation but have not sought to
resolve it, or understand it, because academics come first. However, if you live in a hostel, eat in a mess with many students, a certain amount of introspection is absolutely vital to dealing with the discomfort of living with diversity. It may seem a temporary problem of adjustment, but the development of the attitude of inclusivity, and acceptance of another with respect, is essential to success in life, whether in your family, or in the workplace.

To me the most endearing aspect of working with students is their idealism, their
passion for a goal they are seeking, and their energy and enthusiasm for
innovative and creative ideas. I have learnt from them the need to ‘think out of
the box’, to review my solutions, to admit my ignorance, and to confront questions with sincerity and honesty. On the other side of the coin, as a teacher I have to counsel them to manage their emotions, not to react immediately and
thoughtlessly to issues which, while they concern them deeply, can ride on the
emotions of a group. This we sometimes refer to as a mob mentality. As a group
I try to counsel them on the strength of team work, of the importance of
responsibility, and the courage to take a stand even at the risk of being
unpopular. Above all they must set themselves a long term goal.

Lastly I want to say a few words to the teachers assembled here. I envy you the
opportunity to work with the young. But, as I said before, (and I hope you will
agree) we learn everyday, from our students, and in guiding them whether it be in
academics or as counselors. We too have to learn to cope with weak students
coming from disadvantaged backgrounds. The challenge of reaching out to them
with empathy and patience is our zone of discomfort that we have to learn from.
Communication skills must go beyond classroom instruction, to an understanding
of their needs, reassuring the insecure, diffident and depressed student that he
has great potential. Your reward is greater when you see such students achieve
success and self-confidence. This is your self-actualisation. As teachers yours is not only a profession, a vocation, or a job, but a larger mission, that of guiding generations to take the first step at Commencement. They need role models and we as teachers have to try to meet that need So as I congratulate you on your part in producing today’s graduates, I invite you to join this community of learners all striving to build this country into a place where everyone regardless of ability, regional and religious background, has a place to grow and to live in harmony. May we all, students, teachers, parents and
administrators, together find within ourselves, the awe and elation of discovery of the one-ness among us all.

On another occasion, speaking at a graduation in another college I quoted my
favourite poem of Rabindranath Tagore. It expresses a philosophy that transcends religious beliefs and in its wisdom I have found inspiration and guidance:

Thou hast made known to me friends I knew not,

Thou hast given me seats in homes not my own,

Thou hast brought the distant near and made a brother of a stranger.

I am uneasy at heart when I leave my accustomed shelter;

I forget that there abidest Thou, the old in the new.

When one knows Thee then alien there is none,

Then no door is shut.

Grant me my prayer that I may never lose the bliss

Of the touch of the one in the play of the many. (from Gitanjali)

Once again, I extend my best wishes to all the graduates and award winners for
their successful and fruitful future.  I am grateful to the university authorities for inviting me for this auspicious occasion. 

Thank you.

Sharada Nayak

March 2, 2010

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