Commencement speech given by Nicolas B. Pichay in behalf of the Humphrey Fellows, Maxwell School, Syracuse University, 2018


Ola a todos. Buenas noches, damas y caballeros.


This occasion comes to mind my high school graduation. We were lined up to receive our diplomas and on stage, I saw how extraordinarily happy our teachers were. Smiling, clapping enthusiastically high fiving each other as we were receiving our diplomas.


With a bit of emotion in my voice, I turned to my classmate and said: I can’t believe that after all the trouble, disappointment, and heartache our batch gave them, our teachers, they are still cheering for us.


And my classmate said: Why shouldn’t they be, this is the day that they are FINALLY getting RID of us.


Since then, every time I attend a graduation, I always wonder if the school is happy for its students or just happy to let them go.


But kidding aside, the Humphrey batch extends its sincere appreciation to our Maxwell professors and program coordinators for a lifetime-worth of experiences.


I was wondering why my cohorts chose to give me the honor of giving this address in their behalf. And I heard from Facebook that the reason why is because of my scintillatingly good looks. Well, that’s a very good example of fake news. Because if looks were the standard, we would have chosen our cohort Samir Akhundov. He works for a non-profit in Azerbaijan who advances children’s rights. Samir’s smile could melt a rock. That’s the reason why he didn’t go to the Grand Canyon.


But certainly I was not chosen because of my intelligence either. Because I know that the 11 other cohorts have keen and brilliant minds; proficient in their own fields. For example, Suthersan Sambasivam is an expert at post-conflict reconstruction in Sri Lanka. While Dastan Abdyldaev is an accomplished public servant and expert in economics in the Prime Minister’s office of Kyrgyzstan.


As you know, to get here, the fellows had to undergo a rigorous selection process by the US State Department. At the end of the day they only choose the best among the best—the crème de la crème.


There are 12 Humphrey Fellows this year, 6 women, 6 men. Some are from the government, others from the private sector. There is a rainbow of specialization spread among us: from information technology to human resources; from public policy to law; from education to the humanities.


Representing the best in their fields and considered the most promising leaders in their countries, my cohorts are primus inter pares—every one of us first among equals. I stand here honored and feeling privileged for speaking in their behalf.


I want to make a confession: despite appearances to the contrary, I am an introvert.


This is the reason why I was very intimidated when I first met my cohorts ten months ago. All of them, were highly opinionated, very vocal, aggressively competitive, and—this is very important and must be put on record—all of them possessed dangerous levels of self-confidence, charisma, and attractiveness.


Later on, as I was getting used to them, I also discovered that each one of them could also be very annoying. As I’m sure I was annoying to them, too. I guess that feeling is normal when people are starting to adjust to each other.


At the end of our Humphrey year, our camaraderie has become as close as it can get. So close that ma cherie, Mereille Tchatat has extended an open invitation for us to visit her country Cameroon and see the skulls of her ancestors—which is, in their culture, a symbol of close friendship.


In those first weeks, our encounters with each other, and the Syracuse community felt like a trip to the proverbial market place of ideas—full of vibrant colors and varied textures; surrounded by a plethora of accents. Nonetheless, we socialized while living in separate towers of many languages speaking one on top of each other. Despite instances when thoughts were lost in translation, the English language built ramparts and bridges for the towers to connect.


It is not a surprise, therefore, that the Humphrey Program could have only been established in the United States. This country that has a tradition of welcoming immigrants, fostering equality, and embracing diversity as part of national life. In the words of my friend Ibrahim Shahristani of Afghanistan: Diversity of U.S society in culture, land, political views is fascinating. More so, how the government can make this situation possible that everyone is considered a citizen. 


As the program comes to an end, we are all forced to contemplate. What did the Humphrey program mean to us? What have we gained? What do we do?


Taifa Siddika from Bangladesh says: This year will be a very special year for me. I learned, I laughed, I loved. Whatever I am going to do in the next chapter of my life, all the people and memories will stay in my heart always.


Nazla Mariza from Indonesia shares the same insight: I have visited 15 states in 9 months and I am grateful for this amazing opportunity to explore the US, witness the unique landscape and share the energy of curiosity with the rest of the fellows.


Binta Fatoumata, from Guinea, the youngest Fellow said: I have gained a heart full of love and happiness from the Humphreys, the faculty, my host family. I have missed my Guinea, but I know deep inside that this year will be a shaping year for me, impacting my life forever.


 Nora Buklevska, from Macedonia adds: I am thankful that I have met interesting people from around the world. Some of them becoming my close friends.


Nora also wryly observed that: … there will always be people who will never change; who will remain constant and true to their stereotypes and biases, stigmas and prejudices and bring these everywhere they go.


We ask ourselves: What can we do about it? And my answer is: I’m not sure.


What I do know is that from a collective perspective, the cohorts and I leave this place with a better understanding of why—in a world stratified into artificial categories like East and West; North and South; Male and Female; Human and Animal; Earthling and Alien—is it so difficult to live with others.


Surely, we have always known the imperative of living harmoniously. Especially among the cohorts who come from places where various wars are being waged—religious wars, civil wars, wars on poverty, drug wars.


Even in the United States, this place of great diversity stretching to its limits, looks to be breaking at the seams.


We all knew this before coming here, for sure, this challenge to co-exist. As we go back to our countries, I can say that we have gained a more than a deeply perspective on why our world—with all its resources and possibilities—is still in turmoil.


Our expertise have been strengthened through the academic rigor of Maxwell. Pleasures have been derived from our travels, distractions, and interactions. Discernments have been made from the introspections and journeys within ourselves. And hopefully, commitments—like swords—will be forged as a result of the challenges we have experienced. Could we be the leaders responsible for the world not falling into pieces? We don’t know.


This question is for me, the heart of the Hubert H. Humphrey Program. A long time ago someone must have thought: Let’s invite the best people in each country in the melting pot called the United States, and see as a test how well they get along. And if they don’t, then our world is doomed. 


If Vice-President Humphrey were still alive today or if it were possible to send a telegram to the Other World, I’d send him pictures of the cohorts mingling with various people. And the caption would read: 


Dear Vice-President Humphrey, There might be hope./ Despite the many Englishes, / here we are,/ still melting in the pot.


In the Humphrey Program, as in the global world, it takes a while to imbibe the many Englishes. Its use holds many traps in a multi-verse of race, gender, religion, political affiliation, and unmet expectations.


Just like everyone else, there were times when we became awkward in negotiating treacherous terrain. We miscalculated boundaries; miscommunicated thoughts; invaded personal spaces. And as we say good-bye to each other, I want to take this time to extend a hand of reconciliation in the small moments of our misunderstanding.


In every case for everyone, it takes great effort to listen beyond grammar and history; it takes a lot of humility to admit that arguments could rise from ignorance, bias, or hate; and it takes a ton of courage to transform mere words into action that build bridges and sidestep conflict in favor of co-existence.


In this regard, I believe that the correlation between word and thought is as powerful as the discovery of fire. Words give us the ability to ask a stranger for the time. It is the verbal embodiment of the complex mind. For example, the word “time” branches out to how we have defined it by its increments—seconds, hours, days, months, years. And because of this, various time pieces have evolved using the sun and shadow, or sand trapped in glass, or time pieces that run on tiny mechanical gears. But more amazing than the technology is the processing of the word itself.


Extrapolating on “time” has brought forth a number of observations from poets, philosophers, policy makers, and scientists about the finite nature of life; the eventual decline of, and rebirth of governments; the transience of power, the vastness of the infinity; the tragedy of old age; and civilization’s place in the universe.


We are living in the modern world of fractured meanings and digital codes. My cohort, IT expert Lovens Merolien from Haiti, once told me that everything is being reduced to combinations of zeroes and ones. And he is correct. The more reason to argue that in making the world whole, we need to go back to understanding words and our communal relationship with them.


In our Humphrey year, we have been introduced to many words, phrases, jargons. And we have used the skills in our profession to come to bear in order to arrive at their various meanings.


As we brought forth problematic words from our countries, we realized that there are similar words in yours which—even here in Syracuse—we are all are striving to understand. The meaning of words such as racism, poverty, hate crime, gun violence, sexual harassment, equity, and Greek-letter fraternities.


Our Maxwell year has helped us tease out the etymology of some of these words: how they persist and break; how they find themselves attached like atoms into new combinations, giving birth to new meanings with complex consequences.


But words also develop in the way social movements do. As lawyer and writer, I argue that words transform people’s consciousness, their notions of self-worth, and the shaping of their aspirations. I find words essential, urgent, and indispensable because it affords humankind to dream. Riffing on Rene Descartes, I say that words—as the symbolic text of what we think, makes us truly what we are.


The cohorts have encountered a lot of words, for which we are thankful for. And so the question might be re-phrased: What do these words mean to us? What do we gain from those words? What do we do with the words?


Part of the answer might be found right here in Maxwell. In ancient Greece, the youth pledged allegiance to their country by reciting the Athenian Oath. The Maxwell School, as you know, has adopted this for its own.


Permit me to recite the oath, re-phrased from the translation in English, in a way that I understand it:


Always, we will strive / for the ideal and the sacred /

in this city alone and together/

we will not cease to seek /to excite the pulse of public duty;/

to respect the laws;/ To bequeath this city

Not less than when we received it,/

But far greater,/ better,/ and more illustrious /

Than when,/ in our time, / we received it.


This year’s Humphrey Fellows subscribe to this oath. It is what have gained from our 10-month experience. From now on, each of us Humphreys, must wrestle with this oath: to bequeath a city far better than when we received it. //


Will we be able to do it? Time will tell.


The ancient Greeks have two words in reference to time. The first word, Kronos, is chronological time. The second word is Kairos—which is translated as “the right time”. It is the appointed time. A time that arrives in the fullness of a life.


The past 10 months was the kronos in our Humphrey lives. And as we bid adieu to Maxwell, we deem the event of our graduation as the perfect kairos, first of many that will mark the fullness in our lives. We are grateful to all of you for being part of our experience.


The Humphrey Program has given us a learning experience that we would otherwise not have had if we merely stayed in our own countries. It is the cliché I cannot avoid because it is honest as much as it is profound. Some of these learnings we will make use forever; others we will outgrow. Others, we are striving to understand. Still others, we will never comprehend.


Our cohort Liva Liepina from Latvia says: I'm still in some kind of bubble and the emotions and my evolution are for now hyperbolic. Things which are optical closer to me cover the things that are more important to me. That is why I'm not able to speak about my experience just yet. 


I agree with Liva. It will take time before all the dust of this experience settles. When there are no words, the experience is the word itself describing the lesson—the one that we take to heart; and the one from which we gain from the most.


Today, is a time of many achievements for us. We thank our many families at home, in Maxwell and in Syracuse. We hope that in our 10 months with you, you were enriched in the same measure that we were; that because of our presence, you had gained as much understanding of what our world is and what the world is becoming.


As for my cohorts, I ask that we never forget what the Humphrey Program represents—a vision that looks at the world not as a single pot where everyone has melted, but many pots brewing and roiling; melting and congealing—all from which to derive civic experience and nourishment.


Regardless of our real ages, I would like to believe that in our hearts there lie the soul of the Athenian youth, and all the other youth in all parts and epochs in the world. The youth who strive to question, to risk, to rouse and to disrupt. May we all be the youth embodied in artists, leaders, policy makers, and other people who—seeing what is bad—strive eternally for what is the public good.


In my country, there is no greater honor than to be asked to speak in a celebration of achievements such as this. And I would like to thank everyone for giving me this opportunity.


In closing, will you permit me to recite a poem? If you said no. I’d recite it, anyway. (Smile.)


I have written this to remember the uniqueness of my cohorts, to toast the Humphrey Program, and to pay homage to the Maxwell School, and the City of Syracuse.


The Humphrey Cohorts Waving Good-Bye

My heart beats faster/ in an empty house like

Someone is running after me,/ but I don’t know who.

Thump, thump, tha-thump. /Tha-thump, / thump, thump.

When I look around,/ there’s no one there

Honest, no one is there./ In the empty house /

Just the sound of me travelling again

Packing, re-packing stuff. Are you dexterous

At fitting things in a box?/ I like / staying /

in one place. The bed, the shower, the fridge, and the table./

Talking to my housemates, I become at home too late /

and then too much. But we are travelers, you see.

We cannot stay.//

Leave is the bookend of Arrive. / Much better than being driven away

Like a dictator /who has worn out the welcome rug

Or a president/ in the cusp of impeachment.//

I dread the train station people rushing and jostling./

Why does it seem like

Everybody is running after money./

Can votes be rigged? Sir, do you have the time?/

I don’t want to give up my seat for someone entitled. No! /

I travel with heavy burdens /and I /deserve a seat.//

Making sure lights are turned off, locks locked,

The doors tightly shut. Good luck on this house

And the next traveler./

The taxi is late / and the driver is feeling friendly

I don’t want to play chit-chat./

I’ll be late for the train. And I am. /

Too early for the next, the station door loosely hinged,

gets banged by the wind. / There is a spray of gun shots.


But we are safe. We are alive. //

The cohorts are dispersing

Waving good-bye in many languages. / Hearts winking

Like the stop light on Westcott and Euclid/

Accents and aromas regulate the city’s flow. //

There was a time I hated the cold. How I hated the cold./

Receding into the distance/ the ice have melted./

God bless Syracuse,/ beautiful under the snow./

My God, /how beautiful Syracuse is/

Her many Englishes /buried/ underneath /the snow.///


Thank you.