Commencement Speaker

Remembrance of Things Past, Dreams of Things Yet to Come

Óscar Arias Sánchez
Former President of Costa Rica , Nobel Peace Laureate 1987
Commencement Address, The University of Washington Bothell
Seattle, Washington
June 16th, 2013

Dr. Arias

Esteemed Chancellor, faculty and staff; graduates, family and honored guests:

Those of you who studied literature are probably familiar with the most famous little cake in all of literature: Marcel Proust’s madeleine. In “Remembrance of Things Past,” the flavor of the madeleine, when dipped into his tea, filled Proust with memories of his youth, transporting him as if by magic through the years. For me, that is what attending a commencement ceremony is like. I am sure that many of the parents and grandparents here today know what I mean.

Graduates: to witness your pride as you claim your diplomas is to remember our own academic achievements, with which we hoped to make our mark on the world. To watch you arm in arm with the friends you have made along the way, is to remember the conversations we shared during our days as students – those conversations where anything is possible. And at the end of this ceremony, as we watch you taking your first steps out into the world as college graduates, we will remember the days when we began our own paths.

I have attended many commencement ceremonies, but it is a very special occasion when I am awarded an honorary doctorate. Thank you to this University for allowing me to participate today not as a mere observer, but as your fellow graduate. From now on, whenever I hear this alma mater mentioned, I will be able to say: I, too, am a member of their Class of 2013.

Our time together as classmates is short. Tradition would dictate that I use these fleeting moments to give you advice, to teach you lessons based on the wisdom of the prior generations that observe you today with such nostalgia. But to tell you the truth, I would rather talk about what you have to teach us. When I first started to pursue my dreams, once I completed my studies, I was often told that I was too young to think about becoming a national legislator, or a cabinet Minister, or a President. I quickly learned that one of the keys to success is understanding that youth is an advantage, not a liability. It provides a fresh perspective. It grants the power to see things differently. Class of 2013: you have inherited a planet full of problems, but you also carry within you the potential to find the solutions that escaped your parents and grandparents. You can teach us a new way forward.

First: Teach us to see beyond the borders that divide one nation from another. In the 21st century, we cannot hope to succeed if we think only of our own community or nation. We live in a world where the forces of globalization have become more powerful than any line on a map. A world where the fate of one people is impossible to separate from another’s. Hunger, poverty, oppression, ignorance, and environmental destruction in one corner of the world, can cause violence, economic instability, and climate change that affect us all. Even the richest nation must confront the challenges that face the poorest among us. You, and your fellow graduates today around the planet, have received a more global education than any previous generation. Use that education well. Show us how to take an international perspective.

The second lesson is this: teach us to recognize our power to alleviate human suffering. John F. Kennedy said on his inauguration day in 1961 that “man holds in his mortal hands the power to abolish all forms of human poverty and all forms of human life.” It was true back then, but is even more so today, when we have more terrible weapons and more economic resources at our disposal that at any other time in history. The true test of our humanity is how we react to this scenario – and it is a test all previous generations have failed.

For what is our refusal to use our vast resources to improve the lot of our fellow man, if not a failure? What is our global military expenditure of 1.73 trillion dollars last year alone, if not a failure? My own country, Costa Rica, became the first in history to abolish its army voluntarily, in 1948, and declare peace to the world. For more than sixty years, we have reaped the benefits of investing in our people, instead of in weapons and war. We know that some conflicts are unavoidable, but not all must be solved through military means. Central America is not the only region that has silenced its arms and found peace at the negotiating table. If more leaders followed this example, perhaps it would be possible to avoid spending 1.73 trillion dollars on arms and soldiers. Consider what we could achieve with tiny fractions of that sum.

I do not speak of reducing that figure by half, or one-quarter, or even by 10%. If we reduced world military spending by just seven percent each year, we could achieve the Millennium Development Goals that the United Nations has established. The world’s richest nations struggle to find the resources to achieve those goals, but the resources are within reach, if we only choose to use them.

Let us look at even more specific examples. If we could reduce world military spending by just one percent, we could provide safe drinking water to every person on the planet using LifeSaver bottles, eliminating preventable diseases that kill 200 children every hour. If we reduced world military spending by another one percent, we could provide free primary education to every child in the world. My friends: if we could find it in our hearts to reduce world military spending by .4 percent – that’s only four-tenths of one percent – we could eliminate malaria worldwide, destroying a disease that kills 800,000 people a year, many of whom have not yet learned how to walk.

A world in which we choose not to accomplish these things, is a world that must change. And you, my friends, are the people to change it. Keep in mind that today, you are becoming a member of an exclusive club: the seven percent of people worldwide who hold a university degree. That makes you some of the most privileged and powerful people on Earth. What’s more, you achieve this distinction during an age in which technology has made it possible for all of us to take action on the issues we care about – and you, not your parents or grandparents, are the masters of that new technology. That is the third and final lesson I hope you will teach the world. Teach us that the ability to set a different course for humanity is no longer in the hands of a few. Teach us that the tools for change can be as simple as the smartphone in our pockets. Teach us to use these tools to make a difference. Teach us to, as we would say in Spanish, place our own granito de arena, our own grain of sand, to help build a better future.

One day you, too, will find yourselves looking back on this moment through the mist of many years. And if I have one hope for you, and for the world, it is this: that when you remember your commencement, your beginning, you will be able to do so with satisfaction and pride. You will be able to reflect upon the choices your generation made for a better future. And you will be able to look back on the poverty, injustice, cruelty and divisions we accept today, and say: Ah, yes – I remember them well. But because of me, they are no more.

Thank you very much, congratulations, and Godspeed.