Wednesday, April 30, 2008

SAIS Commencement Speech 2008 by Gabo Arora

So finally this day is upon us, where in a
matter of minutes, we will have a degree from
Johns Hopkins' School of Advanced International
Studies, one of the world's leading schools of
international relations.

In the wise words of Bob Dylan: HOW DOES IT
FEEL? To be out on your own? With no direction
home? A complete unknown? Like a rolling
stone? But don't worry, as we hurdle into the
unknown; be comforted by the fact that before us
there have been others.

We are joining a proud more than 60 year
tradition of graduates who went on to be experts
in a wide variety of fields, ranging from the
foreign service to the private sector,
Multilateral organizations to social
entrepreneurship. The diversity of our
pursuits, if the rich history of this school is
any gauge, will be startling.

Besides where we are headed, these two years
have also given us knowledge, experience and
friendships that will last. I am trying to
remember what life was like before SAIS; do you

There is an extraordinary difference in
perspective that SAIS provides. Before SAIS I
didn't even know there was such a thing as
Realism, I just thought Henry Kissinger was a
bad guy. Now I realize he' s not so bad, he's
just a realist.

Oh Realism, the ultimate aphrodisiac.

And it's not just the curriculum and super star
professors that have been enlightening. It's
been us, the students, each one of you, with
your own stories and experiences and passions.
The accomplishments of this class are

It seems that no matter what part of the world
you think of, any issue, anything, there is a
SAIS student you can find passionately involved
in making his or her own unique contribution.

Whether its someone writing an op-ed piece for
the Wall Street journal, providing insightful
and humane analysis after their experience
monitoring Pakistani elections or the person who
manages the innovative NGO he founded in Panama
which works to improve the environmental impact
of Foreign Direct Investment on the rural poor,

We have amongst ourselves both the answers and
the questions that we will need as we go forward
into the world. Lets not forget each other
along the long and winding road ahead of us and
more importantly not forget why we came to SAIS
to begin with.

Do you remember why you came?

For me that there was a school where my burning
questions about the world could be acknowledged
and addressed felt like nothing short of

Having spent two years working in human rights
in Colombia, South America, I had become jaded
and confused. Despite all diplomatic efforts,
people continued to be killed; the situation
went from bad to worse.

There were so many forces at work in the
conflict - economic, social, cultural,
historical, that I realized I needed more, to
understand more, to study more, to be better and
more effective and also to gain valuable
perspective from people who had worked in
similar situations.

And then I heard about SAIS and I felt that
inner feeling I can only name destiny, call me.

I knew it was a school for weird people. People
who wanted more than just the 9-5 and usual
comforts and trappings of a bourgeois life.
People who needed to believe in something, do
something meaningful and work for their ideals
and values.

We feel less alone at SAIS in each others'
company, knowing that we all are not like the
rest and that together we can forge a new

But lets not forget how we got here to begin
with and all the support we have received from
our loved ones. Our weirdness is probably most
difficult for them, though they may not admit

I remember when I told my mother about going to
Colombia, trying to explain to her I wasn't like
all the rest.

It's hard explaining that to an immigrant who
came to this country with very little. Who
worked hard to put her son through school only
to have him tell her that he is going to some
far off corner of the world to help other
people. An experience I am sure many of the
parents here can relate to.

I was surprised how well she took it at first
about my going to Colombia. She said it was
great, she even seemed happy. A couple of weeks
before leaving I asked her, wait, but mom, are
you sure, you' re not worried that I am going to
some of far off dangerous place? No no, why
would I be worried? She said. Harlem is not so
far and its a lot safer now, uptown Manhattan is
a great place to be, I am so happy, I always saw
you as the Ivy League type.

No mom, I said, Colombia as in the war torn
country, to which she then fainted. It was a
tough time for her I am sure, my being there.
As I am sure it will be tough for many of the
parents seated here, as their children move on
around the world, doing extraordinary work, but
providing great anguish to them as they worry
about their safety or just miss having them
close to home.

I want to thank the parents here for all your
support for our endeavors, and my mom,
especially, who when I told her I was coming
here to study at Johns Hopkins wanted to be
re-assured that Johns Hopkins wasn't also the
name of some other far off war torn country.
(Well, at least not yet) I guess what made her
suspicious again was the fact that instead of
going to Baltimore I was off to Bologna.

(The world is a strange beautiful place, isn't

There is something special, even magical about
what goes on here.

While we were on this SAIS journey it was easy
to lose sight of what we are part of, how
special and privileged our lives are. Now that
we near its end it's probably dawning on us:

While the rest of the world is engaged in
survival, trying to get through the day, we have
pondered and worked towards understanding the
world and how it works. We build up the
necessary skills to deal with some of the
world's most pressing problems. Global warming,
terrorism, poverty the scope and multi
disciplinary approach SAIS provides to these
topics is astounding. We use political theory,
economics, history, sociology and anthropology
freely and fluidly to make sense of it all.

We have come together from many different paths,
from all over the globe, to study together and
learn from each other.

Its an extraordinary achievement, a capstone to
our formal education and most certainly only the
beginning to a lifetime filled with learning,
questioning and endless conversation, all for
practical aims, to make policies and judgments
that will effect the lives of numerous people.

All to make the world a better place, right?
Isn't that what we all want?

But our caring and good intentions are not
enough. Dictators, totalitarian states, Islamic
Jihadists, all also want to make the world
better, too.

Who doesn't want to make the world a better
place? Everyone does but no one knows exactly
how. Most people lose interest because they
feel that their efforts will be in vain. That
anything they do will have no impact. Or they
become so involved in the daily struggle that
they lose track of what is best, what is good,
what is right – all to survive and make it
through the day.

Is it a luxury now in this world to care to make
the world better?

What does that even mean anymore, better? Your
better may be my worse and if I ask people
randomly "over your lifetime have things gotten
better or worse?" What a variety of stories you
will get depending who you talk to, an Indian, a
Ghanaian, A German, a Bosnian, an Iraqi, a rich
man, a poor woman, a holocaust survivor, or
Roberto Benigni who would say "La Vita E Bella".

They will say yes, no, maybe or perhaps both,
that it gets better and it gets worse. For how
can one distinguish between these stories to
know "A truth?" Is there "A truth?" If there
are many, who is right?

Before even thinking of what is right and wrong
perhaps it is better to first listen, observe,
understand. For to make the world a better
place first entails understanding all of our
stories, our values, judgments, interpretations,
the data, the facts. To make the world better
we first need to understand it.

When I reflect on what the SAIS experience is
about and have to come up with a simple
definition of what it does and what we have been
doing here it's "To understand how the world
works." I know that is a lofty goal and perhaps
impossible, but that is what we try to do here
and the effort, the process, is at times more
important than the outcomes.

Because rather than provide you with "A Truth"
as studying medicine or the law might teach you,
we are taught here to think for ourselves (and
more importantly to be skeptical), to know the
different perspectives, form an opinion and
defend it with gusto.

SAIS serves as the center where we debate and
discuss what "Truth" means to us. This
dialogue, this process, helps us understand the
world, which, when combined with our training in
economics and international relations, gives us
the tools to have better informed opinions and

Its only at SAIS that a returned soldier from
Iraq can be seen discussing Trade theory late
into the night with someone who just spent
spring break digging latrines in rural
Guatemala. Where people have gone from
protesting the World Bank to working for it.

Where the prize for best-dressed couple at the
Halloween party is given to an Arab and a Jewish
student, each dressed up in each other's
respective ethnic garbs. The Arab dressed as a
Hasidic Jew, with those curls, and the Jewish
student dressed as Yasser Arafat, with a fake
rifle to boot.

As funny or perhaps blasphemous as that may have
been, I can't think of a more poignant metaphor
for what goes on here. We come together to try
on not only each others clothes but also our
ideas or ways of thinking, to laugh a little, to
test the boundaries of what we hold sacred, to
question the dogmas we have been brought up

Because ideas matter, especially in this realm,
at a policy school in international affairs.
Allow me to paraphrase a quote from Keynes to
put into context the importance of what goes on

"The ideas of economists and political
philosophers, both when they are right and when
they are wrong are more powerful than is
commonly understood. Indeed, the world is ruled
by little else. Practical men, who believe
themselves to be quite exempt from any
intellectual influence are usually just slaves
of some defunct philosopher."

So lets get it right, lets not lose the strength
to keep trying, lets continue the exercise of
experimentation and figure out what we believe
to be true, what others hold true and reflect on
it because much is at stake.

Because at the root of most battles is the
answer people give to the question: is the
world getting better or worse?

Is the world getting better or worse? What is
your answer? SAIS has been here for over 60
years helping young leaders figure it out and
thanks to the support of numerous people from
all over the globe, we will continue to be here,
to serve and make proud and be grateful for all
of our efforts in this process.

Grazie mille, Thank you all very much and
congratulations to us, class of 2008.




Tuesday, April 01, 2008

I Dream of Queens

I can't describe it but I get a deep sensation of calm in the neighborhoods of Queens.  The rumblings of the 7 train down Roosevelt Avenue interrupts the habitual thought processes of my mind.  If I happen to be in a conversation I pause to take in the meaning of it all.  I exhale, listen, wait, as the train rides by.  Its but one of the numerous pleasures of Queens living.  That one can walk in the midst of immigrants, hardworking people with no pretensions is a huge relief from the hipster life of manhattan.  

Queens is what manhattan once was.  Home to neighborhood new york, filled with bustling vibrancy and the humility and joy of having little but having the city to fill your heart.  If you don't like or know Queens than you don't understand New York and probably never wanted to live here.  You prefer to live in a gigantic mall which is what Manhattan has become.  New York City has always been a city for immigrants and its vibrancy has come from their neighborhoods mixed with the bohemia it attracted.  El barrio, Lower east side, Harlem, all over-flowing with Jane Jacobian social capital.  Where everybody knew your name.

Even my mother's building in Queens is a constant door bell ringing children playing, recipe trading, tea drinking madhouse.  Filled with colombians, afghanis, pakistanis and the Koreans.  There is no peace, or better, there is peace in no peace.  

Now there are only contrived experiences.  Cute cafes and restaurants where you can meet your yuppie friends for sunday brunch.  There is little that is cutting edge in manhattan and even Brooklyn is now played out.  Queens and the Bronx are the final frontier for all those gentrifiers.

May they never win.  

I feel bad for them in their bubble experiences, alienation, high priced entertainment.  They move in from their horrific suburban lives to live essentially the same way in the midst of what they think is culture.  There is no creativity in their endeavors, if anything, they become refined consumers and define their sophistication by what they take in not what they provide.  They are those couples who live off netflix and are busy planning and organizing more than doing and being.  They have masters degrees, where plastic glasses and are busy talking about great restaurants.  They have succeeded in killing all excitement and spirit by pursuing success.  They have never lived a day in their lives with any risk.  

But I am not worried about New York.  It will be back, as it has constantly gone through its ups and downs.  It will always be some sort of cosmic force.  

In the meanwhile we have Queens.  Go to jackson heights, even long island city, parts of it, like "Local Project", filled with latin artists, korean drag queens and people who still believe , everyday, that the Dream is alive.  

See you on the 7 train.