VCUQatar Commencement

May 6, 2013
Education City, Doha, Qatar

Your Excellencies, distinguished guests, families, faculty, staff and graduates: Welcome.

It is my greatest honor to join you on this grand day in your lives and in the life of our university. I am proud of you, and the entire VCU community joins me in sending their warmest congratulations.

Recently, I read an article that named Qatar Airways as the world’s best airline, and it absolutely is. I thought, that’s to be expected, because Her Highness also endeavors to have the world’s best universities as part of Education City. I am proud that VCU is among them.

The faculty and students at VCUQatar have proven to be of worldwide caliber. You were the very first institution to be part of Education City, and you are also the best. You also prove that VCU’s No. 1 ranking as a public arts school is truly our position in the world, not just in the United States.

This is my sixth trip to Doha. And this one is especially significant because we are commemorating the 15th anniversary of the founding of VCUQatar. What began as this nation’s first art school, enrolling only women, has become a dynamic and world-class educational experience for students from across the globe.

This is a credit to the thoughtful vision of His Highness The Amir Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa Al-Thani and Her Highness Sheikha Moza bint Nasser.

I also thank and recognize Abdulla bin Ali Al-Thani, president of Hamad Bin Khalifa University and vice president for education at The Qatar Foundation. He is a focused leader and our great partner in Doha.

It is also because of the commitment and leadership of VCU Provost Beverly Warren, Dean Joe Seipel and Dean Allyson Vanstone — all of whom deserve our thanks.

What has become most apparent to me in these 15 years is that you are critically important members of a world-class research university that is committed to solving the most challenging issues in our world.

A few months ago, an organization in Shanghai, China, named VCU one of the top 200 research universities in the world. This, of course, is a tremendous honor with which I am thrilled. And I’m so proud because of all the ways that we, at VCU, conduct research and use what we discover to help other people, whether it’s by healing the body or enriching the soul.

The same university that is one of the world’s top 200 research institutions is also home to the one of the world’s top schools of art. This is remarkable, but it’s not surprising. Art and innovation are inseparable.

Everyone at VCUQatar proves this every day. Through art — in all its forms — you make a profound difference in the lives of so many people.

I will offer you three examples.

For centuries, human beings have passed down stories from one generation to the next, from elder to child. This practice is the foundation of human language and at the heart of our common culture and identity. The art of storytelling makes us fundamentally human; indeed, science shows us that the human brain is most active when someone is telling us a story.

But the practice of storytelling is disappearing, even in an era when we have more ways to communicate with each other than ever before. The tragic result is that we’re losing some of who we are because we are forgetting where we’ve been.

As members of a research university, you tackled this challenge head on. The result of your work is a stunningly beautiful 260-page book called The Donkey Lady and Other Tales from the Arabian Gulf, which was honored for excellence by the Qatar National Research Fund. It was the only project recognized that was not from the fields of engineering, science or medicine because it is so profoundly important.

But its excellence is in more than its recognition. The work you’ve done here will help preserve and reintroduce Qatar’s traditional folk tales to readers of every generation. It will keep Qatari culture strong by making its stories accessible.

People have shared stories for centuries, and you have found a better way to do it in our time. That’s because you are part of a research university where innovation means improving the human experience. You are part of Virginia Commonwealth University.

You know, your book was also recently named one of the “Top 10 souvenirs from Qatar” by a national travel website. So I was happy to receive a signed copy to take home to my sons.

Even as some of you are working to preserve critical elements of Qatar’s past, others of you are addressing the key components of its future.

In a very short time, Doha has grown from a small pearling village to a vibrant city of international importance. This unparalleled transformation in our world has been fueled by investments in capital and citizens. Continued progress in Doha — and indeed all of Qatar — requires equal investments in creativity.

Every knowledge-based society, from ancient Egypt to modern Qatar, has valued creativity as a currency to be accrued, esteemed and ultimately used to enrich our lives. The vault of creativity has always been our great universities, and that is certainly true at VCUQatar, where creativity is being defined in new ways.

You showed that at the recent Tasmeem Doha conference, which focused on what you called “hybrid-making”: that is, simply, how can we combine collaborative creativity with product, process and cultural development? How can Qatar and its energetic capital city use its own creative marketplace to shape its future, rather than importing its art and architecture, goods and produce, knowledge and know-how from other parts of the world?

During Tasmeem, VCU artists joined with materials and manufacturing companies to design clothing that is fashionable and won’t harm our planet when we create it or dispose of it. We learned how common themes in very different pieces of art serve to unite our world even when it seems more divided than ever. We explored how private citizens use public space, and what this means for how we should plan our cities. We discovered that bicycles with solar panels can power our neighborhoods. We learned to think creatively about where and how we live; about what we produce, consume and discard; and what all of this means for our collective futures.

In short, what you showed us was that creativity absolutely matters in Doha and Richmond and every place in between.

So, as keepers of creativity, you offer the world perspective through art and shape its progress through innovation. You charm our senses and challenge our potential. You create what’s beautiful and consider what’s possible.

That’s because you are part of a research university where innovation means expanding the human mind. You are part of Virginia Commonwealth University.

Finally, at VCU, we ask our graduates to be leaders in their disciplines and in their communities — to be job creators and not simply job takers. We ask every alumnus and alumna, whether they studied art or engineering, whether they are from the Mid-Atlantic or the Middle East, to use their education not simply to forge ahead but to forge a path for others.

That’s why I am so proud that, three months ago, you launched the Graduate Incubator as part of your Young Entrepreneur Series. It is the first industry-sponsored design incubator anywhere in Qatar, fostering collaboration between VCU and this nation’s leading corporations to build an entrepreneurial ecosystem. In other words, the companies find the big challenges and empower you to solve them.

Our first corporate partner was Maersk Oil Qatar, hardly the first company you’d think of to engage with art students. But for the next year, graphic design graduates from VCUQatar will work as part of Maersk’s Corporate Social Responsibility program. These students will tackle real-world design projects while building up their entrepreneurial ambitions, receiving mentoring and business and technical training from their corporate host.

While this may accelerate their career, what it truly does is build a culture of entrepreneurship in a sector where it has never existed in Qatar: in design. The incubator will also create a sustainable design sector for Qatar — in line with Qatar National Vision 2030. In other words, your education will help you get a job, help diversify your nation’s economy and help you create opportunities for others.

That’s a powerful thing. And that’s because you are part of a research university where innovation means empowering the human capacity. You are part of Virginia Commonwealth University.

Today, I join my colleagues on both sides of the globe to congratulate you and wish you well. And I challenge you to keep inspiring. Keep empowering. Keep innovating. Because that’s what you do as a graduate of a world-class research university. That’s what we do at Virginia Commonwealth University.

Thank you — and congratulations.