Berglund Seminar Series: Creating the Future, Not Just Imagining It

Aug. 28, 2015
Berglund Seminar Series

Hi, everyone. Dean Falk, thank you for that introduction and for 15 months of exceptional leadership that have put Virginia Commonwealth University’s Honors College on the national map.

And thank you all for sticking around on a beautiful Friday afternoon. I know it’s been a busy first week at VCU, and that my lecture is now the only thing left standing between you and the unfettered joy of your weekend. So I appreciate seeing so many of you here.

Spending time with you — our students — is the best thing I get to do as president. You inspire me in countless ways, because every one of you has extraordinary gifts and an extraordinary capacity to be remarkable. You are exactly what the world needs: brilliant and energetic minds focused not on selfish gain but on advancing the potential and promise of people everywhere.

Students like you come to VCU because you want much more than just a diploma. You want to be a leader, an author of the next chapter of human existence. We ask all of our students, from every background and in every academic discipline, to use what you learn, discover and create here not simply to get ahead, but to make a difference in the world. You’re doing that, and I’m so proud of you and grateful to you.

And as you do, you’re raising VCU’s profile and reputation around the world. Last year, I was in China, visiting with the leaders of some of that nation’s top universities. Every one of them knew VCU, and considered us to be among the very best research universities in the world. One reason why is because we have attracted the very best students in the world, like all of you.

For the third year in a row, our new freshman class is the largest in our university’s history. More importantly, it’s also the most diverse and enters with the highest levels of academic distinction. More than a third of our students have now come into VCU with this notable acclaim.

In every department and school, our students are remarkable and resolved that their contributions to the world will be significant and historic. Among our students, about 1,000 of you are pursuing VCU’s most-arduous and most-rewarding academic experience here in the Honors College. Thank you for committing your gifts and motivation to the future of humanity.

You came to VCU, and joined our Honors College, driven not by an insatiable curiosity about the future, but rather, by an unrelenting ambition to create the future. That’s why all of you are going to change the world someday. And I think “someday” will come sooner rather than later.

That’s what I want to talk about with you.

I want to talk with you about a student who, one morning while showering in his dorm room, asked himself: “What are the things most likely to affect the future of humanity in a positive way?”

He thought of three: the Internet, sustainable energy and space exploration.

This was the early 1990s, so some of these were radical concepts that he thought needed his attention and pioneering spirit. So he devoted his academic career to researching, writing and studying in these areas. He became so singularly focused that he lived on $1 a day, eating hotdogs and bulk-sized bags of oranges. Everything else he had, he dedicated to advancing humanity through the burgeoning Internet, sustainable energy and space exploration.

And by the time he was 33, Elon Musk had started PayPal, Tesla Motors and SpaceX. With all three, he’d moved humanity forward in profound ways.

He didn’t start any of those companies to make money, or a name for himself — though he has done both. He wanted to make a difference.

Elon Musk didn’t just imagine the future. He created it.

As a student at America’s emerging 21st-century research university, how can you move humanity forward, like Elon Musk did?

I’m not asking you to survive on hotdogs, oranges and a dream. But I am asking you — and the world is asking you — to use your wisdom, talents and tenacity to make a difference wherever you can, in whatever ways you can.

You’re not going to just imagine the future. You’re going to create it.

I want to talk to you about Ameya Chumble. Some of you may know him. It was just two years ago that he sat right here where you are now, in VCU’s Honors College. I’m sure he spent more than a few Fridays in Berglund Lectures.

Ameya is now in medical school here at VCU, on his way to becoming an outstanding doctor. As a clinician, he’ll save lives, improves lives and change lives. How do I know that? Because as a student, he’s already begun doing exactly that.

This summer, Ameya began a day-camp for 25 teenagers interested in medical careers. He taught them basic procedures like CPR and suturing techniques. He invited them to watch live surgeries and to spend a week with him at our university’s medical center. His campers saw things most people don’t until they enroll in med school.

These aspiring caregivers got a head-start, thanks to Ameya, even though he never had one himself, growing up in a small town with few opportunities. He is making a difference for these young people, so that they can make a difference in the world.

He wrote to me recently and said: “Since the time I was an undergraduate in the VCU Honors College, one of my goals has been to contribute … in ways that would have made a difference in my own life as a student. That Camp Cardiac contributes in a small way to this goal is what makes it a success to me.”

That he’s changing young people’s lives, and asking them to change lives too, is what makes Ameya a success to me.

Ameya isn’t just imagining the future. He’s creating it.

As remarkable students — and leaders — help others who need a boost. Inspire others to change the world with you.

You’re not going to just imagine the future. You’re going to create it.

That’s what the world needs you to do.

I want to talk to you about Aiden Sykes.

A few months ago, Aiden started thinking about his life. There’s not a long history here: Aiden is only 9 years old.

But he’s precocious and idealistic, and he’s intensely curious about the world around him. So he sought answers from the smartest person he knows: His father, Albert.

Aiden asked his dad what he should be when he grows up. Albert told him to be whatever he wanted. But with one caveat: Aiden could never be average.

Albert told little Aiden, “If you decide to be a cab driver, then you’ve got to be the most impactful cab driver you can possibly be.”

Albert continued. “There’s an old proverb that talks about when children are born, they come out with their fists closed because that’s where they keep all their gifts. And as you grow, your hands learn to unfold, because you’re learning to release your gifts to the world.

“And so, for the rest of your life, I want to see you live with your hands unfolded.”

I can tell you this: Aiden Sykes is going to live with his hands unfolded. He will share his gifts with the world. He won’t just imagine the future. He will create it.

And you will too.

You’re not going to just imagine the future. You’re going to create it.

I will leave you with that.

And as you go on to enjoy your weekend, I ask you to think about your place as Honors College students at VCU, a new kind of research university — one that I think will be the template for 21st-century education. One that’s focused on asking “what’s possible?” and “what’s next?”

We can count on you — like Elon Musk — to think about ways that you can advance humanity.

We can count on you — like Ameya Chumble — to make a difference by inspiring others to make a difference too.

We can count on you — like Aiden Sykes — to live the rest of your life with your hands unfolded, sharing your gifts with the world.

You won’t just imagine the future. You will create it. And that’s really exciting for all of us.