On 3 May 2015 Mr Wafic Rida Said addressed members of the Faculty and graduates at Canada’s premier undergraduate university, St. Francis Xavier University, as he received an honorary doctorate for his philanthropic endeavors around the world.
The speech he gave at the bestowal ceremony is below. For further information please see the press release here
Most Reverend Chancellor, President MacDonald, Rt Hon Brian Mulroney, Distinguished guests, Members of the Faculty, Fellow Graduates, Ladies and Gentlemen, good afternoon.
I feel very privileged to have received this honorary degree and to be standing before you in this highly prestigious institution, an institution which has produced many distinguished alumni, including one of the greatest and most successful Prime Ministers of our time, the Right Honourable Brian Mulroney. I am very honoured to have received this in his presence.
Looking around this wonderful Centre, I see the excited faces of young graduates about to embark on a new life. As you leave this university with your well-earned degrees, this is a good moment to reflect on the value of a university education.
And I want to start with a quotation from a speech made in 1926 in Syria – my country of origin – by its Minister of Education. He said, and I quote:
“Universities are a good measure for evaluating a nation’s progress and its rise on the ladder of civilization. Countries where universities have been built are countries that have advanced rapidly - and where young people contribute to their nation’s development and earn their place in society. Where you see prestigious universities and a strong demand for them, you feel that the spirit of life is there.”
The Minister was my father speaking at the opening ceremony of Syria’s first University which he founded in 1926. I believe that what he said is as true today as it was then. And it is, of course, true for individuals as well as for nations.
• Higher education gives young people the knowledge and confidence they need to progress in life and make a contribution to society.
• It allows those with disadvantaged backgrounds to overcome them.
• It provides the skilled labour that countries need to increase their prosperity.
• It produces research that helps societies make progress in solving the problems we all face.
• It is – and I hope you will be - a force for change and a force for good.
That is why I created the Business School at Oxford University and why my foundation, the Said Foundation, focuses on higher education – providing scholarships to top students from the Middle East so they can study for their Masters and PhDs in Britain.
I have been privileged to witness how these scholarships give young people the opportunity to flourish and make a huge difference to their lives and to their communities. When the students arrive from the Middle East to Oxford, Cambridge or Bristol for example, many of them have very limited experience of life beyond their small communities. Despite the hurdles they have already overcome to obtain a university education and win their scholarships, they are often shy, hesitant and lacking in confidence.
But later when they leave with their qualification they are completely changed – not only are they equipped with new academic credentials, they are also more confident, better communicators, with new skills such as leadership and team work.
They have gained an understanding of other cultures, made friends from other countries and backgrounds and have contributed to the local communities at their university. Where possible, they have then gone back to their own countries to become eminent professors, doctors, engineers….leaders in their field.
I am very proud of them all.
I had to leave Syria, for political reasons, when I was 18 years old and so my education did not follow the path I had planned. I regret never having had the opportunity when I was a young graduate to study for an MBA – I couldn’t afford it at the time - and even now, with fifty years of working experience, I am conscious that this means I do not have the same skills, knowledge and abilities as others.
Your time at university has given you the chance to acquire knowledge. Some of it will be useful to you in your future life, let’s face it - some of it will not! But there is something even more important than knowledge which your time at university has given you and that is the ability to think: to think independently, to think originally, to think creatively. That is the greatest gift a university education can give you. Thinking for yourselves is what takes individuals, companies, institutions, governments and ultimately nations to the next level.
This is an exciting and challenging time to be starting your careers or going on to postgraduate studies. Let me take this opportunity to wish you every success for the future.
• I hope you will make the most of all the hard work which you put into reaching university and then graduating.
• I hope you will go out into the world brimful of ideas – don’t be slaves to conventional wisdom.
• I hope you will do what you enjoy doing and continue to learn every day of your lives.
• I hope you will be kind and generous – there are so many people who need our help.
• I hope you will have luck on your side – don’t expect it to come to you freely. You have to be there, ready to grab it with both hands.
• Finally, I hope you will be determined, ambitious and positive. Everything is possible if you put your mind to it.
As graduates of St Francis Xavier you have had a brilliant start – you are equipped for life. And you too can make a difference. Go for it!