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  • President of the Aga Khan University Firoz Rasul speaking at the AKU’s convocation ceremony in Kampala, Uganda.
AKU Convocation ceremony 2017 in Kampala

Our Chief Guest, Honorable State Minister for Health Sarah Achieng Opendi
Members of the Government
Members of the Board of Trustees of the Aga Khan University
Members of the Diplomatic Corps
Deans, Faculty and Staff of the University
Parents, Partners, Supporters and Distinguished Guests
And most importantly, Graduands,

Welcome to the 2017 Convocation Ceremony of the Aga Khan University.

It is wonderful to see you all gathered here – I know many of you have long dreamed of this day. It is an honor to be able to host our many donors, who have shared their success with the University and placed their trust in us. And we are grateful to our Chief Guest, Honorable State Minister for Health Sarah Achieng Opendi, for sharing this occasion. The presence of all our guests is a humbling reminder that the work we do at AKU depends upon the sacrifices, generosity and support of a great many others.

Graduands, this is a day when all of us celebrate your achievements – parents, faculty, staff, leaders and friends of the University. It is a day when you feel an unmistakable pride in your accomplishments, and with every justification. That you are sitting here is proof of your determination and passion for learning, and it demonstrates that you can compete with the best the world has to offer.

Yet if you look within yourselves, I think you will recognize another emotion as well: the sense of being connected to something larger than yourselves. That something may be the community of friends you have built here. It may be your family, whose love and support you have honored with your achievement. It may be the University and its vision, or the great enterprise of learning and innovation that spans the globe and the centuries. But that sense is certainly there.

It is there because as humans we naturally seek a higher purpose. We seek a great task or calling – a challenge that brings meaning to our lives, and that leaves a mark on the lives of others.

One need not look far to find such challenges. They are all around us. All of you have studied them in your time here, and witnessed them in your lives and careers.

Seventeen years ago, the nations of the world, Uganda included, came together to commit to reducing poverty, hunger, illness, illiteracy and prejudice. They called the goals they adopted the Millennium Development Goals, and they aimed to achieve them by 2015.

The goals were ambitious. And to its great credit, Uganda met or came very close to meeting many of them. It substantially reduced the proportion of people living in poverty, putting it among the top performers in Sub-Saharan Africa. It sharply decreased the number of children suffering from malaria. It was one of only a dozen low-income countries worldwide that reduced the child mortality rate by two-thirds or more – a most impressive achievement.

Yet, graduands, much remains to be done, as I know you are well aware. Too many people are living in poverty. Despite progress, too many pregnant women, babies and children under 5 are dying from preventable causes, and too many people are still contracting HIV/AIDS. Too many children are not learning enough in school.

But what does this represent, if not the great task that we are all seeking, and for which your education has prepared you? With the skills you have developed at AKU, you can help to bring about the world we all want to see, in which suffering and injustice have been consigned to history.

2015 is behind us. Yet the urge the Millennium Development Goals expressed – the urge to unite behind a common agenda for the betterment of humanity – has not diminished. 193 countries, including Uganda, have committed to achieve a new set of goals by 2030, the Sustainable Development Goals. If Uganda were to meet them, it would be a country transformed – a place where no child suffers from hunger, every boy and girl is taught by well-qualified teachers, and all people have access to high-quality health care.

Together with its fellow agencies of the Aga Khan Development Network, AKU is working to make that vision a reality, as an educator of leaders, a provider of high-quality health care and a partner that helps public-sector institutions to improve the lives of those they serve.

Recently, we celebrated the 15th anniversary of the partnership between the School of Nursing and Midwifery in East Africa and the Johnson & Johnson Corporate Citizenship Trust, which has provided scholarships for the vast majority of our nursing students. With the Trust’s support, we undertook a major study of the achievements of the School and its alumni. The study found our graduates are making a significant impact on health systems and the quality of nursing care. Nearly four in 10 are senior leaders, managers, educators or researchers, and the rest are at the bedside, directly involved in patient care. In addition, approximately seven out of 10 alumni were the first in their family to earn a university degree.

In keeping with its mission, the School of Nursing and Midwifery continues to address critical health issues in Uganda. Today, an estimated 40 percent of Ugandan women give birth without a nurse, midwife or doctor present. To expand access to quality care for women and their babies before, during and after birth, we launched one of Uganda’s first Bachelor of Science in Midwifery programmes in 2015. Our first class of midwives will complete their studies later this year.

Still to come is the University’s most important contribution yet to health care in Uganda. As many of you are aware, we will be building a new Aga Khan University Hospital in Kampala that will provide access to treatments and technologies that are currently unavailable anywhere in the country. This will be the largest investment the University has made to date in Uganda.

Located in the heart of the city on 60 acres made available by the Government of Uganda, the Hospital will offer world-class care in everything from cardiology to infectious diseases, from neurology to obstetrics and gynaecology. With the Hospital in place, Ugandans will no longer need to leave the country in order to receive the very best care. And, very importantly, it will provide high-quality emergency care to patients suffering from heart attacks, serious injuries from traffic accidents, and other urgent conditions where a rapid response can make the difference between life and death.

As a teaching hospital, it will also make an essential contribution to the task of increasing the number of highly skilled health professionals in Uganda, such as nurses, midwives, specialist doctors, laboratory technicians and biomedical engineers, among others.

In his speech here in Kampala announcing the establishment of the Hospital, His Highness the Aga Khan, Chancellor of the Aga Khan University, spoke of the need to bring health care that meets global standards to Africa, and for government and the private sector to work together to do so. Africa’s people, he said, “cannot be isolated from the best simply because they have been born in countries outside the Western world.”

When the Hospital is built, he said, “it will have brought to Uganda modern medicine in the best conditions, in intimate partnership with public sector health care. We see the system working as one system, building on capacity, human resources, programming, and forward thinking.”

We are pleased that the Government shares this vision, and that it considers the development of the Hospital a national priority. And we are very grateful for the exceptional support it has provided, and the continuing commitment it has demonstrated to making the Hospital a reality.

At the same time as the University is expanding its role in Uganda’s health care system, it is also helping to improve the quality of pre-primary and primary education. Our Institute for Educational Development is working with other agencies of the Aga Khan Development Network on a five-year project to improve learning outcomes in East Africa, with the support of Global Affairs Canada and Aga Khan Foundation Canada. In Uganda, the Institute has already trained more than 900 heads and deputy heads of schools and educators under this project.

Graduands, some of you may have read or heard about the Uganda Youth Survey conducted by AKU’s East African Institute. It asked 1,800 Ugandans between the ages of 18 and 35 about their values, ambitions and anxieties.

In some cases, it is true, their answers offered cause for concern. Yet the survey also made it clear that a large majority of Uganda’s young people are full of optimism, passion and a sense that the most valuable things in life cannot be measured in shillings.

Seven in 10 said education is more important than money. Asked to name the three things they consider most important, they chose faith over all contenders by a large margin. Approximately three-quarters believe that hard work will be rewarded with success and consider themselves confident and ready to embrace change. More than half said they have the power to make a difference in the world.

We were not in the least surprised by such results. For it is precisely such qualities that have enabled you to succeed here at AKU. During your time with us, you have demonstrated integrity, perseverance, creativity and a deep desire to enable others to develop their talents and lead healthy, fulfilling lives.

Now, you have the opportunity to join the countless people here at AKU, across Uganda and around the world who are working to address the toughest challenges humanity faces.

You will notice I have used the word “opportunity” rather than “responsibility.” I have done so deliberately. Having been president of this University for a decade, I speak from my own experience when I say that to work on behalf of a great cause, to seek to do what has never been done, is an experience as thrilling as any you will ever know.

There is no greater reward than the knowledge that your efforts have deeply and positively impacted the lives of a great many people. The chance to experience that knowledge for yourself is an opportunity indeed – one I urge you not to miss.

Thank you, and congratulations to all of you. I look forward to learning of your many achievements in the years to come.