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  • President of the Aga Khan University Firoz Rasul speaking at the AKU convocation ceremony in Nairobi, Kenya.
AKU Convocation ceremony 2017 in Nairobi

Our Chief Guest, Professor Collette Suda, Principal Secretary, State Department for University Education, Ministry of Education
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,

Hamjambo and Karibuni. Good morning and 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, Principal Secretary Professor Collette Suda, 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, our graduands, have studied them in your time here, and witnessed them in your lives and careers.

Seventeen years ago, the nations of the world, Kenya 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 credit, Kenya made significant progress toward meeting them. The child mortality rate was cut in half. The percentage of children enrolled in primary school surged. AIDS-related deaths declined substantially.

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

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 and capabilities 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 Kenya, have committed to achieve a new set of goals by 2030, the Sustainable Development Goals. If Kenya 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, the University is working to make that vision a reality, as an educator of leaders, a source of problem-solving research and a provider of outstanding health care. And we are doing so in partnership with civil society organizations, government and public-sector institutions, seeking to help them as they pursue the Sustainable Development Goals and Vision 2030.

Last year, we carried out a study of our School of Nursing and Midwifery that found that more than half its alumni are working in government facilities. Overall, the study found our nursing graduates are having a significant impact on health systems and the quality of care, as clinicians, senior leaders, managers, educators and researchers.

As the first institution to train cancer nursing specialists in East Africa, the School of Nursing and Midwifery is helping to make it possible for Moi Teaching and Referral Hospital in Eldoret to offer a Diploma in Oncology Nursing. In this effort, it has received essential support from the Princess Margaret Hospital in Toronto. The School plans to establish other specialty diploma programmes in nursing in the near future.

Our Medical College works closely with public universities in curriculum development and standard setting. All our trainees gain experience through clinical exposure at both the Aga Khan University Hospital and public institutions, and many public university students gain experience through electives and rotations at AKU.

In 2016, we started fellowship training in Infectious Diseases, and will soon start fellowship training in Cardiology. These programmes, which will continue to grow in number, will make it possible for physicians to do advanced training without having to leave the country. As with graduates of our residency programme, we expect those who take advantage of this new training will become leaders in enhancing the quality of health care in Kenya.

Together with our sister agencies, the Aga Khan Health Services and the Aga Khan Foundation, the University’s Centre of Excellence in Women and Child Health is supporting  government efforts to improve maternal and child health.

In Kilifi and Kisii counties, the Centre is working with 11 government health facilities to address the health needs of 135,000 women and children. This follows last year’s launch of the Kenya Countdown to 2030 Case Study, a collaboration involving AKU, the Ministry of Health and a group of international partners. That study provides a roadmap for meeting the Sustainable Development Goals for maternal, newborn and child health. We were proud to launch it in the presence of Her Excellency First Lady Margaret Kenyatta, who was our chief guest, and Princess Zahra Aga Khan.

Meanwhile, our Institute for Human Development is providing training support to community organizations that work with children impacted by HIV/AIDS. And it will soon implement health and nutrition interventions among children in marginalized communities.

All this work is in addition to about a million patients cared for in Kenya annually by the University Hospital, the Aga Khan Hospitals in Kisumu and Mombasa, and their 59 health centres.

At the same time that the University is helping more Kenyans to lead healthy lives, it is also working to improve the quality of education in the country’s schools.

Our Institute for Educational Development is collaborating with other AKDN agencies on a five-year project to increase learning among pre-primary and primary students in marginalized communities across East Africa. Already, AKDN has trained more than 8,500 school leaders and educators in Kenya as part of this project, reaching over one million students – the majority of whom are in government schools.

Through our Graduate School of Media and Communications, we are helping to foster an ethical, independent and innovative media and communications sector. We are doing so because we believe the success of any democratic society depends on the public and policymakers having access to reliable information and well-informed perspectives.

In the last two years, the School’s world-class faculty has trained nearly 700 journalists. Currently, documentaries produced with its assistance are airing every Wednesday on NTV, in a series called Giving Nature a Voice. These documentaries focus on the many environmental challenges Kenya and East Africa are facing, as well as the initiatives that have arisen to meet them. In November, the School is joining forces with Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government to offer a course in adaptive leadership for executives here in Nairobi.

Our East African Institute is engaging with government and private-sector organizations to develop new insights that contribute to the formation of public policy. Its research on urban food systems has produced evidence that can be used to promote the availability and diversity of fresh, locally grown foods for city dwellers. And its work in the nascent oil sector is focused on averting the resource curse in places like Turkana.

I would be remiss if I did not point out that we could not undertake all these initiatives without strong external support. As AKU is a nonprofit university dedicated to high quality, our academic programmes cost us far more to operate than we receive in tuition. This means we must provide substantial subsidies to keep them affordable for students.
Fortunately, we have received significant financial assistance from the Governments of Canada, France and Germany, as well as from private organizations such as the Johnson & Johnson Corporate Citizenship Trust, and the Hilton, Rockefeller and Ford Foundations. We are grateful to all of our supporters and private donors. We are profoundly grateful to our Chancellor, His Highness the Aga Khan, for his continuous financial support, strategic direction, vision and guidance.  

We are also very grateful to the Government of Kenya, including the Ministry of Health, the Ministry of Education, Science and Technology and the Commission for University Education. Their support and counsel have been invaluable and will continue to be critical to AKU’s success.

Graduands, some of you may have read or heard about the Kenya Youth Survey conducted by AKU’s East African Institute. It asked 1,850 Kenyans 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 Kenya’s young people are full of optimism, passion and a sense that the most valuable things in life cannot be measured in shillings.

Almost nine 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. Three-quarters or more said they have the skills and education needed to be good citizens and to excel in their careers. Nine in 10 described themselves as confident and ready for change, and two-thirds 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 values and 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 fulfilling lives.

Now, you have the opportunity to join the countless people here at AKU, across Kenya 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. Go forth and make us proud. I look forward to learning of your many achievements in the years to come.  

Asanteni Sana.