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Commencement Address to the Inaugural Class

On July 1, 2017, Schwarzman Scholars celebrated their first graduation ceremony in Beijing. Founder, Stephen A. Schwarzman, shares his commencement address to the inaugural class:

This first commencement of the Schwarzman Scholars is the culmination of a remarkable six-year undertaking, which required the time, dedication, goodwill and effort of many people across the world.

From the Presidents of China and the United States to other senior officials in the U.S. and Chinese governments, to Tsinghua’s inspired leadership, our Schwarzman Scholars teams in New York and Beijing, our esteemed faculty and advisors, our generous donors and countless contributors to the project (from admissions panelists, our mentors, guest lecturers, internship hosts and many others), and, especially, to all of you, our inaugural class of scholars, The Pioneers. The collective pride we feel in what all of us have created together is immense.

Eleven months ago, you left your homes and your families from more than 30 different countries and came to Beijing to begin an incredible journey. You took a leap of faith with us and became the pioneers of the Schwarzman Scholars program. When you arrived, there was no guidebook for you to follow. There were no past alumni to advise you on what to expect. You had to forge your own path and set your own example.

What you have done this year took a special brand of courage. I am truly thankful for the trust you placed in us to travel to China and take part in this adventure. Naturally, the lack of precedent for a program like this required us to engage in experimentation and invention. Like any good set of pioneers, you were willing to venture into the unknown and try something new with us.

Looking back on the first year of the Schwarzman Scholars program, as is the case with most startups, the vast majority of those experiments had terrific results. And some, ultimately, represented opportunities for lessons learned, which we will use to make adjustments for future scholars.

On balance, though, I think this program resulted in a number of extremely positive and, at times, surprising outcomes.        I’ll share a few of my favorites:

Despite the fact that there was no athletic criterion for admissions, hardly a week went by without me hearing that you won the university soccer championships; or the track and field championships; or the university basketball championships; or any number of other sporting, debate, or chess.

You also took ownership of the program to help define its mission and values for years to come.

You rapidly created a student government barely even after you touched down in Beijing.

You formed committees on academic and student life to help refine and improve the program for future scholars.

And you wrote a class pledge that I think encapsulates the objectives for this program and your commitment to them.

There were certain parts of the program that we thought would work well and did, such as the trips around the country and the region. But you took them to an even further level by leveraging your own relationships and networks to make those (and other) deep dives into different cultures something truly great.

You also started and joined so many clubs that I lost count, including publishing a literary journal and forming a policy forum that made recommendations on some of the most pressing issues facing global leaders today. You were truly committed to taking an active part in both the life of the Tsinghua campus and engaging with the broader world.

Schwarzman College turned out to be the great convening space we planned it to be. Whether it’s the pub, front courtyard, common rooms, or other social spaces; it was a terrific venue to foster interactions and connections. I never dreamed it would see events like a Schwarzman College Ball, but there you have it.

You also taught and learned so much from each other – sometimes in unexpected ways. In some cases, you even held your own classes, where you would teach each other on issues, cultures, and other areas in which you had a strong expertise.

Most importantly, you created so many remarkable friendships and bonds among your fellow scholars. The depth of those relationships – I know – has surprised even many of you.

One part of the program that I can say worked unquestionably well is the selection process for choosing the scholars.

When we were designing the program, we set out to identify the ideal Schwarzman Scholar – members of your generation who would rise up into leadership roles. And I think we have achieved that goal beyond anything that we had hoped.

Taking part in the admissions process was an extraordinary honor for all of us. It was amazing to meet and interact with all of you gifted young people. I am in awe of your capabilities. You have demonstrated patterns of excellence in everything you do. You are brilliant; creative; articulate; social; positive; and optimistic. You are both self-selected, and selected by us, for an extraordinary mission.

Even though this is your graduation day, your mission has just begun. As the founding class of Schwarzman Scholars, you have a special responsibility to the world.

In many ways, the incredible friendships and connections you have built with each other will be the most important legacy of this program. In the coming years, the alumni of Schwarzman Scholars, including all of you, are going to do some remarkable things. You will become government officials; business leaders; journalists; scientists; heads of state and heads of companies.

In the future, when you are sitting across the table from your peers, – making decisions that will impact the fates of countries and course of global commerce – you can draw on your experiences here in China and the network of relationships you built to help you make better informed choices.

As you have heard me say before, for students today, China isn’t an elective course. It’s core curriculum.

When you all take your seats at the table of global leadership, you – and the world – will be better for the fact that you have participated in this program. Your charge is nothing short of protecting the world from the anger, partisanship, and mistrust that could threaten global peace and prosperity. That is the promise of this program – to help us avoid those problems and make the world a better place.

We will also need your assistance in the coming months and years. As the inaugural class, we want you to become ambassadors and recruiters for Schwarzman Scholars across the globe. Over the next fifty years, we will create an alumni network of more than 10,000 Schwarzman Scholars. That community will represent a lasting set of relationships that can be activated over a lifetime in the service of building a more peaceful world. And you are its founding members.

The ambitious mission we have set out for you Schwarzman Scholars, of course, will not be easy. In the next few years, some of you will go to graduate school. Others of you will enter public service, finance, consulting, law, medicine, science, business, and many other worthy professions. Regardless of how you begin your careers, it is important to realize that your life will not necessarily move in a straight line. You have to recognize that the world is an unpredictable place. Sometimes, even gifted people such as yourselves will get knocked back on their heels. For people who have always been at the top of their classes and succeeded at virtually everything they’ve tried, that type of experience can be jarring. It is inevitable that you will confront many difficulties and hardships during your lives. When you face setbacks or defeats, you have to dig down and move yourself forward. The resilience you exhibit in the face of adversity – rather than the adversity itself – is what is going to define you as a person.

To be successful, I believe it is important for you to try to spend time on things you have a passion for and fundamentally enjoy.

Don’t let anyone convince you that you should be doing something just for prestige. You’ll never be successful in life just checking boxes. You’ll only excel in areas where you have natural gifts and enthusiasm.

I am a great believer in the idea of having a worthy fantasy. There are always going to be immense demands on your time and attention. But you should concentrate your efforts on undertakings that you think could be really special and consequential for the world. That will help you separate the trivial from the truly important.

For me, that is why I chose to spend so much of my time on Schwarzman Scholars. I believe that you and your future scholars have the capacity to change the world.

If you have a passion for what you are doing; if you persevere through adversity; and if you are committed to helping others, you will have a full and consequential life. And the benefit of your enormous gifts will accrue to yourself, the people you love, and to society at large.

We send you off with our greatest confidence and hopes. You are all such extraordinary people and you have certainly set the standard for this program.

I am so proud of what you have accomplished. I look forward to seeing all of the amazing things you – and the future classes of Schwarzman Scholars – are going to do in the years to come.

Congratulations. Thank you. And good luck.