Members of the Board of Trustees, President Thompson, Vice President Cosentino, representatives from RIT, families, friends, students, and most importantly, members of the 2016 graduating class of the American University in Kosovo. Mirëdita, dobar dan, good afternoon.
Are you all happy? I remember.
It’s a pleasure to be here with you today to mark the 12th commencement of AUK, and to honor your hard work and accomplishments over the past four years. You have survived, and you have thrived, from your first writing seminar to your immersions. You arrived on this campus four years ago from different places and different backgrounds, yet today you sit here united—not just by the caps and gowns that you wear, but by the experiences that you share. You are united by the classes you’ve taken, the activities in which you’ve participated and the projects that you’ve developed. But above all, you are united by the knowledge that you have gained, and by the common goal that you share—to make your mark on the world as a member of the AUK Class of 2016.
It is true that AUK holds a special place in this country. Each of you is one of only around 1,000 students who have earned an American degree while studying in Kosovo. You are soon to be a part of an alumni network that stretches worldwide—but whose strength remains right here in Pristina. Just as those who have walked before you, you will be professors, doctors, lawyers, public servants. You will one day be members of Parliament, civil society leaders or business executives. This is the great power of this institution—but with great power comes great responsibility. And your great responsibility is soon to come.
Today is a celebration of how far you have come during your time at AUK. But I know that for some of you, perhaps many of you, today also comes with a sense of uncertainty. After years of order and schedule—be in class at this time, complete this assignment, study for this test—it’s hard to face a future full of unknowns. Which elective to take turns into which job to apply for. How will I afford tuition becomes how will I afford the rent? These are realities for even the best and brightest of students. It’s also the feeling that many people have around Kosovo today. More than eight years after independence, where is Kosovo headed? And how will it get there?
As Ambassador, I speak often with youth like you. And I often hear about the uncertainties and insecurities that come with being 20 or 30-something in Kosovo. When we will be able to travel? Why doesn’t the government represent people like me? Will there be a job?
I can imagine that some of these concerns are very real for many of you today. Whether or not you’ve secured a job or a space in graduate school, this uncertainty—this insecurity—is unfortunately pervasive in today’s society. And I often hear it coming back to one key issue—one issue that I swear is the elephant in every single room in Kosovo. The one thing that everyone thinks they understand but no one seems to solve: corruption. Now there are lots of issues related to corruption that we could talk about today—but if I may, let’s bring the conversation back to you, the graduates. 133 of Kosovo’s best and brightest looking to make a difference—and some of you looking for a job.
We know that finding employment in a public institution nowadays is very difficult without connections, and that the easiest way to get a job is to gain favor through political or family influence. Qualification and merit are often not the most important factors, and many public sector jobs are filled without an open competition. On the other hand, a mismatch between skills required by the private sector and those found in the labor pool and slow private sector growth has left thousands of college graduates searching for employment. We see the discussions that go on in the cafes of downtown Pristina, and we grumble and moan about the problems and politics of a system so entrenched that we feel powerless to create change. This, too, is the uncertainty of a nation still in its formative years.
Politics in Kosovo are heated—some might even call them divisive. But let’s be clear about one thing– corruption in Kosovo is not a political issue. Corruption in Kosovo is a societal issue. It is a health-care issue, an academic issue, an economic issue. Corruption isn’t just a barrier to economic growth or the development of a skilled civil service; it’s a barrier to jobs, and to wage growth. And the crazy thing about systemic corruption—it affects everyone. When you pay a little extra to get an official document, so does everyone else in line behind you. When you get turned away from a job that was never really open, there are hundreds of other applicants just like you. Hundreds of people who want change, but who have hundreds of different excuses for why that change will never come. In my short time in Kosovo, I’ve heard them all—politics will never change; it’s the culture of the Balkans; at least we’re better than our neighbors.
But there’s one other thing that I hear all too often—“I can’t do anything about it.” This is the statement that hurts me the most; a simple statement of uncertainty and insecurity that doesn’t stand for change—it flies a white flag and admits defeat. But if you always do what you have always done, you’ll always get what you always got. It’s true; change doesn’t come on its own. And herein lies your great responsibility. AUK Class of 2016, I know that you understand the reality and the urgency that Kosovo faces today. We often call you Kosovo’s leaders of tomorrow, and I mean that sincerely. You are Kosovo’s next great generation of politicians, businessmen and women and civil society leaders. But remind yourselves that you’re also the ‘doers’ of today.
And there are things you can do now. You, as an entire student body, can refuse to pay for things like grades. You can refuse to pay for doctor’s appointments and the health care you are entitled to. And when you see corruption, report it. Let the Anti-Corruption Agency know what is going on. Take to social media. There is already a hashtag out there, #Ipaidabribe, that you could use.
But perhaps even more importantly, you can be the change you want to see. Become the kind of professional you would want to work with in your field. Don’t be that person who has 10 jobs and 10 salaries, but does none of them. And above all, don’t accept that corruption is a given. I have heard there is an analogy here which describes Kosovo’s citizens as good sprinters but not good marathon runners. Practice that marathon. Don’t give up and accept the status quo.
I’m guessing that many of you have heard the famous Victor Hugo quote: “Nothing is as powerful as an idea whose time has come.” It is a powerful message that has been echoed from French revolutionaries to American civil rights leaders and Arab Spring activists. But with all due respect to those true heroes, I’d like to add one thing. Societies don’t change because of great ideas alone. They change because of great people who harness great ideas. Great people who develop, promote and implement change. Great people who embody that change.
You, the AUK graduates of 2016, are great people with great ideas. You’ve spent four years developing your minds and sharpening your skills for this very moment. You can make that change happen now. In fact, as graduates of this esteemed university, I dare say that we expect this of you. No, we don’t expect you to move mountains—but we absolutely expect you to kick up some dirt. Martin Luther King, Jr. once said, “If you can’t fly, then run; if you can’t run, then walk; if you can’t walk, then crawl. But whatever you do, you have to keep moving forward.” This message is as true for you, as it is for your country. The uncertainty will fade away, the change will come. Kosovo will keep moving forward, if you keep moving forward.
AUK Class of 2016, congratulations, urime, čestitam on your graduation day. Today, celebrate the journey that has brought you to this stage. But tomorrow, focus on the journey that you have ahead– a journey where you become the leaders you want to see, and Kosovo becomes the country you want it to be.
Sukses. Srećno. Good luck. I’m counting on you. Thank you.