Ambassador Cormack’s American University in BiH Commencement Speech

Faculty, parents, friends, dignified guests, and the graduating class of 2015 – it is my great pleasure to address you all today at the sixth commencement ceremony of the American University of Bosnia and Herzegovina.  Congratulations to the AUBiH community—and especially the graduating class of 2015 – on reaching this occasion.  I want to thank Rector Mustafa Festic and President Denis Prcic for inviting me to speak today, for their leadership, and for this institution’s collaboration over the past decade.

We are here today to celebrate the commencement ceremony of the class of 2015 of the American University of Sarajevo. I am quite sure the graduates are thinking of this lovely ceremony as the reward at the end of their studies. But think, if you will, of what this event is called – a Commencement – a Beginning.

And so, today, I would like to focus on my hopes for the talented, smart students who are graduating today, and setting out on the great adventure that will become the rest of their lives.

Most of you are citizens of Bosnia and Herzegovina, although I understand there are also graduates from Turkey, Egypt & the USA. I congratulate each and every one of you on the great accomplishment that this ceremony represents.

Because we are here in Bosnia and Herzegovina, I hope the international students will bear with me if this speech is focused on this beautiful country we are all living in, but I hope that they will think how the same goals I talk about today can apply to their countries and futures as well.

As you set forth today on the path to your future, what are the challenges and opportunities that lie before you?

Here in BiH, the challenges are clear, and they are many. But one of the greatest is the one that faces your generation: youth unemployement, which is now over 60%, and I have recently heard numbers as high as 70%. I understand that the degree you will receive here today has great value – most of you graduating from American University BiH will find jobs in coming months, and have the opportunity to build productive lives and careers here in Bosnia and Herzegovina.

As you do so, I want to challenge you to do several things:

1. First and foremost, stay here, and make your country better.
If you choose to study or work abroad for several years – come back, and bring your newfound skills and global understanding with you. Last year, I am told that over 60,000 people emigrated from Bosnia and Herzegovina, many of them young people.

As we all know, these are often the most talented, who find jobs and opportunities across Europe and the United States. In America, we call this “brain drain” — the loss of a significant percent of critical human intelligence from a society. For Bosnia and Herzegovina to grow and develop, it needs to become a brain magnet – a country that attracts smart, talented people, including Bosnians who have emigrated in the past, by offering opportunities and challenges in business, entrepreneurship, information technology and other fields.

In 2010, 33% of all business owners in California were foreign born.  Your loss is our gain.  But as U.S. ambassador to BiH, I would rather see YOU benefit from the skills of your most talented.

2. Secondly, use the great skills you have acquired here to help others — through charity if you wish, which I encourage, but even more importantly through entrepreneurship, helping build businesses that create jobs for others.  In 2012, the latest year for which statistics are available, the percentage of U.S. adults involved in startups hit 13%.  My oldest daughter, who is an “experience designer” for a Boston startup, is one of them.

Forbes Magazine reported last year that “Regardless of gender, entrepreneurs who stick it out through the tough startup years reported being happier with their lives than other working people … Owners of established businesses rated their own well-being more than twice as high as non-business owners.”

This kind of positive thinking would do wonders here in BiH.  So would acceptance of the fact that to inspire people to start new businesses, you have to allow them to fail – and start again.  This open acceptance of failure and regeneration is key to successful economies.

3. Third – Take on the system.
Demand an end to corruption, to mismanagement of the economy by political appointees, to incompetence and to laziness.  Just to be clear, I’m not telling you anything here that a graduation speaker wouldn’t tell an American graduating class. This is the cornerstone of American democracy.

Foreign students arriving on an American campus are often shocked by what they perceive to be anti-Americanism on the part of the U.S. students.

But American students don’t see if that way at all. They see it as part of their civic duty to examine their country, speak up, and do what they can to make it better – generation after generation.

Young Democrats of America and Young Republican groups on campus
promote political activism, and every major campus has a campus newspaper and radio or TV stations, which report on issues they believe matter to their academic and civic lives.

When Rolling Stone magazine published a December 2014 report on rape on the campus of the University of Virginia, it was the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism that did the investigation on the accuracy of the story.

When the Columbia University team determined the evidence was false,
the reporting was weak and the story was groundless, Rolling Stone officially withdrew the article.

4. Lead.
I want to pause and let that word resonate around this room – Lead.  If there is one skill I would like to wave my magic wand and develop
among the good people and politicians in this country — and there are many – it would be leadership.

At critical junctures, and I believe Bosnia is soon going to be facing one, men and women of integrity, moral character and great personal courage need to stand up and speak out for what is right.

It is not easy — if it was, it would not be leadership. Whether Abraham Lincoln, the self-educated farm boy from rural Illinois, holding America together during the Civil War, while simultaneously ending the scourge of slavery after several hundred years of its existence on American soil; Whether Nelson Mandela, the first black leader of South Africa, taking office after 27 years in prison and forgiving his white opponents who put him there, establishing South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission and re-building ties between black and white citizens of his country; Whether Vaclav Havel, a playwright and democracy activist, also jailed for many years, becoming the iconic leader of Czechoslovakia’s Velvet Revolution – none of these men expected to become leaders of their nations, but all had the courage to accept the mantle of power, retain their honesty and humility, reject temptations put directly in their path, and in doing so, create a dramatically different and more positive future for their countries and for the world.

This is the challenge I put before you today.
So how to do all this?

First and foremost, build on the skills you have acquired here at school
. Many of your curriculums are technical, others are in the humanities. All of them give you knowledge and abilities far above the average — use them fearlessly. Take the time in your first months on a job to learn and observe, but work to gain confidence sooner rather than later to speak up and speak out to make things better, smarter, stronger.

Secondly, work together — universities in the United States and elsewhere all have active alumni programs, which create vital platforms in cities across the country for graduates to gather both informally to support each other, as well as officially with mentors, to benefit from their life and career experience.  I encourage your class to create these groups here in Sarajevo, in Banja Luka, Mostar — wherever a group of you ends up finding employment and settling down. People matter more than anything else in the world; and you never know when you will meet again. My colleague, the U.S. Ambassador to Kosovo and I worked together in Seoul, Korea — in 1990. My colleague, the U.S. Ambassador to Serbia and I, also worked together both in Seoul and in Washington over the last decade. None of us would have predicted we would find ourselves together in the Balkans all these years later.

Thirdly, make learning a life-long task. People who succeed are voracious consumers of information – a recent news article noted that Bill Gates always leaves an hour a day to read, in order to see the world through other perspectives.  You are English speakers — focus on sources that tell you what others are doing to move the world forward, to create optimism and a better future, whether that is the New York Times, BBC, or the modern business magazines Wired, Forbes or Fast Company.  Expand your horizons; find out what is happening in Asia, watch the Cuban economy grow as the U.S. re-establishes relations, track US-EU nuclear negotiations with Iran – I assure you every major business in Europe and elsewhere is doing so because of the potential of that economy.

So I have given you some challenges and I’ve offered several tools for accomplishing them.  In closing, I would like to focus on the potential that lies ahead.

As you look at this beautiful country, many of you will see problems — they’re easy to spot. Rampant corruption, weak government, ethnic divisions abused by politicians for their own advancement, a poor educational system that perpetuates those divisions, a weak economy because those same politicians won’t let reforms go through that would lessen their personal profit-making from the current system.

And yet, there is so much potential here! Several things stand out above all.

First, a joke.  When asked what are the three most important things in buying real estate in the United States, the answer is always the same:   location, location and location.  Bosnia and Herzegovina, and the Balkans more widely, are situated in one of the most wonderful locations in the world, at the juncture of Europe and Asia, east and west, north and south. Across history, Bosnia and Herzegovina has been part of the great empires of the world – Greek, Roman, Byzantine, Ottoman and Austro-Hungarian.

The potential of this country’s geographical setting – on the edge of a European Union that now comprises 500 million people and has an annual gross domestic product of almost 14 trillion euros – and is standing with its open arms wide open waiting to welcome you as a member – the potential is limitless.

Next, Bosnia and Herzegovina possesses extraordinary natural beauty.  I have traveled extensively during my six months here, to Mostar, Neum and Trebinje, to Doboj and Maglaj, to Banja Luka and Bjeljina, to Srebrenica and Tuzla.  Everywhere, there is potential to develop a tourist industry that will rival any in Europe. But you need infrastructure and investment – in roads and hotels, restaurants and roadside rest areas, maps and guides to help people find the extraordinary treasures hiding here in Bosnia and Herzegovina.  With focused investments, you could reap enormous returns.

In addition, the low level of development of the economy here means that it has huge potential in the future.  BiH is an energy exporter, and could expand that field exponentially.  Telecoms are far behind more developed countries; the information, communication and technology field is ripe for expansion, and many other industries are opportunities waiting to happen.

As soon as BiH develops a rule of law structure that guarantees investors a fair playing field, foreign direct investment that has looked at BiH’s corrupt system and walked away will return.

And last but far from least, you have to look inward to identify your country’s greatest resource — because it is you.

The people of Bosnia and Herzegovina are intelligent, educated and have vast potential. Many are weighted down by recent history, starting with the legacy of socialism that made it dangerous to take initiative or responsibility for one’s actions outside the government’s rules and regulations.  In addition, people here in BiH are understandably weighted down by memories of the terrible war that took place here in the 1990s, and I think much of the people’s apathy, which so concerns me, still stems from these experiences. And now, citizens are weighted down by corruption and a sense that they cannot impact current problems.

But you are the generation to change this – the generation raised during these 20 years since the war ended, the generation raised in the peace provided by the Dayton Agreement, the generation that needs to lead this beautiful country to the secure, democratic and prosperous future in Europe that it not only deserves, but has every ability to achieve if leaders step up at all levels of society, law, justice, education, business, science, economy and politics – leaders who are prepared to reject the current corrupt system, set new standards, demand new opportunities, and lead Bosnia and Herzegovina to the positive future it can so easily achieve – if its people decide to turn over a new leaf and move forward.

Will you be the leaders that Bosnia and Herzegovina needs to lead this nation to that future?  If you are, we in the American Embassy are prepared to support you every step of the way.  We cannot build this country’s future — but you can.  Good luck, God bless, and Congratulations!