Liberian President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf Urges Graduates to Follow Their Dreams to Change the World

by Doug Gavel

Cambridge, MA – Liberian President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, an alumna of Harvard Kennedy School (Master in Public Administration/Mason Fellow 1971), encouraged members of the Class of 2008 to follow their dreams during an inspiring graduation address Wednesday (June 4) at JFK Memorial Park.

“I urge you to seize the opportunity to become true leaders. Motivate and inspire others to join you in your efforts,” Sirleaf said. “Exercise the character that sets you apart as role models for others to emulate. Think big. Let your dreams soar…Go for your ambition. Achieve your full potential. The time that you have spent at the Kennedy School says that you deserved it. Now go out and use it and change the world.”

Sirleaf fondly recalled her year at the school, reminiscing about the opportunities it afforded her to help shape public policy once she returned to her native Liberia, a once-prosperous and stable western African country which had been torn apart by decades of violence, public corruption and economic collapse.

“Liberia was almost destroyed by 14 years of a senseless civil war. Our infrastructure was left in ruins. Our children have spent more time in war than in school,” she explained. “But the Liberian people have never given up hope for a better world and I’m proud to say that our national nightmare is over. The signs of recovery are all around.”

Drawing upon the lessons that she learned at Harvard, Sirleaf urged the graduates to prepare for the enormity of the challenges that lay ahead for them.

“You will be expected to be knowledgeable and be informed on the national, regional and global dynamics that affect the quality of your management in the public or private institution with which you will work,” she said. “You will be expected to be highly competent with knowledge and understanding that will allow you to stand out amongst your colleagues and peers. To be successful you will need to be prepared to go that extra mile to spend time to improve the structures and systems with which you will be called to work.”

Speaking to the graduates directly, Sirleaf said, “I cannot emphasize strongly enough the importance of maintaining your personal and professional integrity. You will have to be courageous, standing firm and sometimes standing alone for policies and strategies that represent the best approach for achieving development goals. If you see something wrong you’ll have to have the courage to stand up and say so,” she exclaimed.

Sirleaf also took a moment to recognize the work of Team Liberia, a group of Kennedy School students who volunteer their time during the summer to aid development efforts in the African country. “Your service has made a great contribution to enhancing our national capacity,” she told them.

The president was introduced at the podium by Harvard Kennedy School Dean David T. Ellwood, who praised her for representing “all the elements that we aspirate to have in the students that attend, and leave and are taught here at the John F. Kennedy School of Government.”

Image of Liberian President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf

Liberian President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf delivers the Harvard Kennedy School graduation address on June 4.

Photos: © Michael Casey

“Exercise the character that sets you apart as role models for others to emulate. Think big. Let your dreams soar…Go for your ambition. Achieve your full potential. The time that you have spent at the Kennedy School says that you deserved it. Now go out and use it and change the world," Sirleaf told the graduating Class of 2008.

Image of Liberian President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf

Sirleaf told graduates that they should be "prepared to go the extra mile" to improve systems of government.


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