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UNL Graduate Commencement Speech: “Think like an immigrant”

I was honored to give the UNL graduate commencement speech in December 2016.

Perhaps not good enough to make it to the “Best commencements speech ever”  list but memorable enough to earn this compliment: “I have seen [and forgotten] huuuundreds of these speeches, but I will remember this one.” 🙂

Thanks to Sol, Aquiles, Sue, Matt, Kate, Courtney, Carrick, and Katie for their great feedback.

 

Think like an immigrant, Sebastian Elbaum 

It is an honor to be here, congratulating the graduating MS and Ph.D.
UNL students, their families and friends, and the great UNL system
that made it possible.

You are the cream of the intellectual crop that we produce. And
that means that you belong to a select group that can think deeper
than most, have the endurance to pursue your thoughts longer than
most, and can communicate some of those thoughts more eloquently
than most.

And because you can think deeper and longer than most, I am going to
guess that many of you are not just enthusiastic about your future,
but you feel a bit fearful as well. Expectations are high and there
are many unknowns.

Let me tell you my secret to dealing with such fear and uncertainty:
think like an immigrant.

For full disclosure and as you may have guessed, I am one of the 13%
of the US population that was not born here. Like many, I am an
immigrant. I also consider myself fortunate to be a citizen of the
United States, a country founded by immigrants.

While I know enough immigrants to realize that I cannot generalize
to the experience of all immigrants, let me take a stab at this and
argue that all immigrants have at least one thing in common: every
immigrant wants an opportunity. An opportunity to pursue happiness,
to live in peace, to succeed in some endeavor, to grow. Just like I
did. Just like you are about to do. And in pursuing that opportunity
immigrants tend to do some things worth observing and even
mimicking.

Today I want to focus on just five of those traits, traits that were
important to my development as a young man leaving the comfort of my
family, my friends, and the Argentinian society, when I felt
unsatisfied with the prospects for learning and building something
new there. I am not sure the exact moment when that happened, but I
recall seeing a faulty inspirational sticker at that time saying
“the skI is the limit”, and I may have taken that as a sign.

These traits emerged as I tried, with some fear and much uncertainty,
to define a new path in a country I admired but did not really know.
Traits that I believe were and are critical to the development of
this country of immigrants, and that could be useful to you as you
transition to this new phase of your life.

The first trait is courage to take on big-opportunities. Immigrants
have the courage to leave dear people and places behind to pursue an
opportunity. Immigrants are able to recognize and value that
opportunity and really go all in. The cynic in us may want to say
that for some folks migrating is not much of a sacrifice as the
situations they face are really desperate. However, I have yet to
meet an immigrant that does not reminisce about where they came from,
or about something they left behind. And there are many more that
stayed behind in that context, that did not recognize the
opportunity, that did not take the risk.
So just like an immigrant, keep your eyes open and be ready to bet
big when that opportunity comes.

Second, immigrants generally do not go back “home” except for visits
and they even send money to their parents’ home. I can hear parents
and relatives saying YES, that is a good one! But the concept of
home is a fluid and complex one for an immigrant. Is it where you
are born? Where you live? The country on your passport? Where your
kids grow up? Your property? The reality is that as immigrants we
build many homes along the way as we forge our path. And over time
we learn which homes to keep visiting, which ones can serve as
points of reference, and which ones we would rather foreclose. We
are also extremely sensitive to the fact that no matter how good a
home appears to be, there is a possibility that we misjudged it.
So just like the immigrant, keep pursuing Your own path, building
and assessing homes along the way, and being willing to accept that
your home may not be perfect.

Third, immigrants have different perspectives. It is not just the
look, the accent, the dress code, the skin color, … Not having the
same economic, social, intellectual opportunities as those around us
gives the immigrant a unique perspective. We all have tunnel vision,
we know what we know and what we can imagine from what we know. The
immigrant has navigated at least one different tunnel, one with a
distinct view, and that has incredible value when integrated in the
rich context of this country. Just in my field of computing, that
perspective contributed to the creation of companies like Google,
Intel, and Tesla, companies driven by innovation leaders that
brought their perspectives from Russia, Hungary, and South Africa.
So, just like an immigrant, try to look at everything from a
different perspective and get some new perspective from others to
broaden your own personal tunnel.

Fourth, immigrants have a sense of almost belonging but never
quite. There are the benign but nonetheless missed cultural
references or jokes in casual conversations that make you feel not
quite there. There is an uneasiness when re-entering the US, even
after becoming a citizen, conditioned perhaps by previous entering
experiences. There are those scary feelings when there are talks
about building a wall. There are people just like I was, or I am, or
you are, behind that proverbial wall. That sense of belonging but
not quite completely is often a powerful driver, a motor that runs
because it is never satisfied.
So just like the immigrant, embrace that feeling of not being quite
there yet, use it to remain hungry, and tap into it to propel you
forward.

Last, immigrants often have friends in many places. That helps to
deal with life’s ups and downs, as those will inevitably be there,
and there is nothing like the safety net of loved ones for when
support is needed. I hope that you feel that we at UNL are one of
those places for you. And so, just like an immigrant, visit us and
count on us, your academic home. And no, you do not need to
remember to send money home to UNL. We are very good at sending
reminders.

Now I understand that many of you may not have this “immigrant”
advantage, but you can adopt an immigrant mindset. Also note that I
do not advocate for you to migrate, this country needs you more than
ever, but I do want you to think more like an immigrant, to be ready
to pursue those high-risk opportunities, to build a worthy path full
of homes, to look at things differently and appreciate different
perspectives, to remain hungry, and to consider us one of your homes.
After all, you are the cream of our academic crop.

Congratulations and best of luck to all of you.

 

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