Argue Joyfully: Raj’s University of Pittsburgh Commencement Address

Rajiv Vinnakota, President

December 18, 2023

Photo courtesy of University of Pittsburgh

Citizens & Scholars President Rajiv Vinnakota gave the Winter Commencement address at the University of Pittsburgh on December 17, 2023. In his speech, Raj imparts a life lesson he learned in childhood: building a meaningful life involves connecting and empathizing with those who are different from you. He encourages graduates to “argue joyfully” and collaborate with others for the common good.

In this spirit, Raj also points to Pitt’s commitment to free speech and critical inquiry through Campus Call for Free Expression and his optimism behind our national survey findings that show young people are more willing to engage with those that hold different views.

Watch the speech below.

Pitt Winter Commencement Full Speech Transcript

Thank you for that warm Pitt welcome… I’m honored that I get to spend some time with you mighty fine Pitt PANTHERS!

It’s great to be here today among so many accomplished young people, distinguished scholars, and proud Pitt community leaders.

First off, I’d like to thank Dr. McCarthy for the invitation to speak today, and a special thank you to Chancellor Gabel, Board of Trustees, Officers of the University, Senior Leadership, and faculty.

It’s such an honor to celebrate with you.

I also want to extend a hearty congratulations to the graduates sitting here today, the Class of 2023! Let’s give them all a hand! You have MUCH to be proud of!

And of course, I’d be remiss to not recognize and applaud the parents, family members, and dear friends who have often been the supporting force behind the people we’re celebrating today.

Let’s give you all a hand for your sacrifice, love, and loyalty. This is your celebration, too… It is!

Speaking of parents, I’ve got a story to share about my own father. This is a special story that shaped me while I was in college, and after.  It might get me in trouble with the parents in the audience…but here goes!

When I was in high school, my immigrant, civil engineering, genius father told me that it didn’t matter what I majored in.

“Rajiv,” he said. “It’s more important to expand your mind and learn skills that can be useful in any job than to prepare for just one job.”

He could see that employment was changing…and predicted that I would have multiple jobs throughout my life instead of just one, as his generation did.

His important advice to me was to work with others, learn with others, and be of service.

He made clear that these things were very important if I was to have a meaningful life. And that’s what he wanted for me.

I heard him but I wanted to make my mark in the world. So I pursued a degree in molecular biology as well as a certificate in international relations. But, the demands of two areas of study during college left me feeling burned out.

So, I deviated course and went into management consulting right after graduation. I did well, but that wasn’t the life I wanted to lead, either … I didn’t feel fulfilled.

I wanted to work with others who were values aligned. To learn from others who were also trying to make positive change. To be inspired by their stories. To work alongside them to improve our communities.

So, I left my high-paying job to start a non-profit organization.

(Remember that part where I said that I might get in trouble with the parents in this room? Well, I think that just happened!)

While leading that organization, a business partner and I decided to open  a boarding school for students from an under-resourced community in Washington, DC.

This wasn’t your typical boarding school for middle schoolers and high schoolers. The students lived with us during the week and went home on weekends, so they could benefit from a supportive 24-hour environment while keeping strong connections to their families and community.

The students greatly benefited, the families benefited, and the community did, too.

My business partner and I were able to do this successfully because we shared the same values:

We both believed in the power of education.

We both understood the importance of investing in others.

But we were nothing alike. We thought differently, had different life experiences and work styles.

And, we argued – a lot! We did it so often and so effectively that we made it one of our core values for the organization.  We believed in hiring people who could “argue joyfully”!

Though Chancellor Gabel may disagree, this idea MAY be behind why I was invited to speak today. See, “arguing joyfully” aligns with important work that Pitt has been doing to promote freedom of expression on your campus.

My organization  – the Institute for Citizens & Scholars — has been working with Chancellor Gabel here at Pitt and leaders at 25 other universities on an important effort.

This effort, called Campus Call for Free Expression, is a shared commitment to lift up and re-emphasize the principles of critical inquiry and civic discourse on college campuses.

We hope this joint effort will get more people to challenge their own biases and assumptions so they can connect better with each other.

We want to encourage empathy with those who have different values and views, and encourage meaningful contributions to communities.

These are the same skills that my partner and I leaned into when we started our school.

As a key part of this work, Pitt is hosting the Year of Discourse and Dialogue. This is an exciting endeavor for which the college is currently accepting program proposals for the spring. This is such important and timely work…not just here…but for our country.

I don’t need to tell you how important this all is right now, with so much pain and fear and conflict around the world – and even here at home, on this very campus.

And there’s been a lot of bad news for a while now, right? From the pandemic, to mental health challenges, to violence of all kinds. It can feel oppressive and endless.

So the question we have to grapple with right now is can we work and build together for the good of our community, even when we’re very different?

Earlier this year, the media reported on an 85-year long Harvard research study involving thousands of people who were tracked for decades.

After reviewing the data, the study’s researchers found the number one thing that makes people feel fulfilled and happy in life – and even helps them live longer.

Okay, show of hands… how many think it’s earning more than $100k a year?

How many think it’s getting a college degree from the University of Pittsburgh?

How many think it’s becoming famous?

Wanna hear what it was?… The study found that NONE of the things I just mentioned will make people feel as fulfilled as this one thing: having positive, meaning-filled relationships in their lives.

I know that sounds simple but think about it…

Think about all of the relationships that helped you get where you are today, and what made those relationships so important to you.

How did they help you become who you are?

Now let’s complicate that a bit…

My work and life have taught me an important lesson I want to share with you today and I hope it stays with you for a long time: to truly live a fulfilling life – a meaning-full life – it’s not just the relationships with people that you agree with that are important.

Remember my business partner and arguing joyfully?

You build a meaning-full life by connecting and empathizing with those you share space with at work, at school, and in your neighborhood, and by working with them for the common good –  EVEN if they are very different from you.

Figure out your unique way to work together. To learn together and grow together. To be of service to others.

That’s what my relationship with my business partner – which has grown into one of my closest friendships – taught me.

Maintaining optimism about working with and learning from those who are very different from you is hard right now. I know that.

But here’s where I find hope…

Our organization surveyed 4,000 18 to 24-year-olds earlier this year.  While the results surprised some, they probably won’t surprise you!

We found that your generation is more likely to want to engage with people of different perspectives and beliefs.

Your generation identifies less with political party and identifies more with a democracy based on values of equality, justice, and fairness.

And we found that more than 50 percent of young Americans identify themselves as near the ideological middle – not leaning too far right or too far left.

To me, this is all very good news: it is  a sign that as a group, you are less likely to be tribal and more likely to work toward solutions.

And, that’s why my organization and I are SO committed to supporting you: Citizens & Scholars believes – deeply! – that this next generation will secure our democracy and ensure that we flourish.

So here’s my pitch to you – use those wonderful characteristics that I just mentioned – wanting to engage, less defined by your political party and focused on justice and fairness – to build meaning-full connections.  Build them with family and friends, sure. But also build them with neighbors and others in your community.

And aim for more than just getting along. After today, it’s likely that you’ll never again be surrounded by so many people who think differently from you. So try hard to seek out others with different perspectives and explore how you can solve problems in your community together.

Are you good at math? Help high school students get good too by tutoring or creating a study group.

Good at problem solving? Start a clothing recycling program with your neighbors.

They don’t have to be really big problems, either… I think of my mother whose small, regular acts of kindness changed my life and the lives of so many others.

[I have to mention her since I’ve mentioned my father…or I’m going to get in trouble.]

You can visit our website at citizensandscholars.org to get inspired by the many ways that young people like you are connecting to and serving their communities.

Finally, make sure you register to vote in your home town and vote in every election – from school board to president. Civil society functions best when we get involved at every level.

That’s what I want for you and I hope that’s what you will remember once you leave here today. I wish for you a meaning-full like.  Stay positive, stay involved, stay connected.

Thank you…and congratulations!

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