This address was given at the UCC Quercus Entrance Scholarship Awards Ceremony at University College Cork in Ireland on November 26, 2015. I thought I would reply the love letter with a speech to youth.
Dear Fellow Humans,
President of UCC, Dr Michael Murphy, Senior Vice President Academic and Registrar, Professor Caroline Fennell, Vice President for Teaching and Learning, Professor John O'Halloran, Members of Governing Body, distinguished academic staff, our new Quercus Academic Entrance Scholars, families and friends who have seen them through it all, and the teachers to whom they attribute their success. It is indeed a pleasure and privilege to speak to you as a Quercus Active Citizenship Scholar at UCC. I am honored to be here, so thank you for having me here this evening.
I hear that many of you here are studying medicine or mathematics. Congratulations on not just passing but acing herbology -- I mean biology -- and arithmancy -- I mean mathematics. We also have with us today, those who are studying the bountiful subjects of the arts, from world languages to music and everything else in between -- or may I say, "Muggle studies" -- because the world needs you especially right now. So that we wizards who happen to be human, understand those in the muggle world and can express our thoughts in all creative forms to reach those we wish to impact, with freedom of expression but void of hate speech. So congratulations to you all and welcome to Hogwarts. After all, University College Cork is the closest thing to Hogwarts in the Muggle world.
I was recently asked, "When did you decide UCC was the right choice for you?"
I replied. It was during my first day of orientation, when I was given a file with three facts on UCC. One, it's progressive. Two, it's green. And three, it is built upon a tradition of independent thinking -- which is why I now call it the Holy Trinity that really makes me adore this place.
It was my first day on campus when I learned that women studied medicine here 20 years before they were allowed to at Oxford. This pretty much sealed the deal for me. I was sure this was the type of progressive institution I wanted to be part of and call my Alma Mater. UCC is a university with a true conscience, and its student-led initiative to be aware and reduce the carbon footprint on campus has made it the world's first green campus. This place culminates and reflects its tradition of independent thinking, where we are taught that great minds do not think alike.
Having lived and studied across three continents thus far (Asia, North America and now Europe), you would think that adjusting to the weather was the hardest thing to do . But no. Trust me, it's mentally adjusting my vocabulary -- from "apartment" to "flat" and "elevator" to "lift" -- so that I don't end getting lost when I go to the "mall" (or wait, "shopping centre").
And on the topic of feeling or being "lost," many children and youth around the world may be lost in terms of meeting their potential. So today, I want to tell you one such story. A story of a child I met in Sri Lanka -- a young boy whose talent has forever carved a special memory in my heart. This story has its roots in abject poverty, and dates back to a bygone era of civil war that lasted three decades on my island home.
Pitted under a large Banyan tree in the town of Eravur in the east coast of Sri Lanka was a colorful Saruvat stall. Saruvat is a popular local drink made of fresh fruit, sugar syrup, chia seeds and crushed ice. And running this business with no adult in sight was a boy, Dilukshan.
A 13-year-old schoolboy who was serving his customers with his impeccable technique and very Sri Lankan smile , I knew I had met an entrepreneur in the making. As I was fixated in awe as he made these drinks to absolute perfection, with no formal bartender training, I asked him what he was doing and he said:
I am in 8th grade and I am currently on school holidays, so I am running my father's Saruvat stall so that he can work another job in the meanwhile. He taught me how to make the drinks, so I just follow his technique. I want to own my own business one day, but for that I want to continue school and do well in school. Education is only the way out of poverty.
I knew I had to share his story with the world, and so I shared it on Food Beyond Borders -- a global food story movement I founded this year. Because there is nothing that brings people together and unequivocally unites us as one than very substrate of life -- food.
Dilukshan's story didn't end there. We exchanged contact details, and I gave him some change I had, as pocket money for him to keep (which he shyly refused until I just left it there), and I said we would be in touch.
A few hours later, as we were driving back home I got a call, it was the Dilukshan's father on the line. He had used those few Rupees to top up his dad's phone and call back. He told me that his son was grinning from ear to ear and hadn't stopped talking about my visit to his shop. He told me of how Dilukshan didn't have even a proper pair of shoes for school, and how he wanted him to succeed at school, as it was the only way forward.
This week, my friends from medicine and dentistry at UCC took it upon themselves to raise enough money through a food sale on campus to get Dilukshan a bicycle to go to school, because they believe in education above all -- so that a kid they haven't even met has the chance they have had to succeed at life.
This is Dilukshan's story.
There are thousands of kids like Dilukshan across the world, from Nigeria to Palestine to Mali, living in places torn by conflict and the resultant viscous cycle of poverty that comes for free as an add-on -- and they all deserve better.
I don't think I need to tell you that we wouldn't have the type of connectivity we have today if not for the son of a Syrian refugee from a few decades ago. Yes, you guessed that right -- the company that changed America with a fruit -- Apple and the person behind it, Steve Jobs. Or that Einstein himself was a refugee. This only goes to show how optimizing every opportunity helps harnesses the true capacity of human potential.
As J.K. Rowling puts it, I quote:
If you choose to use your status and influence to raise your voice on behalf of those who have no voice; if you choose to identify not only with the powerful, but with the powerless; if you retain the ability to imagine yourself into the lives of those who do not have your advantages, then it will not only be your proud families who celebrate your existence, but thousands and millions of people whose reality you have helped change. We do not need magic to change the world, we carry all the power we need inside ourselves already: we have the power to imagine better.
So today I challenge you, in the light of the countless lives lost through modalities that we many not directly have control over as citizens, to not lose hope in humanity but to invest your energy to live and let live by giving. By giving your time to causes that matter to you, by giving your attention and sharing your assets with those who are less fortunate than you, and by giving your sincerity by engaging in meaningful action to change the injustice around you.
FMRI scans tell us that the brain on chocolate and when we make love, lights up the same way when we help others. So if you think money could buy you happiness, the only caveat is that it can do so only when you spent it on others. So you can find happiness even in the darkest places by turning someone else's life around.
Remember that you're part of the lucky 7 percent of the world who are privileged enough to go to university [and get a degree]. So just keep that statistic in mind, whenever you don't feel like waking up for that morning lecture (trust me, I tell myself this whenever I feel like sleep is greater than class).
Enjoy what you're learning, never be afraid to question the content or the context of what you're learning, and relish campus life because the friendships you will make in these years will last a lifetime and will be fundamental to the person you become. This time won't come back, so don't exist in it -- live it! Be the girl or boy who lived.
Remember that failure is the most underrated notion in our society. When I need a dose of inspiration, I always go back to J.K. Rowling's speech at Harvard on the benefits of failure where she says: "It is impossible to live without failing at something, unless you live so cautiously that you might as well not have lived at all -- in which case, you fail by default."
These words have resonated with me every time I have encountered a hurdle, and like many of you I entered my undergraduate degree with an entrance scholarship at McGill University in Canada. Because of my grades from high school, I was placed directly into second year of undergraduate studies, which was like being put into the deep end and being told to swim against the current. And therefore, my first term of university was not just challenging in terms of adjusting to being 15,000 miles away from home -- but more so because I had never been academically challenged this way in my life.
So although school had always come easy to me, it was in then that I realized that I couldn't be "lazy intelligent" anymore or rely on divine assistance any longer -- I just had to work hard if I wanted to keep up.
So looking back, I thank my alma mater for instilling in me the school motto, Grandescunt Aucta Labore (By work, all things increase and grow). And it was in this realization that I came to terms with the fact that at the Hogwarts like these in the world, although you maybe at the top of your class when you enter, you will be re-ranked in this journey that you have decided to take, and that is okay -- because if you are the smartest person in the room, then you are in the wrong room.
Remember not to be afraid to merge fields, to connect the dots and to create your own niche in this world in both your personal and professional life. I now study dentistry at UCC, but before that I majored in biology and minored in international relations at McGill University.
I graduated on the Dean's Multidisciplinary Undergraduate Research list for my research linking oral cancer and socioeconomic status by coming up with a postulation -- "The Starfish Postulation" that compares the anatomy and physiology of a starfish in order to better understand the underlying dynamics of modifiable risk factors in oral cancer, including smoking, alcohol, beetle chewing and areca nut.
The very content I had learned as a biology major in a course I thought I would never use in life past that semester, eventually inspired me to make sense of my research results. So always be enticed with what you are learning because knowledge is never a waste, and often times it fills the gaps in questions that we as humans are pondering to answer. I want to be the type of dentist that draws on clinical dentistry and social theory, one who is able to link molecular epidemiology to history, and ethnography to political economy.
So PCR to me means both polymerase chain reaction and post conflict reconstruction. Because the undeniable fact is that everything is connected and to solve many of the complex issues we face in the world today, fields need to merge and inspire one another.
Remember to be wholesome and remain a student for life. Because amidst all this science, I love Shakespeare and literature. Therefore graduating from the London Academy of Music and Dramatic Arts, as well as Trinity College London in speech and drama is as valuable to me as my undergraduate degree.
We don't have to be right-brained or left-brained, when we clearly have the potential to be using our whole brain. As the Bard wrote, "All the world's a stage and all the men and women merely players; they have their exits and their entrances and one man in his time play many parts."
So you can play many parts, too.
Last week, in the light of the global atrocities that made and didn't make headlines, I wrote a love letter to Beirut, Paris and beyond from Sri Lanka.
It's something I wrote in 20 minutes amidst studying for a neuroanatomy exam I had that week. If you have read it, you will see the cognitive science that seeped into it as a result. This letter, where I describe my childhood experience of being born and raised in conflict, subsequently took a life of its own and went viral all across the world. And then I didn't only have an exam to worry about, but I also had to deal with the media frenzy around it.
But I am grateful to have amazing parents and an inner circle who are great fans, but more so who know how to keep me grounded -- and know to take the "star" out of "stardom" -- so that I was able to get a First Class Honours in that exam last week. Because they know how much learning matters to me.
I am thankful to UCC for having taught me what they taught me and for continuing to do so, so that I was able to share the scientific truth of how we are wired as humans, with the world, through my writing.
Remember that we all have the same 24 hours in a day to make epic things happen.
Because despite all this, Grey's Anatomy and Scandal make up my Thursday nights, so yes I am like any one of you.
Remember that although academically you may be judged on your IQ in class (and I am sure you all have IQs that surpass the average) , in life you will be judged not only on your IQ but more so on your EQ (emotional quotient) and CQ (cultural quotient). Emotional intelligence is your ability to identify, use, understand and manage emotions in positive ways to relieve stress, communicate effectively, empathize with others, overcome challenges, and defuse conflict.
If you have followed many of the world events lately, you will realize how imperative it is for us strive to improve this quotient to create more peacemakers and peacekeepers, and those who choose love over hate. Cultural intelligence at its simplest is a deep and genuine interest in other people, together with the belief that whoever you are and whatever position of influence or leadership you hold, you can learn from them.
So as the world shrinks and communication accelerates, and you develop those new technologies that you imagine -- much like the legacy of George Boole, who was a mathematical genius and the first professor of mathematics at UCC and is responsible for the digital revolution -- you will need to use your cultural intelligence if you want to create something universal in nature.
I remember the conversation I had with Former President Bill Clinton, when I was representing youth at the World Economic Forum in Davos when I was 18. Although he was told that he was late for a meeting with another Head of State, he said, "No, they can wait. I need to talk to these kids."
And 10 minutes later, after listening intently to the projects we were running in our communities he said, "Keep doing what you're doing and I want to see you leading your countries one day."
How did he make us feel like the most important people in the room? Perhaps because regardless of his power and position, he never got carried away or it appeared so. So when you become doctors and lawyers and dentists and teachers and musicians and actors and politicians and CEOs of companies, and seek professions that directly impact the lives of others, always treat people that way. And I assure you it will bring magic to your workplace.
Let me leave you with a simple formula I derived, because math -- like you may agree is always useful in life. You can only find the square root to an unknown x by multiplying that number by itself (e.g. sqrt x^2 = x, and this only applies if x>0), so it's only possible when x is positive. So if x is your heart, be positive, and if two hearts can be brought together, you will be able to find the root to the problem you are trying to solve in this world.
There are those who will be apprehensive to this equation, and it really is up to you to change their hearts by walking the talk. Sometimes it takes more time for people to discern your worldview, so engage with them -- peacefully, let them marinate their thoughts with yours and then let the flavour of your cooking (through your action) create a dish that can be enjoyed by all of humanity.
And the Buddha agrees.
Na hi verena verāni sammantīdha kudācanaṃ
Averena cha sammanti esa dhammo sanantano (in Pali) -- "Hatred cannot be ceased by hatred, but only by love; this is the eternal law."
I am the result of the type of diverse, inclusive and holistic education I have been privileged to have. Because of the type of teachers that never gave up on me, and more so because they taught me how to think but not what to think. And this is what we have at University College Cork -- the type of education that is unmatchable and eternal.
Kids like Dilukshan may not have the resources nor the opportunity to thrive at school that you and I had or have, but we can change this reality in our own communities, one child at a time. So if you're a teacher, never give up on kids like this, if anything give them additional attention to create equity. And if you have friends like Dilukshan in your class, never make fun of them but make sure they have fun. We all have a collective responsibility as humans to not let youth go astray. Not everyone is born to privilege and those who are, carry a responsibility to make sure equality is created if it doesn't already exist -- Non Sibi Sed Omnibus; not for one but for all.
Today, the acronym that should be taking global centre stage is TEAM -- Together Everyone Achieves More. So let's work towards that, and I cannot wait to hear your stories of the Dilukshans you meet, the math equations you are going to derive to solve poverty, the plays you are going to write to defy stereotypes, and the lives you are going to change and save on a daily basis. Always remember that you can be whoever you want to be as long as you know who that person is, so don't let society or anyone else tell you otherwise.
I have faith in you to turn peace into action.
Thank you for your attention.