‘There is power in your story’

August 23rd, 2021   |   Commencement, School for International Training, SIT Graduate Institute, World Learning

Following is the text of the commencement speech by SIT Alumna and World Learning Trustee Aicha Naomi Cooper. She was the keynote speaker at SIT Commencement on Aug. 21, 2021.

A woman with dark hair smiles
Aicha Naomi Cooper

When in doubt, remember that our world needs you—that someone, somewhere on the other side of the world needs you.

Good morning everyone,

It is a great day to be in Brattleboro, to stand with you in celebration of your courage, commitment, and resilience in reaching the finish line.

Chief Executive Jenkins and President Howlett, faculty, distinguished guests here on campus and those connected via Livestream, and most importantly, the graduates of the class of 2020 and 2021.

Wow, today is so special. I am excited to be back in Brattleboro, walking the grounds of SIT. As an alumna it is an honor to be here, this time not as a student in pursuit of a graduate degree like I was in 2012, but standing with you as your keynote commencement speaker. Thank you for this gracious invitation.

Today, I want to share with you the importance of harnessing the power of your stories in paving your path ahead.

There is so much power in your stories, which serve as an opportunity to learn from the past, embrace your present, and act for the future. When I meet people, I am drawn to their stories. I want to know their wow factor: what challenges they have had to overcome; what inspires them; what life lessons have they learned.

You may be wondering: Aicha, how has SIT shaped your story?

My story is this: I come from Liberia, a small country on the West Coast of Africa. As a young girl, I lived through a 14-year civil war that decimated my country’s educational, health, socioeconomic, and political systems. At a young age, I experienced the negative impact war has on women and children. I escaped aboard a cargo ship. In a quest for safety, I almost lost my life.

I became a refugee in Ghana, where I encountered humanitarian workers and development practitioners, global citizens like you who are equipped and committed to change our world. I admired their passion for service, the risk they took to work in fragile and conflicted areas, and I knew without a doubt that I wanted to be like them when I grew up. I wanted to build community and help the less fortunate. I believe that you, too, have a similar desire, which is what has made our paths cross at SIT today.  I am one of you. I attended SIT because I believed in its compelling mission to create the next generation of intercultural leaders, professionals, and global citizens.

For me, SIT was the window into the future; the path I needed to realize my life’s aspiration to work as a development practitioner for the world’s leading international finance institution.

My aspiration may be different than yours, but we share a common goal of working to make the world a better place.

So, what about you? What challenges and opportunities are woven into your story?

Our current world affairs have challenged us to adapt, pivot, and learn new lessons. We’ve also seen the emergence of new challenges due to the COVID-19 pandemic—environmental stressors, income disparities, and socioeconomic barriers that hold injustice and inequality in place.

Given the state of our world, each one of you has had to maintain determination, hope, and perseverance amid uncertainty.

Your journey today has not been an easy one—you have had real issues and hurdles to overcome to be here. Some of you had to endure financial challenges, emotional stress, health issues and grief. Some of you had to adjust to new ways of learning with technology. Some of you have had to respond to personal and family matters, and deal with loneliness while still staying dedicated to your education.  

Please join me in a moment of silence in honor the lives of faculty, family, and friends we have lost due to COVID-19.

These challenges serve as pivotal moments in your story. They made you stronger. It is that resilient spirit, courage, and strong determination that make up your story and build the leader that is within each of you.

Today, despite all you have had to endure, I hope that, like me, you consider it a privilege to earn your degree from SIT. Too many young people around the world—especially girls—have been robbed of their full potential due to poverty, war, and a lack of access to quality education.

As we gather here, the world is witnessing a grave humanitarian challenge in Haiti. The people of Afghanistan face a political and humanitarian crisis—one that is creating thousands of refugees and internally displaced persons and posing a grave threat to women and girls. With these complex and sensitive issues, you and I—we—must act. We must use the innovative skills we have gained from SIT.

Today is evidence of your drive to take action toward achieving your dreams, aspirations, and commitment to tackling real world problems. No matter how similar or different we may be, your stories—our stories—matter. Your dreams are valid. You are built for that dream, and you have what it takes to make it a reality.

When I look at you, I see World Changers. I see greatness within you. Make the impossible your reality, filled with determination that leads you to endless possibilities.

As you journey on, stay rooted in the power of your story—those gems that make you unique, powerful, fierce, and fearlessly you. Remember, too, there is strength in humility, and that a career built on self only goes so far. Instead, recognize the work of others; be empathetic, and a collaborator. Use your voice and influence for the good of others.

When in doubt, remember that our world needs you—that someone, somewhere on the other side of the world needs you. Even you need you.  

I encourage you to continue your strong desire for learning; to cultivate a positive mindset and attitude. Adapt a strong sense of self-awareness. Be intentional about how you show up for yourself and others, and how you build and sustain meaningful relationships, including the ones you’ve formed as a cohort. These will take you far. Zig Ziglar reminds us: “It’s your attitude, not your aptitude, that determines your altitude.”

As you leave here today, I wish you the very best on your journey. May you find your purpose, mold it, achieve it. Paint your legacy on the canvas of society with beautiful strokes and colors symbolizing the importance of global responsibility, women’s rights, human rights, peace, diversity, inclusion, and lead with integrity.

I encourage you to champion the solutions to climate change, political instability, to create a peaceful and just world; to challenge injustices of domestic violence, racism, and all forms of discrimination that are interwoven in the fabric of society.

I encourage you to move past your prejudices and embrace humanity through an inclusive lens of community-building that will help you impact the world make it a peaceful and better place.

I encourage you to be your authentic self. Never settle for mediocrity. Raise your standards and be your own kind of high standards. In all fairness, only then can you expect others to level up.

Most of all, be a little gentle, a little kind to yourself, and never stop believing in the power of you!

Congratulations to all of you.

Thank you.