Lahore University of Management Sciences, Pakistan’s Convocation 2012 Address delivered by the Oscar Winner Sharmeen Obaid Chinoy – INSPIRATIONAL

June 23, 2012


Thank you Dr. Adil Najam,

Vice Chancellor, members of the Board of Trustees, the faculty, parents and the Class of 2012. Congratulations, you are now officially the graduates of the best educational institute in Pakistan.

Thank you for bestowing this honour on me. I have now officially had my 14th sleepless night. I mumbled bits of my convocation speech at the gym, on the flight, to co-workers in my office and to myself before I went to sleep; anxious and nervous about what to say. In the process, I found myself wondering how I had managed to reach a point in my life, where I’m giving convocation speeches rather than hearing them!

Trust me – I am in unfamiliar territory! In 2002, I was sitting exactly where you are, a senior at college dying in the heat, excited for my diploma to be handed over to me and fighting back tears. I knew life was never going to be the same again. I was officially an adult.

Now that I have crossed that bridge and am perched quite firmly on the other side, let me tell you, the years spent at college are probably the most enriching phase of your life. You enter the gates filled with excitement but also hope and trepidation. Those are probably hazy days for most of you now. You were undoubtedly ragged; I’m sure many of you boys were made to sing and dance like girls. It’s a wonderful coming of age experience.

You eat bad food, they think you don’t notice that they re.serve the same dish in three different colors, passing them off as Chinese, but you do! You stumble out of bed, into class, hoping no one notices that you have a red sock on one foot and a black one on the other; you procrastinate like it’s your job.

But once you’re done stressing about papers and finals you realise just how special this experience is; whether it’s the academics or the everlasting friendships that you make along the way. For each one of you, LUMS is now a part of your DNA and you will look back with fondness at these years as you move ahead in life.

I know I found my “voice” at college. I remember staging protest rallies against the sanctions in Iraq, wearing “free Palestine” t-shirts and leading sit-ins on campus. That feeling of being young and invincible and ready to change the world; that feeling is special. Hold on to it tightly, because the world around us has a habit of effacing that feeling. And often you are left thinking that you can’t take on the world. But I’m here to tell you, yes you can!

Today, you leave a different person. Today is the first day of the rest of your life and as you leave these gates, you should know you have big shoes to fill. Your predecessors are the business leaders of this country. They have launched businesses, headed multInationals and banks, and developed sophisticated technology.

What lies in store for you? A job is the natural next step, but so is following your dreams. When your job is not your ‘work’ but your ‘passion’; when your eyes open even before the alarm rings, and there’s a spring in your step, then success is inevitable!

All too often we give up on our dreams; sometimes it seems unrealistic, closer to impossible, but those are the best type of jobs to go after.

I was always stubborn, stubborn about following my dreams. And I was determined to work in journalism. At the age of 14, I started writing for local newspapers. By the time I was 17, I was going undercover to do investigative journalism stories.

At the age of 20, I wrote a piece for a leading English newspaper, titled ‘party to a crime’. I had gone undercover to speak to teenagers that were being harassed, tortured and kidnapped by the armed sons of feudal lords. The piece appeared in print on the morning of ‘bakra Eid’. My father was on his way to Eid prayers and came racing back. My name had been spray painted with profanities across several neighbourhoods. The boys wanted to teach me a lesson and embarrass my family.

My father was a strict man of tradition. I am the eldest of 6 children, 5 of them girls. There was a line you never crossed. I thought that day my career would be over before it even started; but he stood there and said ‘If you speak the truth, I will stand by you and so will the rest of the world’. He then got a group of his colleagues together, arranged for buckets of paint, and white washed the graffiti out.

Parents don’t often realise the impact their words and deeds have on their children. With that single phrase on that hot sunny day (as most bakra Eids are) my father changed the way I saw the world. I felt it was almost my duty to stir things up.

Life has many lessons, so here goes:

Lesson number one: Speak out!

I know some of you have been doing just that inside LUMS. A strike against the price hike at PDC is commendable. Even if you didn’t end up victorious in the end, you did speak out!

Lesson number two: Never take no for an answer.

Always put in your very best and persist, but know that even then at times you will encounter failure.

My father often said he went to the school of hard knocks; the school of real life, rather than a full fledged university. And now, you are about to enter that world. Many doors will close on you; there will be despondency and you will feel like giving up. But remember if a door hasn’t opened for you it’s because you haven’t knocked hard enough.

I was 22 when I graduated from Smith College in the US, determined to become a documentary film maker. Armed with an economics and political science degree, I was adamant that film was my life’s calling. So I wrote a proposal and sent it to 80 TV channels and production houses in the US.

Then I waited. I remember when the first rejection letter came through, I felt my heart breaking. I fought back tears. But with each letter, I was more determined that I had to do it. Some responses were of awe, that a 22 year old with a Pakistani passport and no film background wanted a grant to fund a film in Pakistan.

One day after most of the responses had come through, I found the email address of the president of New York Times TV on the internet, and sent him an unsolicited email. He responded within 15 minutes and invited me to come to New York City to give a presentation.

I bought my first business suit and hopped on a train. Within a few weeks I had the promise of a small grant to make my first film about the lives of 7 Afghan refugee children in Pakistan.

The film went on to be nominated for several awards including the Overseas Press Club Award where it beat seasoned journalists and won.

I know the fact that you are graduating from LUMS means that you are not well acquainted with failure.

I was always afraid to embrace it. I know on a day when we are meant to celebrate your achievements we must not talk about failure; but I think once you learn how to embrace it you are one step closer to success.

My earliest recollection of failure is literal failure in an exam when I was in school. Even then as a 9 year old I knew failure and I were not good friends. I avoided it like the plague. I didn’t want to admit defeat so I found creative ways to mask the fact that I had failed.

So in 2007 when failure stared at me right in the face, I was dumbfounded! I had spent the better part of that year convincing CNN to do a story about the plight of women in Afghanistan since the invasion. I traversed the landscape of Afghanistan and found courageous women who spoke about their lives at home, their hopes and dreams, and their struggle for a better life for their daughters.

In Herat I met a young man whose sister Nadia Anjoman, had been murdered by her husband. Nadia was a poet; her writing still haunts me:

“I was borne for nothingness.

My mouth should be sealed.

Oh my heart, you know it is spring

and time to celebrate.

What should I do with a trapped wing,

which does not let me fly?”

I tracked down Nadia’s husband and conducted his first ever interview in which it became clear that he was guilty. I promised Nadia’s brother his sister would get justice. That once the film would come out his brother in law would get what he deserved: jail time.

But I failed him. Nadia’s husband walks free till today. For a long time, I tried to forget that promise but guilt has a funny way of creeping up on you.

That year was a difficult year for me, unfulfilled promises and realistic expectations played games with my mind. But it was only when Nadia’s brother wrote to me, saying that my efforts had restored his faith in humanity, that I understood this next important lesson.

Lesson number three: Failure should be embraced.

Even when you do not successfully reach your goal, there is someone out there who appreciates your efforts, and more importantly you must appreciate your efforts. One day you will realise that it is a past failure that made you push harder to be where you are today. Perhaps it was my inability to bring justice to Nadia’s case that makes me persevere and bring justice to others.

On February 26, 2012, as I walked down the red carpet, proud to represent Pakistan on the global stage. I remember people asking me, how does it feel to be here at the academy awards… ‘It’s like a dream!’, I wanted to scream out!

A woman from a developing country, a country with virtually no film institutions or a film industry walking the red carpet amongst the best filmmakers in the world. That is a dream. Not just for myself, but for all those filmmakers who think they can never make it to the international stage because ‘it’s just not possible’. That day is a testament that everyone has the right to dream.

It helps puts your goals into perspective and enhances your creativity.

Do I remember that moment when my name was called out, or the moment when I walked on stage? Yes. Probably forever, but none of that would have been possible, if I did not dream.

Each time I look at the golden statue I think of this next lesson:

Lesson number four: Dare to dream!

A few weeks ago, in a summer camp I help run at a low income school in Karachi, a teacher asked the students to draw out their dreams on paper. 75 percent of the children stared back bewildered. It turns out, no one had ever asked them about their dreams.

I’d like you to hear the words of a man, Captain Afaq Rizvi, taken from the oral history project of the non-profit, Citizen’s Archive of Pakistan, the aim of which is to record the memories of the very first Pakistanis.

‘When I got off the train and saw Pakistan for the first time, I saw the flag. I was so overtaken with emotion that I broke the line, ran across the no man’s land and hugged a stranger standing there. I was home.’

Take a moment to reflect on the haunting difference between these two scenarios. In 1947, the dream that our founding fathers had envisioned for this land became a reality. Today the very citizens of this land do not dare to dream.

But, as a nation we must dream and we must dream big.

The National Outreach Programme (NOP) of LUMS is one such dream. Launched in 2001 to provide educational opportunity to deserving students that have everything but finances to offer. NOP has changed the lives of 464 families across the country. Alumni and businessmen from Pakistan and abroad have all done their bit to make this dream a reality. This dream of giving the underprivileged a chance at LUMS.  But this is only the beginning of journey that can cater to an educated and prosperous Pakistan.

Today, Act 1 of your life has come to an end. As the curtain rises for Act 2, make sure that you weigh your decisions carefully.

As the future leaders of Pakistan, we look to you to amend the oversights of our past leaders and stride forth.

With a weak economy and political instability, I know the thought of leaving Pakistan has crossed your mind. While you must travel and learn about the world if you get the opportunity, Pakistan needs you, so do come back.

LUMS is a microcosm of Pakistan. Everyone is guilty of stereotyping. Stereotypes about that girl from Karachi, or that boy from Quetta; we judge people on what they wear, their accents, what community they belong to.

But I sincerely hope that as you were forced to form study groups, and cram for exams or when you took trips with the LUMS Adventure Society and competed for the last spot in the common room, you realised that you are all the same. That the ethnic and religious differences that plague Pakistan melt away inside of LUMS.

You are all here for the very same reason. You want to make something of yourself. And for many, you want to make something of your country. It is your responsibility as Pakistan’s finest, to direct your talent towards the progress of this nation.

Treat your future coworkers with the same respect that you treated your fellow Luminites, and then someday your subordinates as you head your own organisations.

Extend the communion that you share with your graduating class with the wider Pakistan. They need you…

So on this day as you step into the real world, please take with you some of my life’s lessons:

Speak out, don’t take no for an answer, embrace failure and dare to dream!

Congratulations class of 2012, welcome to Act 2 of life’s play.

Thank you so much.


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