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Graduation address: Pascale Moreau '79 - "The impossible is what takes a little longer..."

Brenda Whately, Director of Alumni Relations, UWCSEA
4 June 2019

Pascale Moreau '79 addresses the graduating class at the UWCSEA Dover graduation ceremony on Saturday, 25 May 2019.

Pascale Moreau '79, Director of the Bureau for Europe of United Nations High Commissioner  for Refugees (UNHCR) came back to the College and Singapore for the first time in nearly 40 years to address the graduating class at the UWCSEA Dover graduation ceremony on Saturday, 25 May 2019. She addressed the Class of 2019 and assembled guests with this speech, the transcript of which is published with permission.

Dear graduates, family members and teachers,

Ladies and gentlemen,

It is a true honor for me to be here and I want to thank UWCSEA for its invitation. I also have to say that I am terrified by the level of expectations that has been recently created through the commencement speech of billionaire Robert Smith so I need to say at the outset that I will not offer to repay your student loans!

Let me thank you for inviting me to address you today – it is a true honor and very emotional for me as it is the first time in 40 years, nearly to the day, that I am back in this college.  I have to admit that although I sat where you are, I don’t remember a word of what the speaker said to us! 

I do remember however how I felt – relieved that exams were over (particularly maths), very sad to leave friends, excited but also anxious and apprehensive about leaving the comfort and predictability and fun of boarding life and opening THE chapter of my independent life, eager to discover new things and convinced that everyone has a place in this world and can contribute in their own personal way, to make a difference, however small or big. 

And you know what, 40 years later, I am still convinced of all that.

I have given a lot of thought about what I would say to you today, what would be interesting for you and writing this speech also made me seriously reflect about what I wanted to transmit, what would I do again or not – my friends and colleagues will tell you that I usually have a lot of opinions about many things so here is a distillation of my thoughts.

However, before going into the ‘serious stuff’, I cannot resist to recall how different the world was in 1979 and what an extraordinary privilege it is to have lived the past 40 years.  1979 was the year Pink Floyd released The Wall and where Lord of the Rings was aired for the first time on the radio; the year the Soviet/AFG war started the effects of which are still affecting millions of lives, the year of the IRN revolution while Margaret Thatcher became UK’s first female PM; the year the first Mad Max movie and Hair were released while Sony invented the Walkman!

But more closely to UWC, it was also the year that saw the killing of Lord Mountbatten by the IRA in August – as you know, he was a founding member of the UWC movement and it’s President for a decade and I want to pay tribute to his vision and that of his peers (and note that I did not speak of Kurt Hahn!).

You live in a world of mobility, communication, globalization so embrace change, say ‘yes’ to what is coming your way and make the best of unexpected turns and opportunities that will come in your life. I have learned that there are good things in every experience even the worst and that life is better if you can see the glass half-full rather than half-empty. 

There are very few of us who are born already convinced about what we will do and we are all allowed to make mistakes – you don’t need to know now what you are doing to do for the rest of your life – in fact, this is what makes life so fascinating.

As you know, I have been working for the UN for refugees for 30 years but I did not start like this – I am actually an archeologist and was on my way to become an oceanographer!  Until I realized that I did not want to teach, that I would starve to death and that science (in those days) did not welcome women.

It was a long road to find my way and I have my parents to thank for their patience and flexibility but I have retained my passion for history, for the environment and for diversity.  All of which I use in my working life every day because refugee work also includes all of these aspects.

This college changed my life and the world would be a better place if all children on the planet could have the opportunity to study in UWCs and UWC’s Refugee Initiative is most appreciated step in this direction as it gives hope and a future to youths who have lost everything. The universal values of UWC (celebration of diversity, education, the environment, peace, sustainability, multiculturalism) are exactly the same as the aspirations of the UN so it should be no surprise that I chose that road in the end. 

Every generation feels that the world has become more complicated, more negative, and more dangerous and I am no exception.  As one of Geneva’s college principals said last year , my generation feels that we have moved from ‘a society of values to a multicultural society of leisure’ – yes there is some truth to this and there are real temptations and real threats, but fundamentally, what binds human kind, what makes them different, are values.

Through my work, on four continents, in all societies, no matter what your political association, your religion, your race or ethnic group or the color of your skin, I have seen the worst and the best of man. 

From the Rwandan genocide in 1994 to the refugee camps in Zaire, we saw the essence of horror but at the same time, the greatest generosity and heroism as thousands of people risked their lives for others, protecting and hiding them.

In Romania in 1989, during and after the Revolution, it was hope and the reconstruction of a country in ruins that dominated everyone’s energies including that of the refugees’ and in Chechnya, we witnessed the terrible misery of thousands of displaced persons but also their community’s strength in supporting each other and continuing with their lives no matter what.

In Asia, most of the countries have not acceded to international refugee instruments and yet, many have been hosting thousands of refugees for decades, as part of neighbourly responsibility and solidarity.

So what does it tell us – it tells us that hospitality, abnegation and generosity are universal values; that individuals and societies can survive, rebuild and move on from catastrophic events; that the collective is stronger than one and that turning away is not an option.

There are a few things that I have learned from each and every refugee situations – it is not easy but necessary to be humble and to truly listen to people; that humans have amazing resilience and that courage is not the absence of fear or loss but rather the ability to master them and, most importantly, that it could happen to anyone, anywhere. We must never take peace for granted – it needs to be defended, actively, and sometimes fought for.

We see today a more fragmented world than ever, a world that is many ways, totally unpredictable where the alliances of the past have disappeared leaving space for ad hoc sometimes haphazard foreign policymaking.  A world of fast communications where the anonymity of social platforms and the toxicity of the language of politics have opened sceptres of intolerance, fear, bigotry and fierce nationalism. This is dangerous because societies cannot be truly prosperous, stable and peaceful if they do not include everyone. 

As citizens, we have rights but we also have obligations and you know this because you have had the privilege of learning and living in a multicultural diversity that promotes understanding and tolerance – please keep this alive, it is one of UWC’s most precious gift and each of you, each of us can make a difference - as Dante said, “the darkest places in hell are reserved for those who maintain their neutrality at times of moral crisis”.

But among all things I have done and not done in my life, there is one enormous regret and one particular legacy that I am not proud of, that none of my generation are proud of and that will drive your lives and your values for years to come.  And this is the state of our planet. Earth will die if humans do not take action and this entails that all of us and generations to come are going to have to balance our legitimate aspirations for personal needs with the vital importance of preserving the collective/global well-being.

This will mean perhaps accepting less individual comfort and taking conscious decisions about the impact of each and every one of our actions – and measuring this against the need to preserve the diversity and the health of our land for generations to come. It will mean holding ourselves accountable for each action we take or do not take but also holding states and companies accountable for the same – not easy to do but it is a survival issue that engages every human on Earth and where every step/every effort will cumulatively count.

Let me close by congratulating and honouring each of you for this graduation, as well your families, your friends and all the teachers.  They have all supported you and accompanied you to this point as well as your parents who deserve a special mention of appreciation and who today are full of joy and pride for your success - and probably feel also some anxiety for what lies ahead for you! 

My final words will be those of Fridtjof Nansen, well-known for many achievements but also our very first High Commissioner for Refugees:

“Have you not succeeded, continue, have you succeeded, continue”,

and my all-time favorite,

“The impossible is what takes a little longer”….

So…. go out there and do the impossible – it can be done!

Watch the UWCSEA Graduation 2019 playlist.