Welcome Address

Mr Firoz Rasul, President, Aga Khan University​

Our Chief Guest, Ms Roshane​​​h Zafar, Founder and Managing Director of the Kashf Foundation; 
Members of the Board of Trustees;
Provost Carl Amrhein; 
Members of Government and the Diplomatic Corps;
Deans, faculty, and staff of the University;
Parents, partners, supporters, and distinguished guests;
And most importantly, graduands:

Assalam-u-alaikum and good morning. Welcome to the 2018 Convocation Ceremony of the Aga Khan University. 

This is a momentous occasion. Not only is it a milestone in the lives of our graduands, it is a milestone in the history of the Aga Khan University. 

This year we mark the 35th anniversary of AKU. Now, that makes us relatively young compared to Oxford, Harvard or the older universities of the Muslim world, such as Al-Azhar. But consider all that we have achieved in that short time. That is what makes this anniversary so significant – not simply the number of years that have passed, but the scale and scope of our accomplishments. 

And none is greater than the fact that today we are graduating our 15,000th student. What’s more, we are graduating our 10,000th woman.  

Let that sink in. 15,000 leaders educated. 15,000 lives changed. 

And then multiply 15,000 by the number of people whose lives are touched by our alumni. Suppose that on average every AKU graduate makes a measurable difference in 1,000 lives. That would mean 15 million people stand to benefit from the work of our alumni.

That is truly cause for celebration. It shows that our graduates are indeed “a powerful light” – as our Chancellor, His Highness the Aga Khan, described them three decades ago. 

It is also cause for giving thanks – and there are so many to whom we are grateful. 

To begin with, I would like to express our gratitude to Ms Roshaneh Zafar, the Founder of Kashf Foundation for graciously accepting our invitation to be the Chief Guest. Your presence here is an inspiration to our students as they look at your example of service to the community through thoughtful and compassionate approaches.

Our donors have made extraordinary investments in this University, without which we could never do so much for so many people. Our faculty and staff have dedicated themselves wholeheartedly to making AKU an engine of innovation and knowledge creation. Our partners, advocates, and volunteers have helped us to achieve new levels of excellence and impact. And the parents of our graduands deserve a special thank-you — parents, I hardly need to tell you what remarkable individuals you have raised.  

To all of you: we are humbled to be the recipient of so much generosity, trust, and sacrifice.  

But our greatest gratitude goes to our Founder and Chancellor, His Highness the Aga Khan. 35 years ago, our Chancellor created this university after over a decade of conceptualizing the vision for an institution of higher learning in Pakistan, developing the programmes and curriculum, planning the campus, building the team, constructing the facilities, and funding the entire endeavour at launch. We hope that the Founder of the Aga Khan University today is proud of our accomplishments, the impact we are making, the service we are rendering, the quality we are achieving, the values we are upholding, and the reputation we are earning. 

Graduands, today we celebrate your success. You have overcome every challenge you encountered – and I know there were many, not only intellectual but personal, social, and emotional. An AKU education is a stern test. But it has brought out the best in you. You have the knowledge and skills; the confidence and compassion; and the capacity for leadership needed to succeed and to make a difference in the lives of others. On behalf of the entire AKU community, congratulations! 

What an extraordinary moment this is in your lives. It is rich with possibility and teeming with questions.

But I believe there is one question above all that confronts you as you sit here today, and that will remain with you long afterwards. It is among the most profound questions of all: How can I lead a consequential and rewarding life? 

I mean a life that contributes to the great tasks of overcoming disease, poverty, ignorance, and suffering. A life that empowers others to pursue their dreams, and brings something new into this world. A life that calls upon all the knowledge you have acquired and all the skills you have developed, and challenges you to continue learning, growing, and discovering new capacities.   

You are, of course, not alone in facing the question of how to make this a more just and prosperous world. It is one we all wrestle with. 

Indeed, it is one this University faced at its founding, and considered deeply with the help of leaders and thinkers from around the world. 

The answers we elaborated are our guiding principles of quality, access, relevance and impact. They form the Aga Khan University’s founding vision. 

This vision has now been tested and validated by 35 years of experience in six countries on three continents. 

Today, I will ask you to join me in reflecting on a number of our core principles. Because I believe that whatever your particular path, they can help you answer that all-important question: how can I make a difference? 

I will begin with the day our Chancellor inaugurated the Faculty of Health Sciences and the Aga Khan University Hospital, and carefully articulated our founding vision. 

One insight stood at its heart: the recognition that the growth of knowledge has driven progress throughout history, and that the power of knowledge to advance human welfare would only increase in the years ahead. 

The implication was clear: that universities, as generators of knowledge and educators of leaders, are among the most essential institutions of the modern world. 

And there was a related, and crucial, insight. To fulfil its potential, the Aga Khan University would need to meet international standards of excellence. 

Only then would it be able to generate new solutions to society’s most pressing challenges. Only then would its graduates have the skills to lead change. And only then could it be a role model that would, in the Chancellor’s words, “by example persuade other teaching institutions to set themselves higher targets.” 

But if it succeeded! Then it might be, as he said, the “seed” of wider change.  

This indeed was a bold vision 35 years ago. 

After all, AKU was largely without precedent. It would be Pakistan’s first private university. And with honored exceptions, universities had struggled to meet the high expectations of the post-colonial era. ​

But the Chancellor was not deterred. Today it is clear how right he was to persevere. 

The latest proof is a rigorous study of AKU’s economic impact in Pakistan led by several former senior World Bank economists. That study concludes AKU is “a nationwide role model for high-quality tertiary education and medical care” and “a national innovator.” 

Among its findings are that AKU transformed nursing in Pakistan by elevating standards of education and care, empowering countless women in the process. That academic degrees we introduced have spread to other institutions, and are producing much-needed leaders. That after our hospital became the country’s first to earn international accreditation, other hospitals followed its lead, increasing the availability of high-quality health care far beyond this campus. That our Institute for Educational Development and the AKU Examination Board are influencing a shift away from rote learning and toward critical thinking in the nation’s schools.

The report details the University’s research leadership. AKU ranks first in Pakistan on a key measure of research impact, being responsible for one out of every six highly cited studies published by the nation’s scientists. The work of our faculty has led to the introduction of new vaccines, stemmed the spread of polio, and given Lady Health Workers new tools for saving the lives of women and children. Today, our research is generating new possibilities in the battles against breast cancer and malnutrition. 

The study also describes how the University partners with government to serve the people of Pakistan. Examples range from the leadership faculty provided in developing the National Health Vision, to our assistance during the floods of 2010, when AKU provided free medical care to 1.3 million people. 

Finally, the study puts a number on AKU’s economic impact. And what a figure it is: more than $1 billion is put into the Pakistan economy every year. 

That’s right – if you consider the increased earnings of our alumni and the jobs they create, the longer working lives of our patients, and our purchasing from local businesses, AKU adds that annually. And it supports 42,000 jobs, both here at AKU and at companies across the country.

Graduands, two principles emerge from this history with special vividness. I urge you to consider them closely.  

First: Boldness is a Virtue. To make a lasting difference, you must be willing to swim against the tide and into uncharted waters. Great achievements are born from audacious ambition – the kind that brought this University into existence. 

And second: Excellence Drives Impact. Rather than a luxury, excellence is a transformative force with the power to improve life for people of every background and description. 

There is another pillar of the founding vision that I believe has special relevance to your lives in this era of divisiveness. 

The Chancellor once remarked that for AKU to thrive, it would need to “catch the imagination of the world.” 

And it has. Because our work is shaped by a conviction that has resonated with millions of people: the conviction that everyone deserves access to opportunity, regardless of faith, race, ethnicity, nationality, gender, or socioeconomic background. 

That belief is expressed in our work every day. It is why you were admitted based on merit, regardless of your family’s financial means, and why we have doubled financial aid in the last five years. It is why every year more than 700,000 low-income patients receive care with the help of our Patient Welfare Programme. It is why we work where the need is greatest – for example, training thousands of teachers in government schools in rural Sindh and Balochistan as well as Gilgit Baltistan. 

Thus we have a third principle for you to weigh: Be a Unifier. Amid so many efforts to divide the world into hostile camps, remember that humanity’s shared values and linked fortunes make it imperative to work across borders and boundaries of all kinds to improve people’s lives, especially those of the disadvantaged.  

The final principle I will commend to you was memorably stated by our Chancellor more than three decades ago when discussing the value of universities. 

That value, he said, “is directly proportional to their ability…to identify which current trends are likely to evolve into major changes, and to stimulate thinking about their implications in advance.” Hence, “We must endeavor as much to fly high and see beyond our present horizons as to broaden them.”

“To fly high, and see beyond our present horizons.” 

That is precisely what AKU is attempting to do. And what we see is a world where the issues are too big, numerous, and interconnected for a university limited to a handful of disciplines. We need a truly multidisciplinary university that is firmly rooted in the developing world, yet capable of making significant contributions to the global task of knowledge creation. A university that is equal to the scale and complexity of the problems the world faces. 

This is the university AKU is working to become. 

In the last half-decade, we have launched five new schools, institutes and centres, greatly expanding our reach across the world. In East Africa, we are educating journalists and communicators through the first of a number of new Graduate Professional Schools. We are delivering conversation-shaping insights on public policy issues. And we are conducting research aimed at ensuring that every young child develops to their full potential.   

Here in Karachi, we have established Pakistan’s first state-of-the-art centre for simulation-based learning, and launched our Centre for Regenerative Medicine and Stem Cell Research in partnership with the University of California, San Francisco, a world leader in the field. 

And our biggest transformation is yet to come – the establishment of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences. It will provide a wide-ranging undergraduate education that prepares students for leadership in a variety of fields, and brings together scholars and researchers in fields ranging from environmental science to philosophy.  

Graduands, in a constantly evolving world, you too must endeavor to fly high and see far. You must be ready to anticipate, adapt to, and shape the course of change.   

As you chart your unique course in life, I encourage you to look to the founding vision for inspiration. 

Be bold. Pursue excellence. Be a unifier. Look to tomorrow, and stand ready to act.   

Graduands, this is not goodbye – not for those of you who will join our staff, nor for those venturing further afield. 

Stay connected to AKU, as your fellow alumni have. We are proud of the many distinguished graduates who have returned to us from leading institutions around the world. 

You are part of a globe-spanning community numbering 15,000 strong. Your story is part of the University’s story, and our founding vision will find its fulfilment in your achievements.

We cannot wait to see how brightly your light shines. 

Thank you.​