The University Honors Program provides students from all majors – English, to Science, Business, and Engineering the opportunity to earn the distinction of “Honors in the Liberal Arts”. We strive to introduce the value of a Liberal Arts emphasis in all undergraduate education programs. The abilities to read, write, think, and discuss critically and thoughtfully are priceless additions to any college experience.
Phi Beta Kappa, the oldest and most prestigious academic honorary society in the U.S. recognizes excellence and high performance in the fields of arts and sciences and each year elects students to be inducted into the society.
This year, UHP student Rahfin Faruk delivered a compelling induction speech describing his experiences in learning and applying his liberal arts education.
“Beyond Difference: Striving for Empathy”
2015 Phi Beta Kappa Student Oration
It is my honor to be speaking to all of you today. I congratulate all of our new Phi Beta Kappa inductees—I cannot think of a more fitting group of peers. All of us, especially students, stand on the shoulders of those who came before us and those who continue to support us. Thank you to all the professors in the audience, the platform party, and at this university who spend countless hours beyond the lecture hall mentoring and teaching us. Thank you to all the life partners, parents, grandparents, siblings, and friends in the audience who have helped mold who we are. In particular, I would like to thank my parents and my brother who have made me who I am. I believe it is both appropriate and well deserved that we give all of these folks that I have mentioned a round of applause.
One of my favorite authors, Arundathi Roy, writes in The God of Small Things: “And the air was full of Thoughts and Things to Say. But at times like these, only the Small Things are ever said. Big Things lurk unsaid deep inside.”
And so today, in that spirit, I want to give you all a look into the Big Things that make me who I am.
Much of what I do is rooted in the soil of my own experience. When I was in Bangladesh my freshman summer, I spent time in a rural farming village working as a surveyor for Grameen Bank. There was no running water, no stable electricity, no air conditioning, and no sanitary latrine. So for someone used to all the comforts of the modern world, it was difficult at first.
During that summer, I learned about the power of microfinance and self-empowerment and economic development, yet I will never forget remember one conversation I had. Out in the rice fields of north Bengal, I spoke to a man—age gave him a slight hunchback but he still proudly maintained his family’s small piece of land. Like generations before him, he made his living working the soil with his hands. After recording his survey answers—what his loan size was, if his business had grown over time, what his worries were—I asked him what his favorite day of the year was. I was expecting him to say his birthday or the day he was able to sell his crops.
But he said it was Eid-ul-Adha, a Muslim holiday that honors the willingness of Abraham to sacrifice his son Ishmael, as an act of love and submission to God. During Eid-ul-Adha, those who can afford it sacrifice a four-legged animal to commemorate the holiday.
I asked him why that was his answer, and his response will always stay with me. He said, “Eid-ul-Adha is the only day my children and grandchildren are able to eat red meat. The rich families, out of custom, give us meat on that day.”
My story and his story, which now seem very different, were less different when I was born. Our stories—urban and rural, middle class and poor—started in the same country, embedded in the same history and culture.
I was born in bustling Dhaka, Bangladesh. My dad—an electrical engineer—worked for the government like his father before him. His handsome paycheck was $100 a month. Life, if I had remained in Bangladesh, would have been very different for my family and me.
We moved to the United States when I was two years old. My dad worked years washing dishes to pay for graduate school, and my mom sacrificed her own career to raise my brother and me.
When we came to America, I was incredibly fortunate to have the advantage of caring parents and great teachers and a wonderful community to grow up in. But never in a million years did I think I would be in this room with all of you. Never did I think when I did not know a lick of English that I would be asked to give a student oration. Never did I think that I, an immigrant, would be able to live out parts of the American dream.
And so, sitting in that rice field, knowing all that I know now, I wondered what separated him and me: Why was I given so much and why was he given so little? Why am I here, speaking to some of the most accomplished people at this university, while he is in a rice field like his forefathers before him?
People much smarter than me have spent a lifetime debating and answering those questions. Some in the religious community have argued that God will make things right at the end of time. Some in the philosophical community have argued that there is no fairness—there just is. Some in politics have argued that it is the responsibility of people and governments to fix the world’s problems. Some in economics have argued that opportunity comes with free markets and strong institutions.
German poet Rainer Rilke wrote, “Be patient toward all that is unsolved in your heart and try to love the questions themselves, like locked rooms and like books that are now written in a very foreign tongue. Do not now seek the answers, which cannot be given you because you would not be able to live them. And the point is, to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps you will then gradually, without noticing it, live along some distant day into the answer.”
I think Rilke had a succinct and powerful point: It is perhaps in discovering and in living the questions—and not in just finding the answers—where our most powerful experiences and knowledge rests.
For me, the pursuit of the questions is embodied in Phi Beta Kappa. Our motto is that the love of learning is the guide of life. But how do we learn? How do expand our minds? How do we grow as individuals and as a community of world citizens? For me, it starts and ends with empathy—a way of living that is far more powerful than sympathy.
Webster’s defines empathy as “the feeling that you understand and share another person’s experiences and emotions.”
Arundathi Roy says about empathy: “To love. To be loved. To never forget your own insignificance. To never get used to the unspeakable violence and the vulgar disparity of life around you. To seek joy in the saddest places. To pursue beauty to its lair. To never simplify what is complicated or complicate what is simple. To respect strength, never power. Above all, to watch. To try and understand. To never look away. And never, never to forget.”
Empathy is rooted in the ability to recognize, understand, tolerate, accept, and share difference—an important quality in a globalized society and diverse world where we can no longer live in our own tribes amongst only people who look and think like we do. True empathy—the ability to embrace difference and to grow stronger because of it—has the power to greatly limit conflict, to deter a multitude of harmful –isms, and to foster collaboration and partnership.
Malcolm Gladwell, a writer turned thought leader, writes in The New Yorker: “Mainstream American society finds it easiest to be tolerant when the outsider chooses to minimize the differences that separate him from the majority. The country club opens its doors to Jews. The university welcomes African-Americans. Heterosexuals extend the privilege of marriage to the gay community. Whenever these liberal feats are accomplished, we congratulate ourselves. But it is not exactly a major moral accomplishment for Waspy golfers to accept Jews who have decided that they, too, wish to play golf. It is a much harder form of tolerance to accept an outsider group that chooses to maximize its differences from the broader culture.”
My time at this university—from studying the history of civil rights and the problems of economic development—has taught me that it is easy to minimize difference—it is easy to conform, it is easy to accept the status quo. It is much harder to accept difference—it is harder to be open to change, it is harder to accept a foreign way of thinking. Fundamentally, the liberal arts force us to confront difference—from conflicts of visions to historic divisions in ideology.
My ability to empathize was put to the test last year. The campus paper had published a series of articles from contributing writers who encouraged women to change their behavior—from drinking less to wearing more conservative clothing—in an effort to limit sexual assault. A few campus groups, including certain women’s advocacy organizations, called for the paper to boycott voices that were making such calls. Their petition claimed, “This is not a matter of freedom of speech; saying that people have their opinions and we are just posting them is blatantly unethical, erroneous, and ignorant.”
During my time at SMU, I had the pleasure of serving as editor of the school paper. Because of that experience, I became an evangelist for pluralist thought. I thought you were either a pluralist or you were not. There was no middle ground. I had seen what happened when voices were excluded—conservative Muslim political parties in places like Egypt became radicalized, minority constructivist voices in South Asia were written off as too fringe. The repercussions were real, and they were often violent. I firmly aligned myself with the words of French philosopher Voltaire when he wrote: “I do not agree with what you have to say, but I'll defend to the death your right to say it.”
I was faced with a dilemma. Here was a value, pluralism, which I thought of as a law—it only worked if it was applied equally to everyone. But on the other side of the equation, I felt a tug in my heart and my mind: A set of campus groups who faced a series of hurdles to promote inclusion on campus was being hurt by the campus paper, which was publishing hyper-conservative and often scientifically inaccurate articles.
After a series of opinion articles from both sides—and more than a handful of meetings, both official and unofficial—the campus paper improved the way in which it decided how to publish articles and the protesting campus groups were able to make a lasting impact. For me, there was no singular winner and no singular loser; it was a positive sum game. Here is what it was all about—we applied what we had learned in our courses about advocacy, fairness, and journalism and we tried to understand where each side was coming from—and came to a resolution that moved the conversation forward in a healthy, positive way.
Of course, life outside these walls can be far more complicated than a dispute over a campus paper’s opinion page: There are more groups, more interests, more hurdles, and more histories. But the core principles are the same: the ability to recognize the grievances and perspectives of the other side and the desire to co-exist and grow together. In this room, there are future leaders and decision makers. How we approach decisions—if we want the world to continue to improve—must be different than how we have approached decisions in the past. Empathy, at the end of the day, is simply a way in which to frame our actions. In and of itself, empathy means very little if we do nothing with it.
When I think about the rice farmer I met in Bangladesh—the man who left me with such a harrowing truth about the realities of life—I think about the need to act. I think about the need for what we learn here to matter out there. I think about him as a partner in our progress. It is my hope that we continue to ask ourselves the most difficult questions and that we continue to tackle them with rigor and empathy. The world we live is an ever-changing and dynamic place, and the need for new knowledge and new ways of thinking will forever be necessary. Your induction today into Phi Beta Kappa is not an end; it is a beginning. It is not only recognition of what you have done but also a challenge and a duty to continue to learn and to do. Thank you.