Equal Opportunities Commission



Victoria Shanghai Academy (VSA) Graduation Ceremony 2012

Speech by Mr LAM Woon-kwong, Chairperson, Equal Opportunities Commission


Dr. Koong, Principals, Teachers, Parents, Students,

Good morning. Thank you for inviting me.

Graduates, we are here to celebrate your accomplishments. Congratulations!

Today, you step into your future. I want to share with you the stories of two graduates, one from a few weeks ago, and another from nearly a century past.

The first graduate is a man named Gac Filipaj. He graduated from Columbia University on May 13. Mr. Filipaj had to abandon his studies when he fled his home in the former Yugoslavia, due to civil war and ethnic violence. But he never gave up dreaming of furthering his studies. After arriving in the United States in 1992, he chose to get a job as a janitor at Columbia University in part because it offers free courses for all its employees. He took part-time English language classes for six years in order to qualify for university study. He then enrolled in a part-time degree program in Columbia. For the next 12 years, he worked full-time from 2:30 to 11pm, after which he would study late into the night and attend classes in the morning. It took him 19 years altogether, but he now has a bachelor’s degree with honours from one of the world’s top universities. He is now 52 years old.

What does this story have to do with you? First, it is a useful reminder that there is no expiry date on achieving your dream. It may take years. It may be fraught with difficulties. You may sometimes feel like giving up. But nothing worthwhile comes easily. Mr. Filipaj, for example, was deterred neither by the difficulties he faced in the past, nor the fact that he was much older than his peers and cleaning their classrooms. Perseverance, especially in the face of obstacles, is what matters.

This leads to my second point: Dreams are made possible when we create opportunities for ourselves. Mr. Filipaj wanted to further his education, but he had limited financial resources. Much of what he earned he sent back home to support his family. He didn’t give up. He sought out a job that would allow him to learn among the best for free. He created the road to his success. As you move on in your life, you too must seize every chance to shape your own destiny.

Now I come to the second graduate. She was a young Chinese woman named Deng Chunlan (鄧春蘭), from the province of Gansu. Like Mr. Filipaj, Deng Chunlan also dreamt of furthering her studies. But back in post-revolution China then, education for girls remained extremely limited, and women were not allowed to enroll in China’s newly established universities. In 1919, when she was only a few years older than you are now, Deng Chunlan published a groundbreaking open letter calling on the Peking University to take the lead to open its door to female students. Her actions led to the admission of the first seven female students to Peking University the following year. She was among them.

You have all been fortunate enough to have already experienced a quality education. Looking around this room, almost a century later, we have Deng Chunlan and other pioneers like her to thank for the number of girls present.

Imagine for a moment the courage it took for Deng Chunlan to speak up at a time when most women in China were illiterate and had few rights. In doing so, Deng Chunlan helped to shift the course of Chinese history, enabling millions who came after her to study, work, and participate more equally in society. By standing up against inequity in her own life, she helped to change the nation.

But this day, there remain others here in this city who struggle to access a quality education because of factors like their race, disability and underprivileged status. Injustice remains both in and outside the system. Will you find the courage to speak up for them?

Put to good use what you have learned. You have been given a great privilege – the privilege of knowledge, of learning in a global environment. Remember what you have been taught by this remarkable Academy: Virtue, Service, and Action (明善力行). Use what you have gained and give back. Contribute to a better, more equitable society. Speak out for others who have had fewer opportunities than you. Make what you know count.

The Roman philosopher Seneca, who was a favourite of Mr. Filipaj, said, “Every new beginning comes from some other beginning's end.” As you come to the end of this beginning, I hope that you will remember these two students who, in their struggle to learn, touched the lives of countless others.

Congratulations once again. Thank you, and I wish you all great success.