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John Prendergast,School of International Service
Commencement Speaker

Text of Speech (as delivered)

Word Cloud of John Prendergast's speech

A "word cloud" representation of John Prendergast's commencement address.

Thank you, President Kerwin and Dean Goodman and particularly to Gayatri [the student speaker], my new student hero, my former student hero, as of about 20 minutes from now.

First things first, in this commencement speech as in life…our mothers. I’m getting on a train right after this ceremony ends and I’m high tailing it up to Philly to see my mother. She was like, “You’re doing what on my day? Now, son, you make your speech short and you get your butt up here. Those graduates don’t want to be preached out with some long winded litany of life lessons, they just want to walk across the stage, grab their degrees and get the heck out of there. Hear, me boy? Make it short!”  Yes, Mom. So, there’s one life lesson. We may not always like what they have to say or especially how they say it, but our mothers are always right. Happy Mother’s Day, Moms.

Graduation is such a seismic moment in our lives. Not only are many of you attending some of the best parties this week of your entire life; not only are many of you feeling some of the most acute anxiety and profound self doubt you will ever experience in your entire lives; not only are many of you experiencing a particular thrill this week that most closely resembles that of an ex-convict that gets released from prison—something that I myself got to experience a couple of weeks ago after getting arrested with five Congressmen in front of the Sudan Embassy. Yes. Yes, you’re commencement speaker is a frequent jailbird too. Next year they will do a little bit better job of vetting the backgrounds of your honorary degree recipients, but you are stuck with me this year. I got about ten minutes before the cops show up.

Anyway, in addition to all of that, graduation offers, as Gayatri said, an extraordinary opportunity to reflect on what kind of footprint we want to make in this world of ours and with the people in it. We can start by evaluating, for a second, what kind of footprint that you are leaving behind here at American University’s School of International Service. 

Let me tell you something. I get an incredible honor, and privilege of traveling around the country and spending lots of time on campuses across the United States and the School of International Services has some very, very unique characteristics. You know it’s not called the School for International Service for nothing. This is the feature that actually drew me to AU when I decided to enroll so many years ago. I think Reagan was president, Marion Barry was the mayor. Change you can believe, in right?

Now, you have all kinds of volunteer opportunities, every single one of you from what I understand have done something for someone else on this planet during the last four years.  You have the freshmen service experience, which is a very unique program. You have alternative spring break, which many of you were part of; you have an amazing array of professors, some of whom actually taught me…the dinosaurs like David Hirschann, sorry David, and John Richardson and others that were able to shape in some ways who I am. You have abroad programs that send you guys around the world with your mischief and your idealism; this is extraordinary.

This is a world class array of opportunities to do good in the world.  And, OK, besides all of that you have a basketball team that made it to the dance two years in a row. Jeff Jones, friends, is just getting warmed up; you watch. And keep those checks because you know that the alumni office is going to be getting in touch with you a week after you guys graduate.

No, AU, I think, American University is going to stay in your blood for the rest of your life. One second—earmuffs parents—the Dancing Crab, Clyde’s, and Guapos is going to make darn sure of that.  Unfortunately, speaking of blood, I also have malaria in my blood from my years in Africa, but now we share American University in our blood and from what I have experienced, this is a very, very good thing.

American University’s School of International Service, it seems to me, is a place where women and men prepare to go forth and live righteous lives and to stand up for the rights and dignity of our fellow human beings. Standing up is so key in life. My best friend in the world Samatha Power calls it being an upstander. You are going to have so many opportunities in the coming years to be an upstander rather than a bystander. To be someone that takes the road less traveled, who takes the chance, who dives in the deep end, who goes for the cake and the icing, who trusts yourself and believes that anything is possible and finally just goes for it.

When you live like this, incredible things can happen. Let me tell you a few stories about how this is played out in my life.

I couldn’t have imagined that when I saw those pictures of the Ethiopian famine in 1984 and I scraped all of my money together that I had in the world at the time and I bought a one way ticket to Africa that 15 years later, I’d be flying around Africa with President Clinton on Air Force One.

I couldn’t have imagined that when I was 20-years-old when I was visiting a buddy of mine in a homeless shelter here in D.C. and I met a little 6-year-old kid Michael living out of plastic bags in that homeless shelter, that 25 years later he would be a husband and a proud father of five boys of his own and that he would tell me that he made it because I decided back in 1983 to be Michael’s big brother and look out for him the rest of his life.

I couldn’t have imagined that when I got my first volunteer internship in Washington, D.C. at the age of 24 years old, and I was living, literally living in a condemned building because I couldn’t afford rent that 16 years later that I would traveling around the Congo with Angelina Jolie and her own personal photographer.

I couldn’t have imagined that when I was in my early mid-twenties and no one would hire me because I had no experience because no one would hire me—you all know that drill—that a little over a decade later that I would be sitting elbow to elbow with Nelson Mandela strategizing with him on how to bring peace to some of Africa’s war torn countries.  

I couldn’t have imagined when sitting in my moldy, cramped, basement office with a little Washington, D.C. NGO back in the late 1980s that a decade and a half later, I would be accompanying Eli Weisel, the survivor of the Holocaust, and George Clooney, the survivor of Batman III, to the security council of the United Nations.

And a couple of years ago, I couldn’t imagine when the two top publishing houses in the United States of America both said that the book that my buddy Don Cheadle and I were trying write; wanting to write, was literally, in their words, unmarketable. We went ahead and wrote it anyways and it climbed in the first couple of weeks to number three on the New York Times bestseller list. Copies are available, of course, on

Now, I hope you all see my point by now. I definitely did enough name dropping to make it for gosh sakes. The point is, but an upstander. And while you are being an upstander, dream big because they could come true.  When I started believing in myself, my dreams started coming true, it wasn’t the other way around.  You must believe in who you are and what you stand for as a human being because life hits and it hits hard. There are points in my life when things genuinely looked bleak, even hopeless. And without a belief in who I am and without my faith in God, I wouldn’t be standing here today. Redemption is always one chance away, right around the next corner. If you have the courage, and the faith, the heart, and especially the heart, to keep trying and believing to keep pursuing your dreams. 

It doesn’t always work. If you look up outrageous or crazy in the dictionary, scroll down you’ll see my picture. I can tell you, every time I’ve taken a chance, though, and every time I’ve ventured a risk and every time that I’ve chased a dream, I’ve gotten a little wiser a little stronger and a little richer in spirit. And now, like the scarecrow in the Wizard of Oz I’ve got an honorary doctorate to prove it.

But, being an upstander is about more than realizing your dreams, it is also fundamentally about making a world a better place. We cannot turn away from our role in the world and our role in our own neighborhoods, wherever we live.  When you leave the cocoon today, the AU cocoon, warm and fuzzy as it is, I urge you to join or remain members of the organizations that address the issues that you care about and be part of the change that you want to promote in this world.

Over the last century, there’s no doubt it’s been the people’s movements that have changed the course of human history….the civil rights movement, the women's movement, the environmental movement, the labor movement, the peace movement. And, here’s what that means for you all in this room. If the world that your own children someday will inherit will not be engulfed by environmental destruction, will not be engulfed by violent wars and preventable diseases, will not by racial and religious discrimination, by human rights abuses, and the other scourges of our age. It will be because you organized, you led, you believed in yourselves, you didn’t sleep through the revolution that’s happening around us now. You were an upstander, and you made darn sure that your precious and your hard earned degree from American University was a beacon that lit a path for all those seeking a better world. 

Congratulations Class of 2009, fly like the eagles that you are. Thank you.

Prendergast was one of five commencement speakers.
Click hereto access transcripts and watch videos of all the commencement speeches.