Wyclef Jean's Commencement Speech - May 23, 2010
Good afternoon graduates, proud parents and relatives, faculty and staff. It’s a great privilege for me to be here today to attend this ceremony and share with you in your success and accomplishments.
I know this has been a long road for you—four years for some, shorter or longer for others.
I know the last thing that you want to do be bored by a speaker.
I also know that you are anxious to finally walk across the stage and accept that degree you’ve worked so hard to obtain. For those reasons, I promise to keep my remarks brief.
I’ve spoken lots of places before—from the UN, to the White House to Awards Shows in front of hundreds of thousands of people.
But this is my first commencement speech. Deciding what to say was difficult. I wondered what could I share with you?
A couple weeks back I was in the studio working on my new album. I’d hit a creative block. My brother, who was in the studio with me, helped me look for inspiration for a song.
He ran across a video of Adam Clayton Powell Jr., a well known African-‐ American civil rights leader, pastor and Congressman from New York. Dr. Powell delivering a speech in Cambridge, Massachusetts.
The speech was moving—one of the most powerful speeches I’ve ever heard.
The title of it was “What’s in your hands?” Dr. Powell was speaking to a group of people who were down on their luck, thought they didn’t matter, thought they didn’t have power, thought they had no way of escaping poverty and no way of changing their circumstances.
Dr. Powell asked the audience, “WHATS IN YOUR HANDS?” He wanted to get them to think about what they CAN do rather than what they couldn’t do. What they DID have as opposed to what they DIDN’T have.
He then went through a list of figures both biblical and historical. From Jesus to Benjamin Franklin, he laid out examples of people who used what little they had in their hands to change the world.
Not only did the speech inspire me to complete the song, it formed the basis for the message I want to give you today—that we all have the ability to achieve our dreams, if only we can envision what we want and plan to make it happen.
I was born in a small town in Haiti. We didn’t have much.
My parents left Haiti to come to America in search of a better life for my brother and me.
They BELIEVED that if they could just change their circumstances, they could begin to live out the vision they had for themselves and their children.
They saved every penny they could to get to America. But they knew getting to America wouldn’t mean automatic success. They had to plan in order to reach the goals they set for themselves.
They had a vision for their future that was far greater than many of their friends and even other family members.
Like my parents, you’ve done everything you can to complete that first step. They wanted to get to America, you wanted to get your degree.
But you have to know it doesn’t end there. You have to ask yourself, what will you do with the degree? How will you use it to achieve your goals? And the answer to that depends on HOW FAR YOU CAN SEE.
You must have a vision for your future. You must pair that vision with a plan.
Because my mother and father instilled in me the need to have a vision and a plan, I survived in the entertainment industry—an industry that isn’t very kind.
I came to America as a boy excited. This was the land of possibilities and opportunities. I loved music, writing, singing, playing. That’s all I ever wanted to do.
I was told that I didn’t have a chance. That there was no way I could make a living as a musician or a rapper.
I was in a group no one wanted to manage. Whose first album didn’t get great reviews. I was told to give up….several times.
But I had a vision for myself that was strong. And I set in motion a plan to accomplish what I knew I could.
If you have a vision for yourself, it won’t matter that others may be blind to what you CAN see. That vision will help you see past many factors that can discourage you. That vision will help you see past the setbacks—and setbacks WILL happen.
It’s not enough to just be able to SEE. That’s only the beginning. The real question, the more important question is, WHAT WILL YOU DO WITH WHAT YOU SEE? What are you going to do with that vision?
Talk to anyone successful person whether it’s your professors or parents. Research any figure who has made their mark in history or in their respective field.
The one thing they will often have in common is that they SAW something in their future. And the reason we remember them is because they DID something with that vision.
You don’t have to be rich, powerful, or famous to be great or successful. In fact, your vision doesn’t have to be of you becoming rich, powerful, or famous.
Unfortunately in this society we measure success oftentimes in shallow and material ways. How much money do you have? How powerful are you? Are you famous? How big is your house? What kind of car do you drive?
All these questions reinforce misguided belief that success is somehow tied to material things that benefit the SELF. I have, I do, I am.
I have had a lot of success in entertainment. But I didn’t really become successful as a person until I began to give of myself to others who needed my help.
Outside of being a husband and a father, nothing has given me greater satisfaction than the work I’ve been able to do with YELE HAITI—the charity I founded in 2005.
It’s one of the many things I’ve been able to accomplish because I had a vision for myself. All of the success I’ve had would mean nothing without the opportunity to better the lives of others in my home country.
I’d like to challenge each and every one of you define success for yourself. You will find that making a commitment to others as well as yourself will be key.
Create a vision based on your specific gifts, talents, and tools. There is greatness in simply being you and using your skill to do something with your vision—and to put your personal plan in motion.
You are ultimately responsible for HOW FAR YOU CAN SEE. Your future belongs to you, and you alone.
Believe it or not, I used to ride a donkey to school in Haiti. I lived in a one-‐room shack. When I came to America, I didn’t speak a word of English.
Today I am able to travel the world, reach people with my music, work on behalf of my native Haiti and even speak at a college commencement.
I am proof that anything you want is possible, if you can only envision it first.
Congratulations Class of 2010.