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Youth Apprenticeship Program

May 3, 2012

Thank you for that kind introduction.  This is a terrific and inspiring event.  The Youth Apprenticeship Program is doing remarkable work and I am proud to be able to attend your graduation.  Many of you have had to overcome significant challenges to complete the Youth Apprenticeship Program.  I hope having been able to overcome these obstacles makes today’s ceremony all the more enjoyable for you and your families.   

Mrs. Finnegan has asked me to share a bit about my own life as part of my remarks, so that is what I will do.  But before I begin, I want to point out that it wouldn’t surprise me to find out many of the apprentices in the room right now might be able to teach me a thing or two about working hard and striving to reach one’s goals.  So, I will not presume to lecture you about the importance of hard work.  If you are here today, you already know about that.  Instead, as you move forward with your lives, careers and families, I’d like to encourage you to think about helping others, about service to community and country. 

Although I am the United States’ Ambassador to Belize, as you may have guessed from my name, I grew up far from the United States of America.  Like Belize, the United States is a land of immigrants.  Belize has welcomed Chinese, Lebanese, Indian and Mennonites and many other groups, just as the U.S. has offered opportunities to a wide diversity of immigrants.  So, whether in Belize City or Washington, D.C., sometimes guessing nationality based on one’s surname can prove wrong, but in this case it is true that I was not born in the United States.  I grew up in South India, in Hyderabad.  

As a boy, I was just that—a boy.  Playful, mischievous, not a great student.  To be frank I was a bit of a trouble.  To this day my mother reminds the family that at times she wondered how I was going to make it in life.  I did enough to get by in school.  My family was comfortable, but not wealthy by any means.  We had a small farm to supplement income.  I remember that sometimes I drove to the market very early in the morning, delivering buffalo milk and eggs to the market.  So I did not mind work, especially if it was fun or interesting.  I was playful, but I worked when I needed to. 

I should have studied a bit more, though, because when it came time to enter university, I missed out on the state’s leading public school, Osmania University, by one percentage point.  Instead I attended a private university.  My parents likely never knew, but I felt intense pressure and guilt that I had let them down, that I was wasting their money.  After two years of college in India I moved to the United States to live with my aunt and continue college.  While attending college I worked part time to put myself through school, with a certain fervor, to establish myself as independent and not be a burden to my parents or my aunt.  I think many of you here may have felt a similar tension between family pressure and independence. 

After finishing college with an engineering degree, I got a job.  I continued studying for my masters degree, taking evening classes.  It was at that time I met some very interesting people, most notably a young lady named Barbara who later became my wife.  I also met President Barack Obama when he was just 18 years of age.  We became friends, never lost contact during the next 30 plus years.  Barbara and I started a family; we have two children, a son and a daughter.  As our children grew, my wife and I became more and more active in our community.  It was a balancing act.  We had work and family obligations, so we did whatever we could:  ordinary people trying to make a difference by helping out the local community.  Barbara volunteered as a teacher, helping a variety of people learn to speak English and thereby live more comfortably in America.  She also volunteered at primary schools in our area—often introducing young people to Indian culture.  She’d sometimes pack up a few boxes of supplies, take them to school and teach the kids about Indian food and clothing.  The kids, as well as many parents, loved it.  Barbara and I both volunteered as time permitted with the Red Cross.  I remember for Thanksgiving we would help transport homeless people to shelters for a turkey dinner.  Our children would be right there with us at the shelter or in the car helping out. 

While we were going about our lives, our friend Mr. Barack Obama was doing his thing: became a lawyer and a college professor.  In addition he started doing something very interesting; he became a community organizer, helping people who were in need to improve their lives.  He was living in Chicago, south side of Chicago, a place not much different than today’s Belize city.  He devoted most of his time and energy to helping people.  After many years of hard work and commitment, people around him started to pay attention to what he was up to.  Years later, he ran for public office, in 1995 he won an election to become the state senator in Illinois.  I don’t have to tell you more about how incredibly successful he has become.

In 2007 when he decided to run for President, my wife and I decided to support him in a significant way.  We traveled to 9 states across the entire country to canvass and try to explain to voters that we personally knew this young African American candidate.  It was not at all easy in the early days.  People said he did not have experience, that he was this or he was that.  We never gave up, not once did we let any doubts stop us from continuing our campaign work.  The 2008 elections resulted in Mr. Obama win, and he became the 44th president of the United States of America.  The first African American to do so.  It was simply unbelievable.  A few months later I got a call from the White House, asked if I would like to become the next Ambassador to Belize.  Guess what, it took me 20 seconds to say yes!  And here I am, now serving as the personal representative of the President of the United States of America to Belize.  It was completely unexpected and it has turned out to be amazing. 

I know each of you here has a unique story.  It is no less important than that of mine or President Obama’s or anyone else.  As you take the skills that you learned in the Apprenticeship Program, apply those skills, stay true to yourselves, continue to work hard to get ahead, nothing can come in the way of your success.  I urge you to stay focused on your goals.  Once people around you acknowledge your good work, they will respect you.  They will listen to what you have to say.  They will follow your good example.

Today is a very special day in your lives.  You have already accomplished something important.  You have earned the respect of many people, your families and friends are here to celebrate this special day.  You have the US ambassador speaking to you, telling you about his own life experience.  You should be very proud of yourselves.

I know in my heart that everyone in this room has given some thought at some point or other to working for the good of a broader community.  Do not ignore that feeling.  Indulge your desire to do good.  Reach inside yourself.  Fulfill that desire to help others and serve in whatever meaningful way fits with the other complexities of your life.  The trick is to do the things you already know are right.

I encourage all of you to meet the challenge of service.  The world needs your effort and your commitment.  Go at your own pace, find your own rhythm—your own balance between work, family, and service.  It can be fulfilling in extraordinary and unexpected ways. 

Thank you for this opportunity to share my story with you and thank you more importantly for all the good and great things you will do throughout your lives in the service of others.