Graduating into a new digital world

These days are some of the most memorable ones in the lives of students. Many are hugely excited to be graduating, going on to higher-level studies or to professional lives; a few students will have faced challenges and disappointments and will rejuvenate themselves for a better performance next year; and most youngsters will just be happy to enjoy a few months of rest and leisure.

Graduations, especially from high school or from college, are important milestones in the lives of students. Thus schools organise graduation ceremonies with great fanfare. And having attended the graduation ceremonies of my two sons from high school in recent years, I know the feelings and the atmosphere that surround those moments.

Many speeches are given at graduation ceremonies: By school administrators, teachers, invited speakers and students (the brilliant, eloquent representatives of the cohort). Some graduation speeches, such as the one that Steve Jobs delivered at Stanford University in 2005, have become classics. With YouTube, they have reached, touched, inspired and influenced millions of people. I am not sure if it is the moment or the famous (and often humble) person, but the wise words often turn on a light bulb in people’s minds, showing them a principle of life or a vocation that they had not identified but now see as a clear path to follow.

Graduation speeches tend to revolve around the following themes: Accept your mistakes and failures and learn from them; do not give up; dare to dream, the sky is the limit; work hard; seek and accept criticism and advice; be kind and generous, give of yourself without expecting returns, etc.

I have not been asked to give a graduation speech for some time now. In fact, only once did a school ask me to give a short speech to its graduating class. (I can summarise that speech in three words: “Read! Read! Read!”)

However, I would like to offer some thoughts to this year’s graduating students, for I have noticed a few things lately that I would like to highlight for them (and others). Indeed, these thoughts may actually be good to offer to non-graduating students as well and even to the wider public in general.

The first thing I would like to note is that the world has changed with the digital revolution. This may be a cliche, but it has important consequences. Indeed, today’s youth are used to being instantly and continuously connected to the entire world. Life has not just become faster, it has accelerated to near-instantaneous interactions. Yesterday’s movies, lectures, political events and even football games seem to us like they are running in slow motion. This leads the current young generation to demand and expect instantaneous responses and fulfilments of every request in every sphere of life. So my advice on this is: Slow down! Taking life one step at a time, taking a moment to reflect, postponing sending an email, etc, will result in better interactions and accomplishments.

Secondly, the internet has brought loads of information to our fingertips and it has become so easy and tempting to just google up something and copy-paste it in one’s work. I think this is due to a combination of laziness, fast-paced life and a belief that somehow the virtual world is a shared space where personal and intellectual “property” are a fuzzy concepts. And with the recent rise in plagiarism (in schools and at work places, including among a number of journalists and writers), we need to raise the alarm for youngsters to be very careful in how they use information that can be easily obtained online.

And thirdly, still on the digital front, youngsters, with their lack of experience, must keep in mind the fact that everything they do online (even a ‘Like’ on Facebook) is recorded for all eternity and may come back to haunt them in their personal or professional lives.

On a different note, I wish to stress the fact that the world is now highly globalised and fluid. Most people will change jobs and fields of work several times in their professional lives. In fact, many will move to other countries; some will have to undergo new training or even go back to school to get a new degree. My advice: Retain the ability to learn and practice it as regularly as you can. Your career and trajectory will most likely be different from the one you imagined and planned for.

And last but not the least, whatever experiences you go through — good or bad, fair or unfair — please do keep your integrity. Do not cheat, do not cut corners, do not right a wrong with another wrong. As Albert Einstein wisely put it: “Try not to become a [person] of success, but rather try to become a [person] of value.”

By Nidhal Guessoum, published in Gulf News, June 11th 2014.

Nidhal Guessoum is a professor and associate dean at the American University of Sharjah. You can follow him on Twitter at: