“Keynote Remarks to the Class of 2017”

Andres Duarte ’65

Commencement Address
2017 Ohio Wesleyan University Commencement Ceremony
May 13, 2017

Andres Duarte ’65 delivers the commencement address at OWU’s 2017 Commencement Ceremony. (Photo by Paul Vernon)

Good afternoon.

I am deeply honored to be here with you President Jones, members of the faculty and administration, families and guests, and the especially with you, the graduating class of 2017. Thank you.

It feels good to be back in my Ohio home.

I first walked onto this campus in 1961, not entirely knowing what I was getting into. I had spent 12 years in a Jesuit school in Venezuela and one year at a boarding school in Connecticut. After high school, I had been accepted to attend Northwestern. However, one of my uncles had been a visiting professor of philosophy here at OWU, and at the last minute he recommended I come to OWU. Two phone calls later, and I was headed to Delaware, Ohio.

Being a late arrival, I was assigned a second-floor room in East Selby – yes, Selby Stadium. We soon baptized it the “low-rent district,” seeing that we had to walk or bicycle across the stadium and Sandusky Street for meals.

During my first days at OWU, September 1961, I had some pretty interesting and unexpected experiences.

My very first class was English, and things looked different than they did at my Jesuit school in Venezuela. For one, I saw that none of the other nine students was wearing a jacket and tie. I was dressed properly. Then, when the professor walked in about five minutes late, I was the only student who immediately stood up. I stood there for about 15 seconds with the professor writing on the blackboard.

Finally, he turned around and said to me, “You must be a foreign student, sit down.” Amen.

Early that year, I also had to learn about wearing a “dink.” A dink amounted to a small rounded baseball cap without a bill, and all freshmen fraternity pledges had to wear one. The dink was compulsory for freshmen.

I wore mine for several days, and then decided to not wear it again. You’d understand why if you saw how we looked in them. The next day I was caught by sophomores and taken to the Sulphur Spring just over there, and I was given a bath of sulphurized water. From there on, during the first term, I even wore the dink in my sleep.

Yes, it was a very different time – but as I said, we had fun.

My dad had told me that that my four years of college would most likely be the happiest days of my life, and I was beginning to realize that.

Unfortunately, my four years at OWU also coincided with the compulsory draft and the Vietnam War. By the time I graduated in 1965, I left behind friends that served this nation and did not return from that war in Asia. I feel that they are with us here now, and I’d like to ask a member of your graduating class to join me here for a moment and read the names of these classmates of mine who never had the opportunity to come back home to Ohio.

Ashley Tims, a zoology and environmental science major will be going into active duty with the U.S. Army as an Air Defense Artillery Officer. I am honored to have her read the names of my classmates.

[Ashley Tims comes to lectern and reads names]

  • William R. Ammon – 2nd Lieutenant, U.S. Marine Corps
  • Russell H. Cornish – Private First Class, U.S. Army Infantry
  • Michael D. Decamp – 2nd Lieutenant, U.S. Army Infantry
  • Philip L. Gamble, Jr. – 2nd Lieutenant, U.S. Army Infantry
  • Joseph P. Logan, Jr. – 1st Lieutenant, U.S. Air Force

[Ashley Tims returns to seat]

Thank you, Ashley.

We all feared going to Vietnam. As a student with two nationalities, U.S. and Venezuela, I thought I had two options: I could either run to Canada and lose my American citizenship, or stick it out and wait for the call of Uncle Sam. I asked my father for guidance. He had been a World War Two Navy veteran, and that was the one and only time in my life that he said to me: “Bub, that’s one decision I cannot make for you.”

So, I moved on to graduate school at Oklahoma University and requested a deferment. After earning my master’s degree, I tried this same “evasive action” by doing additional non-degree studies at Northwestern, but I was drafted in 1968.

Knowing that I had one “bad” eye from an accident at the age of 12, I prayed when undergoing physical exams in Fort Holabird, Maryland. After two days, I was officially classified 1Y, which meant “available for service under extreme emergency.” I was lucky, that never happened.

That one year in Chicago had a big impact on me. It was 1968, and the city was in what I would call a lockdown state, with riots fueled by the assassinations of Martin Luther King, Jr., and Bobby Kennedy, and then the Democratic Party convention that also brought tough days. Smoke bombs, gunshots, and police in riot gear was the order of the day. It was very scary.

So all this brought me home to find a job in a much more peaceful Venezuela.

And over the next 45 years and counting, I am enjoying a rewarding career where I am able to travel around the world, help build the economy of my home country, and raise a beautiful family.

But then everything changed in Venezuela.

Back in the 1960s, America was looking outward — across the oceans and south of the Rio Grande. I remember the Peace Corps students in our country – like Branch Rickey Jr., Class of 1967 – and people from the U.S.A. trying to help others all over the world, with many education programs. Cultural exchange, helping other nations, and welcoming immigration was seen as a good and constructive way of life. We were spreading democracy.

I also remember my country, Venezuela, being earmarked as the “worldwide example of a fully operational democracy, having been visited by President Kennedy. Special programs for  students were instituted to send massive amounts of Venezuelans to countries like the U.S., Canada, United Kingdom, France, Germany, and others. Eventually, the Venezuelan government approved sending abroad a minimum of 5,000 students per semester — or “Venezuelan educational exports.” Planeload after planeload did their work.

OWU was benefited with over a 150 students, all eventually coming back to their motherland to work.

I had been part of this program.

Venezuela also knew the benefits of immigration. In the years after World War Two, the leaders of Venezuela opened the nation to immigration from Europe. And by the 1960s, 12 percent of all Venezuelans were immigrants from Spain, Portugal, Italy, and elsewhere. Also, throughout the ’70s and ’80s, we had an open door policy for immigrants from countries like Cuba, Chile, and Argentina, which had been having difficult political and ecomonic times, like my country is having right now.

Nowadays, life is very different in Venezuela.

Today, Venezuela is what I would call a “dictatorship stronghold.” And it is rapidly becoming a “failed state.”

Despite a country being  blessed — or is it cursed — by oil, we tumbled down from being one of the top five world producers of oil in the 1960s to the present situation of being a country that cannot fulfill its financial obligations in exports of petroleum, iron ore, aluminum, gold, and other resources.

Venezuela is also running up huge debts and is now at the point of being the only oil producer in the world defaulting on many of its obligations. The country now has the highest inflation in the world — at over 600 percent per year, and rising.

That has brought constant currency devaluation, increased poverty, and crime. In just one weekend last month, there were 34 violent deaths in the capital Caracas. All evidence points to drugs, total street insecurity, and poverty as being the main reasons for this sorry state.

The ineffective government and violence have frightened the population, and people are fleeing Venezuela in search of safer havens. We have now lost somewhere between 3 and 5 percent of our population – that’s about one and a half million people. Of course, most of those leaving are our most educated citizens, and that aggravates our economic problems.

However, I remain hopeful for the future, since history tells us that these situations eventually end. In fact, in the latter part of the 20th century in the Americas, a number of autocracies came and fell.

But to work our way through these very hard times — and to prevent them from happening again — we need one important resource: more educational systems that produce citizens with a broad knowledge base and a global perspective.

From what I read and hear about today’s Ohio Wesleyan, you now have acquired that broad, global education.

In all education environments, I hear of two important concepts much more frequently now — with your class in particular — than when I was here as a student.

The first is interdisciplinary education. And the second is theory-into-practice.

I see great merit in students studying subjects from multiple perspectives and disciplines, mixing theory with practice, and nurturing an open mind for all decisions.

I once had an amazing professor who had graduated from university with a degree in computer science at the age of 16. He then went to law school and received a law degree at 19. After two years as an Air Force pilot in the Korean War, he went back to school and received a Ph.D. from MIT in mathematics at age 23.

He had degrees in computer science, law, and mathematics. And students would ask him, “What are you?”

His answer: “I am a problem solver.”

That is the great skill of someone who studies the liberal arts.

That is one of the skills that futurist Alvin Tofler had in mind when he said: “The illiterate of the 21st-century will not be those who cannot read and write, but those who cannot learn, unlearn, and relearn.”

I majored in Geology and minored in Economics. It was the ability to blend those two fields that shaped my career. I studied Geology because I wanted to become involved in the oil business. And the economics link helped me very much as I moved into a business world that easily opened for me.

I have always been a person who did not follow the old advice that says, “Do one thing right and not two things wrong.” In my country, the economic changes within democratic practices were almost constant. For me to concentrate day and night in one project and see it disappear due to changes in a government policy or law was not a smart approach. I did the opposite, and I still follow those principles, which have served me well.

My advice: Be open to change and learn to thrive in it. Be very flexible; it will give you the edge out there. And remember what you’ve learned about applying theory to a world where practice is becoming interdisciplinary.

During the past four years, your OWU Connection education has helped you connect theory with real-world practice in a global context.

You have honed the ability to think conceptually, through interdisciplinary and intercultural reasoning.

Now, you stand on this great foundation of knowledge and experience — and you are ready to live up to the great obligation – to live up to the potential that resides in each of you. There is great need here and around the world for the kind of skills and the work that you have been prepared to do.

Today, we’ve seen the rise of inward-focused nationalist and populist movements from both the political right and the left. Those movements have arisen democratically, and they’re influencing the economic, political, and social world that you are entering. These are new challenges that will require action from your generation.

As Spanish intellectual Ramon y Cajal has said: “Ideas don’t last very long. You have to do something with them.”

I know you can be moral leaders of action. So think about this as you start to lead.

And now, as I say goodbye and wish you well on the journey you start today, I want to give you one special gift from 50-some years ago. When I first set foot on this campus, I had no idea that this place would come to mean so much to me.

But your Ohio Wesleyan friends and experiences have this way of staying with you forever.

I can be halfway around the world, and I think back to my Ohio Wesleyan years, and I smile. And then, invariably, this certain song from the Broadway musical “Wonderful Town” starts running through my brain. And I hear it over and over. It was a popular musical of the day, and this song perfectly captures that feeling you have about Ohio Wesleyan when you’re far away.

And it’s an earworm that I can’t get rid of. You, my friends, will not get rid of it either.

So, now, as my gift to the Class of 2017, I’m going to pass along this earworm for you to treasure when you’re missing Oh-Woo in the years ahead. And here to help me are two members of your graduating class: Colette Siddle and Melody Smith

[Colette Siddle and Melody Smith come to lectern. Music begins, and they sing “Ohio.” After song, Siddle and Smith return to seats.]

Thank you Colette and Melody. That was beautiful!

Class of 2017, I know you all can do it. Thank you very much!