Journalist Azmat Khan Speaks to Graduates at SNHU Commencement

Journalist Azmat Khan Speaks to Graduates at SNHU Commencement


I’d like to invite Board Chair
Mark Collett and Dr. Gregory Fowler to join me and I like
to invite our speaker to step to the front of the stage. Today, we confer an honorary degree on
Azmat Khan, an award-winning journalist. Miss Khan is an investigative reporter, at New York Times Magazine
contributing writer and a fellow at the New
America Foundation. Her reporting has brought her to
Iraq, Egypt, Pakistan, Afghanistan, and other conflict zones to capture
the stories of our time. Most recently, Miss Khan was awarded
the 2018 National Magazine Award for her piece entitled, “The Uncounted,”
which ran in the New York Times Magazine. Her reporting has won her
the Daniel Pearl Award for Outstanding Reporting on South Asia, The Deadline Club Award for Independent
Digital Reporting and other honors. Miss Azmat Khan, it is my honor and
great pleasure to award you with the Degree of Doctor of Public Affairs. Please join me in congratulating Dr.
Azmat Khan. President LeBlanc, thank you. It is such an honor to be here at
Southern New Hampshire University in front of a group of such bright minds. Actually, I always felt
I was a bright student and I think that goes
back to kindergarten when I was selected to be in a
small class of advanced readers. It was pretty exclusive, we’d meet
away from all of the other students, read really difficult books, eat snacks
and have these deep conversations about their plots, and characters. Over time, the books got
longer and harder, and I kept excelling to
the point that one day about three years in,
my teacher pulled me aside, and I’ll never forget how proudly
she looked at me when she told me, “Azmat, you’ve gotten so good that we’re going to put you in a
regular level reading class,” that’s actually how I found out
that I’d been behind for years. So that brings me to lesson number one, delusional self-confidence,
don’t underestimate it. That’s actually not lesson number one. I know I’m here to give you advice
today which is a humbling idea because so many of you come here with
incredible lived experiences of your own, things that most college students
have not yet gone through, and it’s a terrifying thought
to be giving you advice. But if I have to, and as much as I like
to tell you that believing in yourself is the key to success, I can’t do that. I also can’t tell you that if you
just work hard and play by rules, you’ll realize your goals. I can’t tell you that as long as you make
the right choices and be kind to others, that you’ll be rewarded. These may be helpful things to
believe, but they’re not a guarantee. What I can guarantee is this,
sometimes you can do everything right and still everything will go wrong. Circumstances will be out of your control and it will seem like
everything is falling apart. I want to tell you a story
I almost never share. It was more than a decade ago, I was
in Pakistan, working as a reporter. I’d been there almost a year and this particular assignment
had brought me to an area, south of the Swat Valley where
hundreds of thousands of Pakistanis had fled to escape the war
with the Pakistani Taliban. I was finishing an interview in
100-degree heat when my phone rang, a voice I didn’t recognize
asked if I was Azmat Khan. “Yes, who’s this?” I replied. The man on the line told me that he was calling on behalf
of a notorious Taliban leader, Baitullah Mehsud, and that if I didn’t
leave the country within 15 days, his militia would kill me. I was terrified, and I
mean truly terrified, not terrified in the way you feel
when you mistakenly send your mother a text meant for your best friend. I mean really terrified. So my boss thought it was wise
for our team to leave the area. The next day, though, I got another call. “14 days,” the man told me. The next day, “13.” The
day after that, “11.” “Hey, wait, you skipped
a day,” I told him. I don’t know what I expected. I mean, people who shut down girl schools probably aren’t going to
be very good at math. But he didn’t really care. I think he thought it was generous to
be giving me a deadline to begin with, and I kind of have to admit, I agree. Anyway, to make a long story
short, the problem got worse, I couldn’t stop the calls
or guarantee my safety, and I was forced to leave
not only the country but a job I loved and a project I’d been
working on for more than a year to launch. Then, suddenly, all of it was gone. I was back in America, without a job, an entire year’s worth
of work down the drain. I applied for every
journalism job I could find. Even ones that weren’t
exactly journalism. Think in the realm of
the more [inaudible]. No shade to [inaudible]. Nothing was working out. Months in, I wasn’t just angry
at the unfairness of it all, but how a single phone call
had robbed me of so much, but I also felt bad about myself. For a long time, I thought I
would have to leave journalism. And I almost did. Now, people often tell stories like this. About moments of derailment
that were just that, moments. In an effort to show the importance
of resiliency, of weathering on, to illustrate that setbacks are
really only the precursors to success so as long as you are willing
to work hard and persevere. That’s not why I’m telling this story. The truth is, I was only
able to be resilient, to weather on because of
one thing, I had support. I was able to work a menial job that
paid a little while looking for position that I really wanted because my friend
Ellen, let me stay on her couch in D.C. I had parents, amazing, amazing
parents who let me borrow from them and offered lots of unsolicited advice, and I had no one else
to be responsible for. No one else’s bills to pay, no
one else’s health to care for, no other mouths to feed. The line that determined whether
that would be a momentary setback or a life-altering one
came down to one thing, social capital, privilege, advantage, whatever you want to call it. Too often, people look at success and don’t see the role of
advantages, big and small. Similarly, people often look at
failure and chalk it up to bad luck, neglecting that these failures had
the circumstances been more equal, very well could have been successes. The reality is that most hardships
are rarely ever about pure chance and their most harmful effects
are not uniformly felt. Statistically speaking, for
some, hardship is predictable. Sealed by years of race-based
housing discrimination or a dearth of the right connections. The oppressed are far more likely
not only to encounter hardship but to struggle in recovering from it. That is to say, sometimes
the odds are just stacked. Odds that are rooted in structures
of inequality, systems of injustice and most importantly people
who look the other way. So what’s you’re probably
thinking right now is, “Wow. This is depressing.
This is a graduation speech.” You’re probably also thinking, “If the odds are stacked, why should
we, or anyone for that matter, care?” I’m here today to make
the case that no matter whether you’re up against stacked odds
or you’re the one benefiting from them, that you don’t look the other way. That you don’t conflate
injustice with bad luck. That you don’t subscribe to the
theory that ignorance is bliss. I’m here today to make the case that
when you leave these halls of learning, that you follow up on the
next stage of your education. That you commit to being
an informed citizen. One who doesn’t look away from
injustice but looks directly at it. You don’t have to be an investigative
reporter to be an informed citizen. I’m not here to tell you to abandon
your career aspirations, but I can draw from my experiences
to identify the practices you can integrate into your own life,
no matter what your career path. I’ve always felt the biggest
barrier to being truly informed is getting lost in our own worlds. It’s the easiest thing to be consumed
by only the problems we experience and the people to whom
we relate the most. Reading the newspaper, books, literature, these are what we traditionally
associate with being informed. And while that’s part of
it, there’s so much more. It’s about stepping outside of the bubbles
– whether digital or real life – and instead listening to
people on the margins. Most of the time we’re not
even aware of these bubbles, these invisible barriers stitched
into our very existence that keep us from seeing the humanity of those
who have it harder than we do. I spent much of the last two years with Iraqis who had their
lives torn apart by war. One of them was a man named
Basim Razzo, who fiercely opposed ISIS but
lost his wife, daughter, brother, and nephew in a US air strike in Mosul. Gravely injured, he snuck out of ISIS
territory to get medical treatment, and then set out on a quest for justice. A few weeks ago, Basim arrived in New York,
and we went to the 9/11 Memorial. This is someone who’d lost so much who had such a fundamentally
different experience of that event, and I was a little unsure
what his reaction would be. But as we walk through exhibits, passed
pieces of rubble mounted on pedestals, walls plastered with photos of loved
ones, flowers, birthday cards, tributes, and the sound of answering
machine goodbyes, Basim told me he was struck
by the loss and the sadness, and the cycle of violence it would set
off around the world for years to come. We entered a hall where a quote
took up the expense of a giant wall. “No day shall erase you
from the memory of time.” I could tell Basim genuinely
felt for the victims of 9/11, and in that moment, I wondered
what the world would be like if everyone could feel
the same way for Iraqis, whose names are not etched in marble and whose rubble is not
encased by velvet rope. Sometimes in life, there will be
people who help us see that humanity and it is critical to be constantly
looking for those people. Now I want you to imagine this scenario. The government has decided
to start deporting people for alleged crimes based
on secret evidence so that not even the accused
or their lawyers know what to defend against. Now imagine this, almost every single deportation
case built on this secret evidence involves a defendant who
is either Muslim or Arab. I asked you to imagine this scenario,
but it’s actually recent history. In the mid-to-late-90’s, the Justice
Department used secret evidence to accuse people in Muslim
communities of terrorism, and then deport them based
on secret evidence. The practice was controversial,
and many argued even illegal. So much so, that by 2001, George W.
Bush promised to end it. And this brings me to step
two: you need to know history. When people talk about creating a
registry or enacting a Muslim travel ban, to truly be informed, you need to know the
history of similar efforts in the past. The circumstances that gave rise to them, the arguments used by people who
defended them, and their impacts. This history helps us not only put
contemporary events in context, but it illuminates the
structures and systems that can foster injustice,
even within ourselves. We tend to look back at the
injustices of the past – slavery, the Holocaust, Jim Crow laws – and
think that if we had been there, we would have been on the
right side of history. That we would have boarded
buses of Freedom Riders, that we would have given
refuge to persecuted Jews, that we would have been
marching on Washington. As the New Yorker writer
Catherine Schulz has reflected, “One of the biases of retrospection
is to believe that the moral crises of the past were clearer than our own –
that, had we been alive at the time, we would have recognized them,
known what to do about them, and known when the time
had come to do so. That is a fantasy. Iniquity is always coercive and
insidious and intimidating, and lived reality is always a muddle, and
the kind of clarity that leads to action comes not from without but from within.” She’s right. Without understanding
that muddle of history, we can never understand
the parallels today, or the opportunities we are ignoring
to be on the right side of it. But amid the chaos of our daily lives, binge-watching American Vandal or spending
time with family or incredible workloads, who has time to read history books or develop a world outside of
the bubbles that consume us? If Cardi B has time to analyze
US presidents, so do we. We use limited time as the excuse. But the reality is that we don’t
want to look at injustice. Not just because it makes us sad, but because sometimes it is a reminder
of our own roles in perpetuating it. The systems we are a part of,
the debts that we owe. In this world, where we
can do everything right and everything can still go wrong,
understanding its injustices is the one guarantee that we do have. Perhaps not a guarantee of
our own personal success, but a necessary requirement
for a collective success. Throughout history, the
first step in every wrong that has ever been righted
was being informed. It was never an accident. Graduates, you have your
whole lives ahead of you. Every single day is an
opportunity to follow up on the extraordinary education
you’ve received through SNHU. Many of you have already lived
through incredible sacrifices. Some of you will go on to more school. Some of you will become writers,
designers, and engineers. And hopefully, none of you will work
for a really bad bank responsible for our next financial crisis. But no matter what path you take,
be informed, be empathetic, and if you must, be a little
delusionally self-confident. It can’t hurt too much. And when life punches you in the
mouth, which will inevitably happen, know that it will be dark and difficult. You may even find yourself crying
in a Wendy’s and eating a frosty because you just received
a rejection letter for the desk assistant job
that you really wanted. I’m not saying this
happened to me or anything. But the depth of that low–
but in the depth of that low, remember that you are not alone. At that very same moment, there are so
many others experiencing these lows, and they have happened and will continue
to happen for countless others. You are part of this larger community
and if you have the privilege and fortune to make it through, be
grateful for those that helped you and remember the importance
of collective success. But for today, take some time to
celebrate the success before you. Each of you has made extraordinary
sacrifices to make it to this day. And now, surrounded by the people
you love, you get to enjoy it. Congratulations to the class of 2018. Thank you so much. Thank you.

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