Speech — Shanghai Graduation Celebration: Welcome Address, 19 October 2019

Good afternoon!

I am delighted to welcome you to the University of Surrey’s 2nd overseas graduation celebration ceremony in China. We’re very pleased to be here at this special event, celebrating our Shanghai graduates as well as Surrey’s ever-strengthening relationship with China.

It is also my honour to welcome Dr Ning Wu who joins us today as our valedictory speaker. Dr Wu received his degree in Business Administration from Surrey in 2003, and is now CEO and Chairman of ImprovingLife Biotechnology (Shanghai) Company.

Today we salute the hard work and achievements of all our graduates, whether you received your degree this year, or 10 or 15 years ago. I would also like to thank our guests who join us today: your families and friends whose support, encouragement and love have been crucial to your success. So, graduates, let’s all take a moment to stand and to show your gratitude to your families and friends. Please, let’s be vocal, I want to hear your enthusiasm!

Confucius says ‘The person who asks a question is a fool for a minute; the person who does not ask is a fool for life.’ This is a very important adage to keep in mind, as you reflect today on your university journey. To me, it means that the person who is afraid to admit their ignorance by asking a question, never truly develops into who they are meant to be.

This philosophy of questioning is very important in today’s world. We are living in a time of rapid change, with staggering technological advancement. Information goes through our fingers almost without going through our brain cells. But wisdom and understanding are much harder to achieve.  Knowledge used to be power, but nowadays knowing what to ignore is even more powerful. We do not have to accept the obvious or popular meaning. We do not have to believe something is true without testing its truth for us as individuals.

From my own experience, it is important to challenge all the superficial information, to penetrate it, and discover the meaning and substance underneath. Only by so doing, you will be able to see a further vision and develop the skills to cope with the unknowns and disruptions of the future, find your way past temporary setbacks, and achieve success that is meaningful to you. Asking questions and learning how to think for yourself is the true value of education, because it allows you to offer your own unique gifts to the world. So do not ever stop asking and learning, because this will grow your self-confidence.

From my humble beginning and throughout my career, I can attest that self-confidence is a most valuable trait. As you may know, I grew up in rural China, in a poor family in Shandong Province. Little did I know, back then, that I’d go on to enjoy a career in academia that would take me to the forefront of knowledge and innovation.

Little did I know that I’d become the Vice-Chancellor of a leading UK university.

And I never dreamt that I would be standing before you here today.

Age 16, I went to Northeastern University, with support of a scholarship. Age 24, with another scholarship from the University of Queensland, I was able to move to Australia to do my PhD.

So, through my personal experience, I know how far self-belief can take us, even when the challenges appear insurmountable. And I also know just how universities can change lives for the better – our own lives, and more importantly the lives of others, through education and research.

This is one of the reasons I am very proud of the University of Surrey’s partnership with China. Many of you will know how important collaboration is to Surrey: Surrey is made up of many talented individuals, but it’s when we work together, and connect with external institutions, businesses and government, that we are strongest.

To me, this celebration today embodies the philosophy of collaboration. It requires great humility and mutual respect to build relations; we all have a great deal to learn from each other, and I am sure this is also the spirit you felt during your time at Surrey – whether it was just recently, or many years ago.  

The great experience of studying at Surrey is a tremendous bond linking you to all Surrey alumni across the world – 120,000 strong! I take great pride in our growing community of Chinese alumni. As I look around the room today, I am confident that the Surrey–China relationship will go from strength to strength.

To help us grow, and to do the world-leading research and teaching that strengthens our reputation, we need the support from our alumni and friends. I’d like to invite you all to consider the ways, as alumni, that you can help.

You could make a gift to support your University. Through our Forever Surrey Fund, we are helping students from all backgrounds to receive a world-class education.  Our alumni are also helping to support our cutting-edge research to find solutions to the challenges that face our global society.

You can also help by volunteering your time. At recruitment events, prospective students love to hear alumni stories. Or, maybe you can help to organise events in your city. We have a number of China Alumni groups that you can join, so if you’d like to be involved please speak to one of our staff members here today.

I began by quoting a Chinese sage, and I will conclude by invoking an English one – J.R.R. Tolkien. He said:  ‘True education is a kind of never-ending story – a matter of continual beginnings, of habitual fresh starts, of persistent newness.’

I congratulate you all on your academic achievements, and on the rewarding lives and fulfilling careers following your study.

Thank you very much and enjoy the celebrations today!