Sonali delivers commencement address at Ellis School in Pittsburgh

Sonali Samarasinghe Wickrematunge | Published on June 8, 2013 at 6:27 am

Graduates, faculty, family members and friends,

Ellis school girl's at work

Ellis school girl’s at work

I’m honoured to be here with you on this fantastic day. Today, we celebrate your achievements, and, your perseverance. It is a magnificent time. You’ve done it!

Those of you graduating, have completed, an important chapter, in your own story, and in doing so, have become, a part of the rich heritage, of this great academic institution.

You have become, part of the Ellis story. It is a story, that started 97 years ago, with a commitment to excellence in the education of girls and young women.

But perhaps even more significantly, you have become part of the story of women and girls everywhere, who have fought, and are still fighting, for equality in education and opportunity.

As you go forth into your future, holding hope in one hand, and infinite possibility in the other, I also urge you, to give pause, and be thoughtful, of the struggles of women and girls everywhere.

I have had the privilege of meeting many of you and I have enjoyed learning about your lives and families.

Today I also want to tell you some stories about my childhood.

My father, was a senior police officer in Sri Lanka, where I was born and lived most of my life, together with my five siblings.

One of my father’s favourite singers was Ned Miller – you can ask your parents…no, perhaps it’s safer to say, grandparents, who that was….

Ned Miller used to sing a song called ‘Do What You Do Do Well.’

My father made that one of our family mottos. Whether we were ironing our school uniforms, tidying our bedrooms or taking an exam, this was his refrain. All my father wanted was for us to do the best we can, dictated to, not by mood or feeling, but rather by perseverance, effort and sense of duty.

So as you go forward into the world, and into adulthood, remember, whatever the task, be it small or large, give it your all.

Do what you Do Do well.

My father was a doing man, and had little patience for silver-tongued flakes, who spoke about freedom and equality and didn’t live it.

“Walk the talk,” he told us. “Don’t be a member of NATO.” No, not the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation….The No Action Talk Only group.

I grew up in a country marred by violence, race riots, and an ethnic war that lasted 27 years.

As a senior police officer my father wielded considerable power. He was formidable and strict in some respects and compassionate and fair in others.

I watched him as he handled situations like race riots.

He was strict and unrelenting with the rioters and compassionate with those who were victimized.

Yes, my father led by example.

You are a group of young women with great intelligence and sensitivity, and tremendous leadership skills. This, is the kind of leadership, I urge you towards: leading with compassion, with strategy, and with courage.

Like you, I was young, when I watched my father lead in this way. Watching him work, inspired me to be brave as well, and I, became a journalist who advocated, for the rights of all beings to be respected.

I encourage you, to always feel your own power, and act to create change.

I now want to tell you a story of romance. About my first kiss.

My first kiss I shared with a book.

Books were so revered in our home that if we ever dropped one my mother would make us pick it up and respectfully kiss it.

And so years and years before I ever kissed a boy I had possibly kissed a hundred books – I had started young – I was little, my hands were tiny and books are pretty large…they drop.

When I was about 14 years old I came across in my mother’s bookshelf a historical novel – a best seller in my mother’s youth in the 1940s – by American writer Marcia Davenport titled The Valley of Decision. I immediately recognized it as one that I had kissed many times in my youth. It was 788 pages.

The book, a family saga, was set in Pittsburgh and chronicled the story of four generations of the Scott family who were owners and operators of a Pittsburgh iron and steel works.

I read about the economic panic of 1873, the dramatic rise of American industry and trade unionism, immigration, class conflict…..and I was transported to Pittsburgh, and came to know its industry, its architecture, its geography and its bridges.

Imagine! At 14, I had still not travelled outside of Sri Lanka, and yet 9000 miles away from Pittsburgh I read about a time in your history that really defined this area.

So three months ago when I came to Pittsburgh for the first time, I felt an affiliation with the city, as if I was coming to meet an old friend I had first met when I was fourteen years old.

But even as we celebrate the power of words and education, there are 775.4 million people in the world who still cannot read or write. Sixty-four percent of them are women.

I tell you this, not to dishearten you, but to inspire you to ACT.

In South and West Asia, 55 percent of girls, who are old enough to go to elementary school, are kept at home–that is 7.3 million girls.

In Arab States, 61 percent of girls are not given even the most rudimentary education.

I want to conclude with a very personal story. As many of you already know, I came to this country as a journalist in exile. I fled Sri Lanka after my husband, also a journalist, was killed by government authorities, due to our work as human rights journalists, and because of threats to my life.

I had to leave everything I had built up: my home, my friends, my career, and my dreams. I had to start from scratch. I fled only with a small bag of my personal belongings, and four very old but beloved books including a biography of Dr. Martin Luther King. Jr and a copy of the Prophet by Khalil Gibran.

These books, have kept me strong, reminding me, that whatever life throws at you, if you stay strong, not compromise your principles, work hard, and have faith, things will get better.

When I ask you to be courageous in the face of adversity, I can tell you that I have done it, and it is possible.

When I was in your school three months ago, I met dedicated, enthusiastic, intelligent, community oriented girls with a world view that demonstrated, an eagerness to do their part for society.

Carry that enthusiasm with you. Do not be discouraged, by what my generation, and generations before mine, have done to the world, to the environment, to humanity.

Do not become apathetic, go forward with the same fervor to do good, that I saw in you then and see in you now. It is my hope, that whatever life may fling at you along the way, you will be defined, not by how hard you fell down, but by how courageously you picked yourself up, and by how readily you extended a hand to others, to raise them to their feet, once again.

I launch you now, with the wish, that you will always,

‘be, rather than merely seem to be’

Esse Quam Videri


Thank you


Lawyer, journalist and Human Rights activist Sonali Samarasinghe delivered the commencement address at the Ellis School in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania on June 6 at the School’s senior graduation ceremony Class of 2013.


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Sonali delivers commencement address at Ellis School in Pittsburgh

Graduates, faculty, family members and friends, Ellis school girl’s at work I’m honoured to be here with you on this fantastic day. Today, we celebrate your achievements, ...