Graduands, faculty, staff, and special guests gathered for an exciting event full of energy and enthusiasm to celebrate the achievements of the Aga Khan University’s Class of 2021.

The multi-campus convocation brought together AKU’s graduating classes in Kenya, Pakistan, Tanzania, Uganda, and the UK — a total of 664 graduands — who were joined virtually by parents, friends, and well-wishers from around the world via a live stream.

Dressed in their green convocation robes, students snapped selfies with their colleagues while the choir entertained the audience, shortly before the academic procession began, and the ceremony was declared open.

Princess Zahra, speaking on behalf of the University’s Chancellor, Mawlana Hazar Imam, congratulated graduands and welcomed them into the AKU alumni body, where they join an illustrious group of professionals and academics, all changing lives for the better everyday.

Their journey has been far from easy, especially for this most recent cohort, who have completed their studies against the backdrop of the ongoing Covid-19 health emergency.

“The last two years challenged you with lockdowns, quarantines, and isolation. But you found new ways to learn, to connect, and to maintain your motivation amid each new wave of the pandemic,” said Princess Zahra, commending the graduating class for their resilience and agility.

She also spoke of interdependence and hope, two notions we are reminded of during convocations, and which have become ever more important during the pandemic.

“The hope I refer to is not an idle wish,” Princess Zahra explained. “It is the hope one feels when there is strong evidence for optimism. It is the hope our Chancellor, His Highness the Aga Khan, has called ‘probably the single most powerful trampoline of progress.’ That is the hope that I believe unites us today.”

A time of transition

Convocation ceremonies traditionally act as a momentous occasion for graduating students, but this year’s event also represented a milestone in the history of the AKU itself. For only the third time since its founding, the university has a new President, Sulaiman Shahbuddin, who was officially installed into office.

President Shahbuddin brings a wealth of experience to the role, having spent many years contributing to AKU’s various successes in both East Africa and Pakistan. He was presented with a silver medallion, a symbol of presidential authority and trust, before being invited to address guests at the event.

“I am excited by the opportunity I have been granted to carry forward the Chancellor’s vision,” he said in his first convocation address, before honouring “AKU’s role as a powerful force for good in the world.”

He encouraged graduands to remain faithful to AKU’s founding vision, while acting boldly to meet new challenges the world faces.

“We continue to believe, as we always have, in the power of knowledge to solve the biggest problems facing humanity. And we continue to believe that AKU, as a powerful creator and disseminator of knowledge, can make an extraordinary contribution to improving life in Africa, Asia, and beyond.”

Top of the list of problems facing humanity today is that of climate breakdown.

In laying out AKU’s forward-looking vision, both Princess Zahra and President Shahbuddin spoke of AKU’s ambitious goal to become carbon neutral by 2030, and thereby set an example for other universities to follow in the years ahead. It proved an apt segue to introduce the event’s Chief Guest, Dr Peter Kalmus.

Shifting societal norms

Dr Kalmus is a data scientist at the University of California. His research centres on cloud physics and aims to improve the understanding of how our planet is changing in the age of global warming. He has authored more than 100 peer-reviewed articles in physics and earth science, and is the author of Being the Change: Live Well and Spark a Climate Revolution.

In his keynote address to graduating students, Dr Kalmus spoke of the social norms that society has become accustomed to, which are responsible for climate breakdown and the lack of a coherent response thus far. Shifting these norms is a priority, he remarked.

He explained in simple terms how the burning of gas, coal, and oil continues to push our planet further out of balance, forcing it to heat up.

“We need to come together, with courage, conviction, and creativity,” he said, highlighting the urgent need to stop global heating, from which there is no hiding place. “Doing this will require deep changes in how humanity organises as a society, and how we live upon this Earth.”

Dr Kalmus stated the need for new frameworks, new stories, and new ways of thinking to reduce emissions, educate the public, and create widespread social change.

“We also need you, the graduates of the Aga Khan University,” he said, “among the best and the brightest the world has to offer – to devote your lives to solving the greatest crisis humanity has ever faced.”

Charting a courageous path

“Contribute to global knowledge and innovation,” continued Dr Kalmus. “Demand climate justice. Have the courage to cause good trouble. Be the voice for the voiceless, for the species that are going extinct and for future generations.”

Working toward climate justice is a challenge that AKU graduates are well prepared for, having come through the major test of Covid-19 during their formative years.

Class Valedictorian Adnan Aly Khan spoke eloquently about the student experience during a worldwide pandemic. Rather than stunting their progress, he explained, the spread of Covid-19 propelled them to do more.

“Covid didn't stop any of us from reaching out and doing what we do best,” Adnan said. “Rather, it changed us – motivated us – to volunteer more, to innovate in research, and most importantly, it reminded this community that even students can and do make a difference.”

Supported by AKU faculty and staff, students rapidly adapted to new ways of learning and prepared to face a new reality, which only added to their resiliency and open-minded nature.

“We learned one of the most important skills you can’t be taught in a classroom: the ability to adapt, to pick ourselves up when we’re battered and bruised, and use that experience to become wiser and more agile than ever.”

“Whatever path we may end up on,” concluded Adnan, “we know that AKU has prepared us to take on the next challenge – with agility, perseverance, and courage as a part of who we are.”