Man in glasses speaking in front of a bookcase

Ronald Chan ’01 Cum Laude Speech


Hello, fellow members of the Williston community. Thank you for inviting me to be the guest speaker at the Cum Laude Society Induction Ceremony. Although COVID has made it impossible for me to be physically on campus now, I’m glad that I can join this happy occasion virtually.

So let me begin by congratulating all the inductees. Your hard work has paid off, and you have every reason to be proud of your accomplishments. I also want to congratulate all the parents, family members, teachers, classmates, and friends who have been supporting the inductees along the way. I’m sure you share their happiness and will celebrate their success.

I always recall my time at Williston fondly, because my two-year boarding experience at the school really transformed me for the better. I decided to pursue an education overseas, not because my parents wanted me to, but because as a 16-year-old then, I was extremely curious to find out what was on the opposite side of the globe. When I first started at Williston, there was no nonstop flight between Hong Kong and the East Coast of America, so I had to fly from Hong Kong to Vancouver, then to New York, then a domestic flight to Bradley Airport, and then finally a one-hour car ride to Easthampton. From my bedroom in Hong Kong to my dorm room on campus, the journey took about 30 hours. But I had no doubt that it was all worth it. Because of the trips to Easthampton and the many others that took me to different parts of America, I got to greatly appreciate the immense richness of the world we live in.

Hong Kong and Easthampton could not have been more different. Naturally, I found it a little intimidating to be in an alien place at first. But there’s no better way to understand a foreign culture than fully immersing oneself in it. By living together, going to classes together, and playing sports together, I gradually overcame the cultural and language barrier and got to bond with many classmates from the US and around the world. We shared our stories of success and struggle; we argued over different points of view; we talked about major world developments as well as the little things in our lives. In the process, I made lots of lifelong friends whom I still connect with and learn from even to this date. It helped me build confidence in handling unfamiliar situations. And it gave me so many interesting and brand-new perspectives on things that I had used to simply take for granted.

But knowing more about the outside world was not the only benefit; I was able to learn a lot more about myself too as a result of studying abroad. The education system in Hong Kong at the time tended to reward only academic excellence and accord relatively little recognition on non-academic achievements. There was also a general expectation for students with good grades to pursue professional careers like law and medicine. If I had continued to study in Hong Kong, I probably would have ended up becoming a doctor. Well, nothing wrong with that. In fact, that was precisely my aspiration when I first came to Williston. But the American education system was quite different. It gave students more freedom to experiment. It encouraged kids to try their best not just in classrooms, but also in sports and extracurricular activities. It was at Williston where my athletic pursuits developed into a long-lasting passion that is now a big part of my life. It was also at Williston where I not only took many science classes, but also had the opportunity to learn more about languages, critical writing, and the humanities. The diversity of that education helped me recognize new interests and talents previously unknown to me. It paved the way for my studying public policy at college and to go into politics and public service after graduation.

I’m really grateful that I was able to study abroad and gain experience that I would never had otherwise. If I had chosen to stay in the comfort of my home, my life trajectory would have been very different — probably more conforming and less interesting. Because of my own personal experience, I’m convinced that being broad-minded and creating a global community is a worthwhile cause, and I hope all of us will recognize the value of connecting with people coming from a variety of backgrounds. You will go on to become leaders of your respective industries and communities, so your willingness to support the building of networks that cut across cultures and geographical boundaries will have a direct, positive, and lasting impact on not only yourself but also many of those around you.

This is getting all the more relevant and important, because we’re now living in an environment where we tend to stay within our own echo chambers created by social media, and where many political leaders actively call for erecting more barriers and shutting ourselves off from the rest of the world in the name of national interests. This cannot be a good thing, and it’s incumbent upon every one of us to try to reject and reverse this trend.

But you may be thinking, “Well, I’m just a student. How can I possibly reverse a worldwide trend?” As a matter of fact, you don’t need to be a senior government official or a corporate executive to play a role. We can all do our parts to touch the lives of one another in a positive way by promoting the mutual respect, understanding, and exchanges that underpin any global community. Let me offer three simple suggestions:

First, we can start by resisting the temptation to characterize someone you don’t know or pigeonhole a foreign place before you have a chance to find out more. In this era of social media, lots of posts and tweets are generated with the explicit intention to either glorify people who look like us or demonize those who don’t. Even when mainstream media outlets try to cover international affairs in good faith, the news reports still come with the journalists’ own biases. So next time you come across a commentary that casts another place in negative light, try not to jump to conclusions or let it become your preconceived notion of that place. Over time, you may realize that most questions in life are matters of degree and not so black and white.

Second, make a genuine effort to see and experience the world, either directly or through somebody else. When international travel resumes, explore with your family the option of spending the next summer vacation in a continent you’ve never visited before. When you get to college, study abroad for a semester, if not a full year. Here on campus, reach out to international students and try to learn more about different aspects of their home countries. I’m sure you’ll be amazed by what you see and hear.

Third, try to introduce some global dimensions to your work in the future. No doubt, you’ll be asked to do many research assignments during your time at Williston or in college. Identify and pick some assignments that involve doing research from a comparative perspective, so that you can examine a topic in both local and foreign contexts. They will allow you to have a deeper, more honest look into the world. When you need to form a project team, go beyond your routine social circle. Invite and include classmates or colleagues who are different from you in terms of race, ethnicity, or background. These cross-cultural or cross-boundary interactions will often spark new ideas and insights that will pleasantly surprise you.

Let me thank you again for the opportunity to share some of my thoughts with you today, and congratulations once again to the Cum Laude inductees. I wish you all good luck and good health in the new year. Please stay well. I look forward to being able to return to campus before too long, so we can meet and catch up in person.