Higher Education

Eboo Patel: My Advice to College Graduates — and Everyone Else

Eboo Patel giving the commencement speech at Concordia College in Moorhead, Minnesota on May 7, 2023. Video screen grab

Eboo Patel giving the commencement speech at Concordia College in Moorhead, Minnesota on May 7, 2023. Video screen grab

(Deseret News) — Congratulations, students, you’ve achieved a major milestone: earning a college degree. I want you to feel confident that you are prepared for the next step, prepared to receive what the world has to offer and prepared to make a difference in it.

And still, it is inevitable that at least some of your experiences beyond these gates and after this day will be difficult. Every transition is hard, perhaps none more so than the transition from college to the so-called real world. There will be problems to solve, challenges to meet and mountains to climb.

Here is my advice for how to navigate these difficulties: find people who believe in you. What do I mean by that?

I mean people who help you articulate your aspirations, and align your gifts and assets so that you can achieve them.

People who know that adversity and aspersions are simply a part of life — and that your story is about overcoming them, not letting them overcome you.

People who are clear-eyed about the obstacles that will stand in your way, but exhort you to focus on the opportunities in front of you and to make the most of those.

People who know all about the ugly racism, sexism, homophobia, antisemitism, Islamophobia and other abhorrent mindsets that still exist in the world, but will emphasize to you that your identity is principally a source of inspiration, not victimization.

To use one of my identities as an illustration: being a Muslim is not mainly about being oppressed by Islamophobia. It’s mainly about being inspired by Islam.

Whatever success I have had can largely be attributed to being around a group of people who believed in me.

These people played an especially powerful role in the years right after I graduated from college, a time when I was especially inclined to blame outside forces for things that I actually had control over myself.

In the year 2000, I had just started my organization, which was then called Interfaith Youth Core. We had run a couple of interfaith youth projects in different parts of the world, and I had networked my way into meetings at some of the nation’s most important philanthropic foundations: Ford, MacArthur, the Chicago Community Trust. The people there listened politely to my pitch, declined to offer financial support and gave me advice on what to do next.

I was frustrated. I wanted to hear the sound of angels singing and checkbooks opening. So I lashed out. I blamed the foundations for being narrow-minded and shortsighted. The hoity-toity people there were too scared to give a young brown Muslim a true shot at leadership, I thought. All they wanted to do was maintain their own power.

But the people who believed in me — including a number of professors who taught me as an undergraduate — stopped me before I could get the sentences out of my mouth. They were not having it. They recognized right away what I was doing: making excuses because I was embarrassed about not succeeding on the first try. They were not about to let me enter into a conspiracy against my own agency.

They believed in me enough to be honest: Nobody succeeds on the first try. You got the best thing they could give you in an initial meeting: advice on how to be more compelling in the next meeting. Now it’s on you to go do the work and improve.

Editor’s note: The essay is adapted from the commencement speech given by Eboo Patel at Concordia College in Moorhead, Minnesota, on May 7, 2023.  Read the original piece on Deseret News.