Commencement Address – Wenguang Huang

Commencement Remarks
University of Illinois Springfield
May 12, 2012

President Easter, Chancellor Koch, members of the faculty, proud families and, above all, graduates:

Thank you so much for this tremendous honor, and my warmest congratulations to the class of 2012. In my native China, it is the year of the dragon, which we see as a powerful, lucky and magic creature. Many couples plan their families around this year so they can have a baby blessed under this auspicious sign. It could not be a more auspicious time to begin a career—in any country. Think big and act in accordance with your life’s dreams.

For me, having the opportunity to address you today fulfills a personal wish. There is a Chinese saying – when you taste sweet water, don’t forget the person who dug the well. I want to thank this university, which gave me the skills and confidence to write successfully in a new language. This community embraced me warmly and helped me flourish in the country, which I now call home.

I arrived in Springfield from China in February 1990. Eight months before, I had participated in the Tiananmen Square student uprising, an event similar to last year’s Arab Spring. Marching peacefully and with passion, my classmates and I demanded democratic reforms and pressed for freedom in China.

When tanks and government troops notoriously crushed the demonstrations in Beijing, our hopes and dreams also lay smashed. The grim repression that followed and the premature death of my father from cancer prompted me to look to America for a new chapter in life.

Professor Robert Crowley, whom I had met in China, and a close college friend, who had come here a year before, introduced me to what was then Sangamon State University. I had never heard of it before, so I imagined a towering campus with neoclassical buildings, just as I had seen in the movies. I also liked the name of the city, Springfield, which translated to Chinese meant the land of spring. In China, where the political environment had turned colder and harsher, the land of spring and Abraham Lincoln sounded both appealing and noble.

So I gave away all my possessions and arrived in Illinois with 70 U.S. dollars.

The first day on campus, I searched in vain for my imagined Sangamon State. All I found was a long red brick building surrounded by a vast expanse of cornfield. Downtown, I didn’t see a single skyscraper and the street looked deserted at dusk. For someone who had just arrived from a city of 23 million people, I felt lonely and disoriented.

However, the university without any grand buildings and the community without any skyscrapers did not disappoint. Many foreign students and I received more personal attention and care than would have been imaginable in a bigger university. In Chinese, “Sangamon” sounds like the characters meaning “Three Doors.” In fact, the three-door university did hold three doors wide open for me.

Through the first door, I embarked on the path of journalism. Professor Mary Bohlen, who is sitting here today, and the late Bill Miller decided to take a chance on me and recruited me as the first international student for the public affairs reporting program – it was a dream I had nurtured ever since reading All the President’s Men. I longed to pursue journalism in the land where reporters could even have the power to bring down a president.

It was here in the school newspaper that I published my first article in English, a report on the landmark moment when Sangamon State reached a 4,000-student enrollment. The article that I had labored for three days gave me the confidence to continue to publish my work in English.

I also had a taste of the sweetness of free speech when I submitted an article to the Illinois Times, criticizing the Western media for their sensationalized coverage of the student movement in China. Instead of getting into trouble for holding dissenting views, as I would have in my native country, my editor, several professors and readers praised my honesty. Those two articles are now framed and hang in my study.

Through the second door at Sangamon, I was ushered into the American way of life – I attended my first Christmas celebration with my new friend Bill and his mother, had my first Thanksgiving dinner on a farm with Bruce, whose mother, Mrs. Kinnette, proclaimed herself my American mother. At the Bohlens’ apple orchard, I learned the different types of apples, and saw my first high-school musical at Springfield High with the Klemens. At the time of my graduation, when none of my family members could make it, Charlene Lambert and the Shereikis’ showed up at my graduation party with cards and envelops.

The Crowley’s took me to the Illinois State Fair, where I first saw a butter cow. Even now, many of my Chicago and New York friends have no idea what I am talking about.

I earned my first dollar from busing tables at a Chinese restaurant on South Grand. I started the second day after my arrival. I was fired on the third day because I wasn’t fast enough, and, when a customer asked for a cocktail onion for his martini, I dutifully brought out a full-sized one…And, for the first time in my life, I saw a fortune cookie.

Through the third door, I walked into the proverbial “sausage factory” of politics. “Laws are like sausages,” goes the famous quote, “It is better not to see them being made.” But for me, getting an in-depth look of law-making was enlightening. If democracy was only an abstract idea when I protested in China, I grasped its true meanings while interning with the General Assembly. Having grown up in a country where senior leaders were appointed rather than elected, I witnessed up close the 1990 gubernatorial election. Despite the political bickering that characterized Illinois politics and despite the fact that two of the last four governors landed in jail, the political process energized me. The experience prompted me to become a U.S. citizen in 1998. When I cast my first vote in the presidential election, I teared up.

For many of you who are graduating today, our backgrounds might differ, but I’m sure we all share similar feelings for UIS. As you leave here today, I would like to inspire you with the teachings of someone who never had the chance to see America, but whose stories pointed to universal truths.

He was my father, whom I recently featured in my memoir. He died before he could see me graduate and before I had the chance to tell him how much he had influenced me.

One of my father’s favorite stories began with a frog who lived comfortably at the bottom of a well. The frog thought the sky was as big as the mouth of the well. One day a crow perches on the edge, and the frog asked curiously, “Where are you from?” The crow answered, “I fly from the sky.” The frog was surprised and refused to believe that other creatures existed beyond what he saw every day. So, the crow invited the frog to jump out and see for himself. When the frog reluctantly emerged from the well, he was shocked to see how huge the world could be.

That tale always encouraged me to risk jumping out of my comfort zone and to take a broader perspective on life. Most of us have frog-like fears, but when we consider the crow’s vantage point, new horizons can be both physically far away or a leap in activity. The world is your pond.

Twenty years ago, thousands of foreign students came here in search of better opportunities because America was the most advanced country with the best education systems. Today, the world is getting smaller. When you plan your future, look beyond Springfield and even the boundaries of our country, and compete for opportunities in Shanghai, Sao Paulo, Nairobi and New Delhi, whether to take up a corporate job, teach English or to help people in need. For those who choose to work locally, I urge you to learn a foreign language. Being open-minded about other cultures will also open up a new array of opportunities.

My last insight comes in the form of another of my father’s sayings, which is that “A person depends on his parents at home and on his friends outside.” When many of you pack and move back in with your parents today, be grateful. Take a break from your iPhone or iPad, help with the dishes or drive your mother to the White Oaks Mall, if asked. In this way, when you reach my age, you don’t have to write a book about your guilt and regrets about not spending time with your parents or listening to their advice. Trust me!

At work or school, we have been taught how to stand out and show our individuality, which is perceived as a strength in this country. However, humility and collaboration, which are much treasured in the East, will also serve you well. Be a good listener and learn before rushing into any quick judgment. At work, it wouldn’t kill you if you pick up a cup of coffee for your boss or help a coworker who might not know how to create an Excel spreadsheet. If you are attentive to others, you’ll find yourself surrounded by a network of friends who will be there for you and who will cover for you if you make a mistake. They will also contact you when new opportunities arise.

Legend has it that a dragon is powerful because it draws its strength and shapes from many different animals such as a tiger, snake or eagle. Similarly, the knowledge and skill you have gained from UIS, your parents and the community will carry you very far– especially when combined with the Midwestern sincerity and warmth. I sincerely hope that your lives—and careers—take off like the flying dragon.

Thank you and congratulations again.

by Wenguang Huang