Commencement Remarks for Tan Tao University 2018

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Amb. Michael Michalak
Former United States Ambassador to Vietnam
Senior Vice President & Regional Managing Director of the US-ASEAN Business Council
Founding Board Member, Tan Tao University

Long An Province, October 7, 2018

Dear Representatives of the Party, Government of Long An province.
Dear Professors, Scientists, Lecturers of universities from the United States
Dear representatives of the Department of Education and Training of the southern provinces. Representatives of hospitals and universities in Ho Chi Minh City.
Dear journalists of newspapers.
Dear student parents.
Dear Faculty members, administrators, and other members of Tan Tao University and Talented high school;

Ladies and Gentlemen,

It gives me great pleasure to be here with you at the Commencement for the 4th graduating Class of Tan Tao University. I apologize for not being able to come last year and very much look forward to the ceremonies this year.

Tan Tao very much reminds me of my own Under graduate Alma Mater — Oakland University in Rochester Michigan. If you look at a map of the United states you can pick out my University very quickly. There is a feature in the northern central part of the country called the Great Lakes, the Lakes surround the state of Michigan which looks like a giant mitten, below the base of the thumb of that mitten is Detroit, one of Michigan’s major cities and just above that is Rochester Michigan, my alma mater.

Like Tan Tao, Oakland is about an hour away from a major city, Detroit. Like Tan Tao, when I was studying at Oakland it was a relatively new, experimental school which had only a few thousand students. And like Tan Tao, the land for our University originally belonged to a woman active in Business — Matilda Wilson was alive in the auto Business, not industrial parks — but she was passionate about education.

The similarities do not stop there. One of the guiding principles of Oakland was the desire to form strong associations between the faculty and students and to try to give the students the feel that they were colleagues of the faculty, both engaged on the journey to higher education, the search for knowledge and eventually entrance into the next stage of life.

The past four years have been — at the same time — rewarding and frustrating, way too easy and way too hard, very confusing but sometimes overly simple and you thought it would never end but now you are scared because it is over way too fast!

Well having conflicting emotions about thing is something you will alway go through, life is very complex and you will often feel two conflicting emotions as you think about some issue or some event in your life, but you will get through it. You will get through it because you had to get through it to finish your studies here. You have grown in your abilities to look at problems to organize them into sections that you can handle one section at time and, hopefully come up with solutions at the end. And if you don’t come up with the solution you now have the ability to better define what you don’t know and you know what you need to do to make the effort to understand it.

These at least are my observations based on my experiences and the similarities between my education and yours. Now on the other hand, there are parts of your education of which I have no idea and no experience! I do not know what it is like to collaborate on face book or instagram or many of the social platforms available today. I don’t know what it is to look at the “gig economy” and not be scared of working in pieces rather than sticking to one company for the rest of your life. These are experiences and skills that I am learning every day from my staff. when I can’t get my phone to do a certain task my 20-something colleague comes and helps me out and when I need to find something in the cloud it is my younger colleagues who help me to come up with the best search parameters.

In short we have many experiences in common even though the settings and the context may be different. These different contexts are going to be your responsibility. I know everybody is telling you that and you will not have to do it alone, but for four years you looked at society and wondered if it could be made better and now you are going to be in a position to do your best to make it better.

We are living in a very complex time when we are confronted with problems having more connections to more disciplines than ever before. We are living in a digital age where coding is going to be as common as typing (and I have to tell you I can’t type on my iPhone to save my life). We recently hired new person in my company to help us work on healthcare issues and I asked him what he did in his spare time and he said “I’m studying Python!” So I asked him how long he had been interested in snakes and he just looked at me and smiled.

Python is a computer language that is used in the analysis of big data and I, of course, had never heard of it, but here he was doing it in his spare time when would have been reading science fiction because I wanted to be an astronaut! My new hire told me that he was pretty sure no matter what line work he did he could use a skill like being able to do big data analysis. Many of you have been looking at Artificial Intelligence, studying genetic engineering, possibly reading astrophysics from some of professor Levy’s books. You are way ahead of me!

Dr. Levy and I were born into a world where jet airplanes were still relatively new and now people are buying tickets to take a sightseeing rocket trip around the moon! You are in a generation that has seen computers go from huge blocky things that took up most of your desk to where your mobile phone has more than a hundred times more capability and more storage. You don’t even remember dial phones and party lines!

I say all this to bring home the fantastic rate at which technology is changing, disrupting and hopefully, improving the world. At the same time the ability of people to cope with the disruption caused by technology has not kept pace with the technology itself. Part of the reason for that is that my generation is not used to the speed of change that your generation is used to. We are still trying to deal with diesel engines when the world is changing to electric cars, we are looking at communications as Television and radio when new unicorns are showing us streaming video and live broadcasts from anywhere a phone can be turned on. This is both, as they say in Vietnamese, an opportunity and a challenge.

As you step into your role as the up and coming managers, thinkers and doers of the next generation you must think not only of the disruption of technology, but of how we manage that change. That is going to be the biggest challenge of your generation.

You have had the opportunity to receive a great education, but from now on what we did in the past is not going to be good enough. Looking at new technologies we can see that we are going to be able to have huge increases in productivity which should enable us to be more creative to improve the health and livelihood of all our people, but we are going to have to think of how we are going to work in the future to benefit all the workers in our world. Lifetime learning is not just a slogan anymore, it could be the key to having a society that works as opposed to having large segments of society that are left behind by industry 4.0 with all the negative disruption that implies.

Lifetime learning and continuous education is already happening in some countries.

I am referring to Singapore and many of the countries in ASEAN. I was in a taxi in Singapore going somewhere and my driver said that he was off work shortly and he was going to computer coding class. I was taken aback and said “that’s great, what convinced you to do that? “ He said the government had been offering programs for older residents to go to school because we are going to need more computer people than taxi drivers in the future. If half the taxi drivers Singapore think like that Singapore will move ahead with Industry 4.0 faster than any of us!

Malaysia is opening up Digital Free Trade zones where they will have several programs for introducing startups to the digital economy. They will have coursed in coding, using the cloud, how to rent software rather than buy it to save money. They will have mentors from Malaysian technology forms and from Multinational Companies working with start ups to show them how to implement their ideas. There will be advisors from the Malaysian Export promotion department to help new companies get ready to export and to integrate into global supply chains.

In Thailand there are similar programs including setting up innovation centers. In Vietnam there is already GE R&D center in Saigon working on resolving petroleum industry issues for the ASEAN Region. Vietnam has the potential to be a leader in ASEAN in the introduction of the Digital Economy.

I know I said earlier that you are ready for the next stage of your life and I believe you are! Tan Tao have excellent professors and most of all excellent students who know how to take advantage of the opportunities being offered here.

The speed of technological development is coming not only from universities, but it is also coming from students like yourselves who have an idea for a new “killer app” or did some research on genome analysis and might have an idea for a new diagnostic test for cancer.

You may be working in a shared space like To Ong or We Work and you will collaborate with someone sitting at the desk next to you who is doing something totally different. Be open to those experiences! In short people should be thinking not so much about degrees as they should be thinking about skills. You have been working on problem solving, forming teams collaboration methods and the like. These are the skills you need for the coming times. These are the skills you will continue to develop because you can’t learn it all in undergraduate school, you can’t learn it all in graduate school, you can learn it by combining your formal education with the new internships, apprenticeships, and other forms of education that partner the skills you learn here with skills that you will learn in life.

At the same time we need to maintain the social skills that have guided you through your education up to this time. Working together with others, being transparent, being inclusive and listening to all voices.

You are lucky to be living in ASEAN because I believe it has a tremendous future ahead of it. ASEAN is necessary to give the people of South East Asia a voice. ASEAN is caught between two giants one with the largest population in the world (until India surpasses it in a few years) and one with the largest Economy in the world (at least until the above mentioned economy surpasses it is a few years) an ASEAN is one way to amplify the voices of countries like Vietnam to maintain the independence of action you need to continue to develop. Vietnam has an opportunity to be one of the leaders of ASEAN.

In the future Vietnam is going to need more investment. Investors are going to look at the way in which countries prepare for the digital age. Do they allow the Cloud to operate to exchange information from sources around the world? Remember Artificial intelligence without data is not intelligent! Do they allow for interoperable payment systems so small and medium enterprises are getting the best and lowest cost access to finance possible. You are going to be the ones that will help design these systems and I want you to remember that making Vietnam the best connect country in the region mean Vietnam will be one of the leaders of ASEAN going forward.

Now I know I have talked about a lot of stuff that you all may not have thought about and you are wondering “Hey give me a break I just graduated and want to enjoy that!” Well I am all for giving you a break and letting you enjoy your day. It is one of many that I hope you will enjoy in your life which will likely be longer than mine because of the great things you will do to improve our world.

I love coming to Tan Tao to do these events because seeing your faces and feeling the enthusiasm makes me proud to be associated with you! It makes me proud to be associated with Tan Tao and it makes me proud to play a small part in improving the relationship between the United States and Vietnam. But most of all it makes me feel good to know that whether you are seven or seven hundred you have a history of determination and strength and you will join many thousands of others like you to help build a great new Vietnam.

Thank you!