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

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. 

And when I finally got that first set of grants, one of the people who had given me advice, a Black pastor named the Rev. Kenneth B. Smith, made it clear that the work had just begun. As he handed me the check, he said something along the lines of, “I went to the wall for you, son. I trust you will not make a fool out of me in front of my colleagues. Take this grant and do what you promised to do, only better. I know you can.”

 It was intimidating — and encouraging. I set my sights higher and achieved more.

Here’s the lesson: If you surround yourself with people who believe in you, they will inspire you to be better than you originally thought possible.

Morally based choices bring joy, peace, Elder Christofferson tells BYU graduates
The making of a memorable commencement speech

There is a deep satisfaction in excelling at something worth excelling at. Trust me when I say that telling people all the things that prevented you from being good at something is no substitute for actually being good at something. 

So if you want to be a pilot, don’t surround yourself with people who will tell you about all the ways flight school is unfair. Surround yourself with people who will teach you how to fly a plane. 

People who are willing to sacrifice your talent to their negativity or their ideology or their weird fears are not people you want to be around. That’s not believing in you. 

My friend Wes Moore has a story about this. In his first years in high school, he was a self-described goof-off. He got bad grades, cut class and pulled stupid, dangerous pranks. Deep down, he was afraid of his own gargantuan talent, afraid of what it might mean to feel a responsibility to it.

And adults were afraid to confront him about it.

Too many teachers at the fancy private school Wes attended just figured that this was par for the course for a Black boy with a single mother. Here’s how Wes puts it: “I didn’t have to make excuses for myself because I had people who were making excuses for me. … I think their interpretation of caring for me was lowering their expectations.”

Let me tell you right now: whatever else lowering expectations for people might be, it is not caring for them.

It wasn’t until he switched schools that Wes found a group of teachers who really cared about him and showed it by believing in him. They refused to accept mediocrity from someone with exceptional talents. 

Wes excelled in the “nothing is given to you, everything is earned” environment of Valley Forge Military Academy. He went on to graduate from Johns Hopkins, win a Rhodes Scholarship, serve as a captain in the 82nd Airborne, write bestselling books and lead major institutions.

If you meet him in the next couple of years, you will probably call him Gov. Moore. (He’s the governor of Maryland). One day, you may call him Mr. President.

And that’s because he found people who believed in him.

I think this is a good time to remind you of something. You are now college graduates, and there are privileges associated with that status — and responsibilities. Our society reserves a number of important roles for people who have graduated from college. Teachers, counselors, many coaching positions, and roles in health care, government, social services and many more professions are, for the most part, reserved for college graduates. Your judgment is trusted. Your leadership abilities are assumed. What does that mean?

Simply put, it means you will be in a position to believe in others, and have it really matter. As you become a teacher, a counselor, a coach, I want you to think to yourself: is there a young Wes Moore here, in this school, at this agency, attending this program? Someone who other people are willing to accept mediocrity from? Someone who needs to be believed in?   

View Comments

Do for them what you want people to do for you. Speak to their agency. Align their assets with their aspirations. Treat their identity as a source of inspiration, not a status of victimization. Focus their attention on the opportunities they have, not the obstacles that stand in their way.

Howard Thurman put it best, in reference to the group of people who believed in him at Morehouse College. He said they held a crown above his head and challenged him to grow tall enough to wear it. 

I hope you find people to do that for you — and that you will do it for others.

Eboo Patel, the founder and president of Interfaith America, is a contributing writer for the Deseret News, the author of “We Need to Build: Field Notes for a Diverse Democracy” and the host of the podcast “Interfaith America with Eboo Patel.” 

Join the Conversation
Looking for comments?
Find comments in their new home! Click the buttons at the top or within the article to view them — or use the button below for quick access.