In a speech May 30 at Royce Hall, Kofi Annan, the former secretary-general of the United Nations, encouraged students to take full advantage of UCLA's multicultural campus environment and international study opportunities as a way to prepare for life after college.
"Make time to reach out, travel, have exposure to foreign cultures and foreign languages," he told students in the packed house of more than 1,800. "You're lucky — you have such a diverse campus. You have the world here, and you should reach out to ... people from different cultures, different religions, and share. That, in a way, prepares you for the world you are going to see and to live in."
Annan, the 2001 Nobel Peace Prize laureate, delivered his comments as part of the keynote speech for UCLA's second annual Luskin Lecture for Thought Leadership.
UCLA Chancellor Gene Block opened the program, and Joseph Rudnick, senior dean of the UCLA College of Letters and Science and dean of the College's division of physical sciences, introduced Annan. "Few have been as immersed in world affairs and global challenges of this century as Secretary-General Kofi Annan," Rudnick said, "and we are honored that he is here today to inform and inspire all of us."
Annan's talk touched on his formative years in Ghana and detailed some of the lessons he learned during his tenure as the U.N.'s leader from 1997 to 2006. He also appealed to students to pursue public and community service.
"I know there was a period when young people felt the best [place] to be was on Wall Street," he said. "They were not interested in politics or public service. But the question I used to pose to those who [said], 'Politics is not for me, public service is not for me,' was: If all the smart ones stay out of public service and politics, who is going to lead the legislation for us?"
Annan, who in 1998 received the UCLA Medal, the university's highest honor, also shared his memories of Ghana gaining its independence from British rule in 1957 — an achievement, he said, that showed him the importance of engaging in political action.
"I grew up with a sense that change ... even revolutionary change of that kind, was possible, and that has served me a lot in my own career and in my own life," he said. "When I was at the U.N. and my staff would tell me, 'It can't be done, it's never been done, the member states will not accept it,' I would say, 'Let's test it. Let's see what can be done.'"
Annan's presentation was followed by a question-and-answer session moderated by Laura Ling, a UCLA alumna and the host of the television documentary series "E! Investigates." Questions, which were solicited in advance from the UCLA community, focused on war and peace, the future role and composition of the U.N., and Annan's advice to students.
Ling, echoing Annan's advice about pursuing new experiences and perspectives, said, "One of the things that I attribute to my experience here at UCLA was the education and diversity that really propelled me to want to get out and become a journalist and report in the world."
The Luskin Lecture for Thought Leadership promotes dialogue among scholars, leaders and the greater Los Angeles community on pressing national and global issues. The series was established in 2011 by longtime UCLA supporters Meyer and Renee Luskin as part of a $100 million gift to UCLA. Former president Bill Clinton delivered the inaugural lecture last year.