Graduation Speech

Delivering a speech at Latifah’s graduation celebration, pre-meltdown. VP of Uganda in background.

Remember that one time where I cried hysterically into a microphone in front of the vice president of Uganda and 200 or so additional onlookers? I do. It happened last week. My co-Fellow Latifah’s family was hosting a make-up graduation celebration for her and her brother. In any Ugandan event or official occasion, it is critical to have many, many speeches. Though I have a persistent fear of public speaking, I agreed to give a speech—after all, this was an important day in my co-Fellow’s life. Moments before the speeches began, the emcee introduced the event’s special guest: Edward Ssekandi, the vice president of the country. Naturally, right?

As my name was called to the front, I take the microphone and begin speaking. So far, so good. And then the reality of the situation begins to sink in: I realize how unintentionally emotional my speech is. I remember that overly emotional situations tend to make me cry. And it begins. In a seemingly slow-motion meltdown, I begin sobbing. Uncontrollably. For some reason, though, I’m determined to make it through the speech. So I keep speaking inaudible words, through gasps and wails. Other fellows at the event formed a literal support system around me—Robinson holding my microphone, Genevieve and Devy patting my back, Latifah comforting me. In the moment, the situation was horrendously embarrassing. Looking back, however, it’s a bit symbolic of the GHC community. We have meltdowns sometimes…usually not so public, but tough situations happen.

So, in case the vice president or anyone in attendance at the glorious graduation ceremony event is curious what I was really trying to say, here is the speech transcript:

The current temperature in St. Paul, Minnesota, where Latifah graduated from St. Catherine University, is about 1 degree Celsius. The weather forecast predicts snow next Thursday. I must say, you picked a wise place for an outdoor celebration.

My name is Katarina. I actually grew up in the same snowy state of Minnesota so dear to Latifah’s heart. We work together at a USAID-funded governance project in Kampala. We are also serving as global health corps fellows together. We live in a small world, don’t we? A Ugandan-Minnesotan and a Minnesotan-Ugandan, united here today. It’s pretty incredible.

I’m sure this day is full of memories for Latifah. Memories of winning the election to lead her university as student senate president. Memories of her practicum in Tanzania, which taught her so much about global health. Memories of publishing a research paper called “When helping really helps: How to Effectively Help Without Hurting the Poor at the Bottom of the Pyramid in Developing Countries.” And of course, memories of mistakenly thinking the city of St. Paul would shut down the moment it snowed.

Today is a day to celebrate these memories with Latifah and congratulate her for her many achievements. But I’d also like to recognize Latifah outside of her achievements. For being a soulful, passionate, values-driven, beautiful woman. I remember meeting Latifah last July, at Yale University in the US. As an introductory greeting, Latifah wrapped me up in a big hug and told me how thrilled she was to meet me. Her warmth was incredible and I instantly felt like I was connecting with a lifelong friend. We immediately went on a long walk, where we discussed deep topics like social justice, international development, family, love, and dreams.

We were so lost in conversation that we soon realized we were actually lost… in the night-time streets of New Haven, Connecticut. We wandered in circles until we ultimately had to call one of our directors not once but twice, to direct us home. It was only fitting that a few weeks later; we would be wandering around together in the streets of Kampala, once again lost and looking for our apartment. We moved from taxi stage to taxi stage, asking people where we could find the mystical land of Bukoto-Kisaasi. Naturally, every person had a different answer, different instructions.

Our perpetual habit of getting lost culminated one day when were looking for our apartment and it started downpouring rain. We huddled under my umbrella and continued shuffling down the street, getting progressively more and more covered in mud and more and more lost. We paused to assess the situation and started laughing. The type of laughing that only happens when you realize how ridiculous your situation is. The type of laughing where you’re crying and your stomach hurts and you just cannot stop laughing. We may have been absolutely lost, but at least we were in good spirits.

But Latifah is anything but a lost soul. Her perspective on life is well grounded in her faith, values, and experiences. She is inspiring and wise well beyond her years. Latifah’s spirit and energy convey youth, but her soul conveys such a deep pool of wisdom that I don’t understand how she is not 120 years old. This old soul is a mentor to me, and to so many others. We are all blessed to have Latifah in our lives and I cannot wait to watch her continue to change the world.

Graduation ceremony aunties