Angad Singh rolled up his sleeves at undergraduate commencement, sat cross-legged on the Greek Theatre stage next to Dean Rich Lyons, and began to beat on classical Indian drums called the Tabla.
“That intense beat right there was everybody’s heartbeat right before we opened our admissions letters,” said Singh, who wore a bright yellow turban that was inspired by Cal colors. “When I got in I was so happy my face was as bright as this turban.”
“On a serious note,” he continued. “for this speech to work I need everybody’s help. For a couple of seconds, please, close your eyes everybody. Think about that one problem that matters most to you, that one issue you really need resolved to make this world a better place. Now open your eyes. That right there is the core of my speech today.”
Six months ago, Singh was among 30 Haas undergrads who auditioned for the honor of undergraduate student speaker. When the undergrad members of the Haas Business School Association chose him, Singh went out and asked more than 70 classmates what mattered to them most.
He said he deeply contemplated their concerns, but he never drafted a formal speech. “If I was to memorize a speech and write it down I wouldn’t be able to feel it and connect with the audience,” said Singh.
So instead of standing behind the podium with paper in hand, he pulled off his black gown, grabbed the mic and paced the stage as he spoke from the heart.
The talk, which he titled “A Sikh’s graduation speech to unite the world,” centered on the idea that we are all one and can all unite to solve global problems. He spoke of losing two best friends to drugs in his home state of Punjab, and said his plan when coming to the US was to become successful enough to return home and fight the scourge of drug abuse.
Then he turned to some the problems his classmates had shared with him.
“Whenever there’s a kid in Oakland who can’t afford school, that’s a problem,” he said. “Whenever climate change wipes out a species, that’s a problem. Whenever a Muslim woman gets bullied because of her hijab, or a Jewish man because of his yarmulke, or a Sikh man because of his turban, that is a problem. When a father in Syria cries because he lost his entire family to a missile strike, that’s a problem.”
He urged the 400 members of the Class of 2017 who attended graduation “to use our education to go beyond ourselves to make this world a better place. We want to unify this world. That’s the core spirit of every student right here. That is who we are.”
He asked the crowd to imagine a beautiful village with farm fields and cattle. The houses of the village—a real village in India called Shani Shingnapur—have no front doors.
“The villagers firmly believe there’s no need for borders or barriers or discrimination,” he said. “That is why in that village, there’s never been a robbery or a single incident of violence. What if all of us can use our education to create a world just like that village? In that world there would be no walls or borders, none. In that world there would be no Muslim ban. In that world, no one would call another person ‘bad hombre.’”
After tassels were turned, Singh said he was moved to tears by the affection of his classmates and their families. “I felt unbelievably honored when I received a standing ovation,” he said.
He accepted a job at JP Morgan as an investment banker, will leave soon to begin training in New York, and will start working in San Francisco after that.
“Berkeley is like home for me,” he said. At Berkeley, he says he has been protected from much of the harassment that he hears about from his Sikh friends across the country. “I have so many friends across the U.S. who wear turbans. One friend was called Osama Bin Laden and told “Get out. You don’t belong here.”
He said that events such as the Syrian civil war and refugee crisis, the Venezuelan hunger problem, rampant global warming, and the 2012 fatal shooting that left six people dead in a Sikh temple in Wisconsin, led him to start speaking out about his beliefs and fighting for change.
His long term plan has always been to fight the drug problem in Punjab, and to bring high quality education and healthcare to India’s villages. He also aims to make a difference in the lives of refugees and civil war victims across the world.
“Everybody talks about legacy, legacy, legacy – our legacy will forever be remembered as the class that not only did good business, but the class that engaged in the business of doing good.”