Create promaja! The world will thank you for it.
My commencement address to the graduating class of NOVA high school.
In 1995 Venera Novakovska opened a door for me. It was one of the most desired doors for my generation, a door to the United States. The door came in the form of a scholarship from NOVA, back then a language school, to spend a year in an American high school.
The trip there was hectic. I got on a bus to Bulgaria, then on a plane to New York City. On the plane I asked the flight attendant to give me something American to drink, and she offered me a Coke. I said I drink Coke all the time, give me something really American. Then she gave me a Dr. Pepper. It tasted like toothpaste.
In the 27 years since that flight, every time I want to remind myself what entering the unknown feels like, I take a sip of Dr. Pepper. It never fails to bring back memories of a 16-year-old kid who saw an open door, and walked through it willing to drink toothpaste.
Which brings me to TAKE-HOME LESSON #1: When somebody opens a door for you, you better do something brave and memorable on the other side!
On the other side was Ukiah, a tiny town in Northern California. There I met the Simpsons (nothing to do with the TV series:), the host family that opened for me the door to their home. I have walked through their door hundreds, maybe thousands of times, and yet somehow my host parents Jeff and Marilyn always find a way to take me out of my comfort zone. It was there that I first experienced the internet, 27 years ago. It was there that I first cooked a meal, walked a dog, or played the piano. And it was from that home, just a few months ago, that Jeff started giving my 8-year-old daughter piano lessons, on Zoom, in French, so they can both learn something from each other.
So my TAKE-HOME LESSON #2 is: When somebody opens a door for you, you better learn something new on the other side!
It was at the Simpsons' home that I learnt about Stanford. Back then it wasn't a very famous school, at least not for Macedonians. My host Mom, Marilyn, encouraged me to apply. I said I would, after I complete the SATs, the AP classes, the Ukiah High School diploma, and yet another year in Macedonia so I can get another high school diploma, from Korcagin. Everybody was shocked that I did not stay in the US, but I returned to Macedonia because I thought my chances would be bigger if I waited a year. The next year Stanford opened its doors to me, gave me a full ride, and then I spent twelve years there getting my BS, my MS and my PhD in Electrical Engineering. Since then three more countries on three continents have opened their doors for me. Three universities took a chance on me, and one of them, the École Polytechnique at the University of Montreal, has been my permanent academic home since 2015.
Time for TAKE-HOME LESSON #3: When somebody opens a door for you, make sure you time the entrance well, and then take your time exploring!
While the first three lessons I learnt from age 16-18, it took me longer to learn the next one. When you are young you take some doors for granted and assume they will always stay open. My parents kept welcoming me to Skopje and sending me off, publicly saying that I should stay abroad, but probably secretly hoping that I will not forget where my true home is. My wife Dragana walked through all kinds of doors together with me: the barbed wire doors of embassies, the revolving doors of academia, and the mind-expanding doors of perception. My kids Aleks and Sofi don't know which door they will call home next year, but I hope they will learn to think of the entire world as their home. Mom, Dad, Jeff, Marilyn, Dragana, Aleks, Sofi, thank you for still opening doors for me, and with me, and for always offering something new and exciting to find on the other side!
TAKE-HOME LESSON #4 is worth learning early: When somebody opens a door for you, give gratitude!
Today, NOVA is opening a new door to all of you, graduates, parents and siblings alike. Congratulations on getting there! Thirty-one of you will go through the same door I went through, attending college in the US. Thirty-five will continue in another European country, one of you will even venture to Asia. Many of you will leave, and that is perfectly OK. Some of you will decide to stay, and that is OK too. Don’t obsess over this decision. You know those lyrics about not throwing away your shot, or opportunity coming once in a lifetime? Do not take them at face value. As good as these lyrics sound, I don't think they are true. Doors are always opening, you just need to keep an eye out for them.
You will spend the next 10-15 years walking through many unknown doors, drinking strange drinks, meeting unusual people, and maybe, just maybe, you will decide that you would like to pay it forward and donate your time or money to give back to the people and the place that made it all possible.
In 2020 I came back to Macedonia to start a collaboration with the Faculty of Computer Science and Engineering (FINKI). Then the pandemic happened and that physical door closed. But many virtual doors opened, including the door of our foundation KANTAROT, which means ‘balance’ in Macedonian. We established this foundation together with my wife, Dragana, so we can bring scientific literacy to primary schools through our Science for kids initiative. Just last month we organized the first scientific conference for kids, and we are already planning the second one in 2023. Then there is S(c)iesta, a community of researchers from Macedonia working abroad, who have been meeting regularly since March 2020. We also started the Center for Advanced Interdisciplinary Research at the University Ss Cyril and Methodius where many of these researchers will get an affiliation. I hope this opens doors for students, the same way that NOVA opened doors for me.
TAKE-HOME LESSON #5 is probably the hardest one: When somebody opens a door for you, try to do the same for somebody else.
Because when somebody opens a door for you, and then, in turn, you open a door for somebody else, you create something very powerful that most Balkan people are very afraid of -- promaja.
Promaja is just another word for wind (or draft) and it is good for you! It prevents you from getting the coronavirus, it helps us combat air polution, and it is still the best ventillation method we have. Promaja is just a way to bring fresh air in a stale environment, and there is no scientific proof that it has ever caused a disease. If you don’t believe me, feel free to expose me to a promaja challenge. I will most probably not get sick, but you will learn that experiments and challenges are how we replace old ideas with new ones.
This commencement speech brings back many emotions and makes me feel that I have come full circle, walking back through the door that NOVA opened and returning here for what is truly a homecoming. As you walk out that same door, I wish all of you a successful career, but, more than that, I wish you all at least one day when you get to experience the emotions I experience today, because they are one of the few things that make life worth living.
To get there, open doors for others and create promaja! The world will thank you for it!
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