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Speech by Prime Minister Sanna Marin at the New York University commencement on 17 May 2023

Government Communications Department
Publication date 17.5.2023 19.20

Prime Minister Sanna Marin spoke at the New York University commencement in New York City on 17 May 2023.

Thank you and most importantly: My warmest congratulations to the magnificent graduating class of 2023 from New York University!

It is truly an honor to be present here on this prestigious occasion at NYU, which has cultivated so many thinkers, writers, scientists and notable alumni. I would also like to express my heartfelt gratitude to the esteemed members of the faculty and to the proud parents and family members as well as devoted friends in attendance. 

I want to say thank you to President Andrew Hamilton, Board of Trustees Chairman William Berkley, all the trustees, and the esteemed faculty who have all played a vital role in making this day possible.

I am deeply grateful to receive this honorary degree and I am very proud to share this occasion with my fellow honorary doctorates Carolyn Bertozzi, Misty Copeland and Freeman Hrabowski, who inspire me with their contributions to our world. 

Most importantly I am deeply humbled to be among you all today as we celebrate the achievements and graduation of NYU's class of 2023.

My dear graduates,

What can I say to you on this special day? 

Today is your graduation day, and the day when you close one chapter of your life and begin a new one. It is a turning point, a day of change. 

This is why I thought it might be a good day to talk about change – and to approach this theme through my own experiences.

Ever since I was elected as the youngest prime minister in the world at the age of 34, I have repeatedly been asked two questions. Both are related to change.

The first question is: Did you always want to become prime minister?

The second question: How did you do it?

I will now reflect on my own answers and share some thoughts to prepare you to when you are asked similar questions in the future.

My answer to the first question is no – at a young age I didn’t plan to become a politician or prime minister.

The answer to the second question is that I eventually did because I wanted to change things, to change the world. And because I realized that it was also my responsibility, not someone elses.

I know you have already been lectured a lot, since you were able to graduate from this very special institution, but I thought I might add to that by offering just a few small insights more.

This is why I want to give you three pieces of advice about change.

Advice number one: You have the right to want things and to want things to change.

Advice number two: Wanting is not enough. To change things, You have to take over. 

And advice number three: You have to stop being afraid.

My first piece of advice is about wanting things to change.

When I was in my early twenties, like many of you now, I started to feel passionately about politics. Not about the decision-making system, not about the idea of being an elected politician.

I started to feel a passion for issues such as climate change, loss of biodiversity, human rights and the rights of minorities, gender equality and social justice. Things that I saw around me that I wanted to change.

I’m sure that many of you here today can relate to that feeling.

Coming from a rainbow family I wanted to see a society where everyone could love whomever they wanted. I wanted to see renewed legislation on equal marriage and ensure human rights for all genders. I wanted to close the gender pay gap, and I wanted to see parents, mothers and fathers, to share their family leave more equally so that women could follow their career ambitions same as men.

Coming from Finland, a Northern European country with extraordinary nature, I wanted to stop climate change and see the societies become more sustainable. I wanted to see a transition towards carbon neutrality and I wanted to end the destruction of our environment.

I wanted a society where everyone would have equal rights and opportunities. I wanted to strengthen the education system so that every child could pursue their dreams. 

Wanting these changes was what made me join my political party and run in elections. 
No change can happen without the will.

This is why my first advice to you today is that you are allowed to want things. And you need to want things to change for better.

Dear class of 2023,

My second piece of advice to you today is that it is also your responsibility to take over. 

The world is as complex as ever. Geopolitical changes going on in the world are questioning the values we believe in. Climate change and biodiversity loss are a threatening our very existence. Digitalization and the development of artificial intelligence are about to bring revolutionary changes to our societies.

These are challenges that need to be solved. 

And there is no one else to do that, other than you.

For decades, we have lived in a world with an optimistic expectation of progress.  

We have expected our values such as freedom of speech, rule of law, gender equality and democracy to bloom hand in hand with the expansion of free market economy. We thought that globalization and growth would be enough to benefit everyone. We expected to see less authoritarian rule, more respect for diversity and a better world that does not discriminate against people based on their skin tone, gender, sexual orientation or religion. We have expected the freedom of information and the internet to broaden everyone’s understanding.

But the history did not end. 

Freedom of speech and other true elements of democracy are being questioned and limited all over the world. Whether this means diminishing the truth with false balance or using our personal data to influence our democratic elections, the rule of law as well as freedom of expression and the media need active defending.

Gender equality has taken leaps backwards across the globe. The right to safe abortion is being limited also in Europe. Different expressions of gender are being presented as a threat.

The swollen amount of inequality and a lack of social mobility are challenging our ideas about everyone having the same possibilities and freedoms in life.

The tip of the iceberg of all of these worrying developments is the return of war and heavy power politics to the western sphere - to Europe. Russia has broken the rules of the international order we set up together after the world wars by brutally and illegally attacking Ukraine – and in doing so, it has questioned all of the other rules as well.

All of these questions are battles of values. And we all must take a side in that battle. There is no middle ground.

Combatting climate change and biodiversity loss cannot wait for more stable times. You need to take over to solve them.

Problems caused by global warming such as extreme weather conditions, rising sea levels, food shortages, and the disappearance of ecosystems affect all areas of life and truly threaten the well-being of future generations. Similarly, declining of biodiversity can lead to an imbalance in ecosystems, which in turn can accelerate climate change and other environmental disasters.

Stopping climate change and loss of biodiversity are essential for the environment, the economy, and people's health. It is clear that combating climate change also requires international cooperation and sharing of responsibility among all states in a fair manner. 

Building our future growth can be part of the solution. You have all the skills to change the future by pioneering in green technologies and digitalization. This creates not only sustainable growth, but also innovations that can be replicated in all corners of the world.

I am sure you know much better than me how digitalization, the development of artificial intelligence and quantum sciences are about to bring revolutionary changes to our societies.

Yesterday I had the amazing privilege of visiting NYU’s Tandon Campus in Brooklyn.

Seeing the most advanced science, innovation and teaching they do there made it even more evident that the new technologies will define our societies in the near future. 

At the same time we need amazingly talented people like you to make sure that this technology and these digital solutions are benefitting everyone.

New technology has revolutionized people's lives in many ways, but their development also brings new challenges, such as privacy protection. AI-based systems, for example, are often dependent on a large amount of personal data. At the same time, they may reproduce discriminatory structures that exist elsewhere in society. They can also be misused for surveillance purposes, among other things.

The global competition for standards and values such as individual freedom and security behind quantum computing, artificial intelligence, and 6G networks is already on its way. And you need to step up to take part in this debate.

This, dear graduates, is the present and the future. And it is your responsibility to make sure that the change is on the right track.

And you know what? You can.

If you believe that the system and the whole world has to be reformed into being more democratic, more equal for all genders and groups, more supportive of freedom of expression – you can make that happen.

If you want to influence global warming and save ecosystems, you can.

If you want to build new technology, and artificial intelligence that works for the benefit of all in an ethical and sustainable way – you can!

My third piece of advice to you, dear graduates, is about how.

When I look back at my youth and career, I can see that actually one of the most significant things holding people back is fear. 

Sometimes it’s the fear of not knowing enough.

It might be fear of embarrassment, fear of mistakes, fear of being wrong.

It might be fear of not fitting in or fear of not meeting the expectations of others.

It might be fear of being declared unworthy because of the way you look or talk and the way you express yourself.

Luckily - and unfortunately - there is no superior authority in this world giving us permissions to be ourselves and to step forward to change the world.

If I had waited for a permission from others to take my stands, I would still be waiting for that permission.

This is why my key advice to you today is not actually an advice but a task:

Stop being afraid.

My dear class of 2023,

When you walk out of this stadium today, I want you to remember these three things.

You have to want things to change.

It is your turn to take over. 

And most importantly: Don’t be afraid. You are enough. You are capable.

Together with others you can do anything and you must, because there is no one else to do it but you.

Dear class,

Why am I telling you this? Why am I giving this advise to you? 

Because there are not nearly enough women in leadership positions. Not nearly enough young people. Not enough people from different backgrounds in our democratic decision making systems.

The face of power is not the same as the face of the people. And this has to change. I also want things to change but I can not do it alone. I need you and others with me to make the world more equal, more sustainable and more just. I know I’m not alone with this thought. I know many of you want the same and together we can make it a reality.

So now we just have to do it.

Dear class,

I am so happy to be here in New York with you today. One of the greatest and most progressive cities in the world.

And once again: My warmest congratulations to the magnificent graduating class of 2023 from New York University!