Dean's Speech: Address by Professor Gabriel Leung at the Speech Day of St. Stephen’s Girls’ College

30 November 2018

21st Century Learners

Supervisor and Chairman The Reverend Canon Koon [Ho Ming Peter Douglas 管浩鳴法政牧師], Vice-Chairman Professor Yuen Tsang [Woon Ki Angelina 阮曾媛琪教授], Principal Chau [Wai Chu Maggie 周維珠], council members, honoured guests, teachers, parents, friends, and most of all graduands, ladies and gentlemen,

First let me thank the College, and your principal Maggie Chau, for inviting me to address you.  It is an absolute privilege to be here today.

Historical Neighbours

The University of Hong Kong and St. Stephen’s Girls’ College have been neighbours for well over a century now.  The medical school that I have the honour of being temporary guardian of celebrated its 130th birthday just last year, and St. Stephen’s has been around since 1906.  In that time, we have had countless alumni from SSGC come through the halls of the University, and more than a few to the medical faculty.

To lend some perspective to that history I might point out that my faculty was founded the same year that Queen Victoria celebrated 50 years on the throne, and when SSGC was founded China still had an emperor, in fact that was 1906, the year that Puyi, who would be the last Emperor, was born. We are long past the age of empires. So, although I’m here to talk to you about your path as 21st century learners I think it is important to be cognizant of our shared history, because we cannot hope to understand the future if we turn a blind eye to the past, and in our case, to the privilege it affords us.

Our Privilege

Both our institutions are, of course, deeply privileged.  We are privileged not just for our rich history, but also for the hard work of those who have come before us.  It is their cumulative effort that has provided us with the educational opportunities our membership in the institutions now affords us.  With such endowment and privilege, I believe earnestly that it falls on us to contribute a disproportionately larger portion of our efforts to the betterment of society than average.  It is right that we should feel a sense of duty, as fellow citizens, to give back to the society that has given us so much.  And, when I say ‘society’ here I don’t mean merely Hong Kong. More than ever we cannot restrict ourselves to such narrow confines, we should look to the future nationally and globally, and to ourselves as national and global citizens.

Looking Forward

There has been a lot of talk, for example, of the Greater Bay Area, and the region as a singular whole.  It’s sort of a back-to-the-future moment if you think about it, since the area has historically been inseparable, barring a 150-year blip of colonialism.  And what does that look like 20 years from now?  What will our role be in shaping it?  Those are the kind of interesting, and frankly exciting, questions that you face heading into a rapidly changing world.

By the time you all reach my age the year will be 2047.  And the world in which you take up leadership positions will, for better or worse, look very different than today’s world.  The future is difficult to foresee, but change is constant.  And because change is constant, we can at a bare minimum say that the future will be different.  Different how? I don’t know.  I left my crystal ball at home this morning.  But perhaps just by knowing that change and uncertainty are inevitable we can already start to surmise which skills are likely to help us thrive moving forward.

In a wonderful way I think some of the most important 21st century skills have already been deeply inculcated in all of you by your education here at SSGC.  You have learned how to inquire and investigate, how to share and socialise, and how to think both critically and creatively.  You are excellent learners and young adults.

21st Century Skills

So, what remains?  Where do we as a university add value?  I think the value that we add is in giving you the latitude of both space and time to take the final steps towards becoming true freely enquiring minds.  We must provide the space to nurture that, and to catalyse a functional community of those freely enquiring minds.  I emphasize freely enquiring because in many respects, university represents the last station in adult life where you really are given the leeway, if not encouragement, to trip, stumble, and fall down, while still being fully protected.  Where mistakes are still seen more as part of the process than as failures.  When you enter society at large, things are rarely as forgiving, believe me.  It is for that reason that one of the skills that I think is most vital at this stage in your life is an open attitude towards learning, that dare to do, dare to dream attitude, and perhaps most importantly dare to err.  I encourage all of you to treasure that spirit, to embrace it, and nurture it.  It will prove vital to getting the most out of your university life.  In some ways the competencies that you acquire in your degree programmes are relatively immaterial next to this attitude, this open disposition towards life and learning.  The reason I say this is that in five years most of what you have learned will feel quite routine.  And then ten years after that most of it will probably be incorrect.  But that attitude will remain, that sense of adventurous seeking and thirsting for new knowledge, and it will keep you in good stead.

That to me is half the equation of what a 21st century learner needs. 

The other half of the equation is your moral compass.  In this part of your life it is important for you to actively develop your personal internal sense of right and wrong.  Both HKU and SSGC were founded by missionaries who, with a strong set of beliefs and convictions, lay the groundwork for great centres of learning.  What are your strong beliefs?  How can you build your own system for understanding, untangling, and living out what is right and wrong?  What does empathy and kindness mean to you?  What makes something honourable?  What role does family and friendship play in your moral landscape?

Practical Realities

Now, this doesn’t mean that I’m giving you license not to focus on academics, not at all.  It just means that these are skills that I consider valuable for future success.  Ways to develop a strong core that can guide and drive you forward no matter what the future throws at you.  It is impossible to “futureproof” your life, but I believe that an adventurous inquisitive mentality and a strongly developed moral compass will prove indispensable for you all as 21st century learners.

Think of them as the sturdy foundation on which you can build the practical elements of your education, and, let me be clear: the practicalities are important as well. For example, if you go down the medical track, you will have to acquire a very specific set of skills and competencies to become a doctor.  It is not enough to be open to new learning experiences.  No one wants to hear their surgeon, holding a scalpel say, “I’m really great at learning on the go and I have a can-do attitude!”  The same goes for law, business, or any of the degree programmes we offer.  But the practical competencies are relatively easy, although very time consuming, because they are on a linear path clearly laid out from year to year.  The more abstract 21st century skills that I’m advocate for, while perhaps sounding easy, are far from it.  They are lifelong skills that must be regularly tended to, they are in your habits and attitudes, they must be cultivated and maintained, and there is nowhere more suited to their development than university.

Dreaming Big

When I look out at all of you, I’m reminded of my own past.  I too came from a grant school like SGCC, from a school founded by missionaries.  But in many ways your generation is unique, and uniquely prepared.  You are among the first that are graduating now who are truly trilingual, and truly bicultural.  You share a heritage with over a fifth of the Earth’s population, and no matter how cliché it feels to speak of East and West, you really do have the privilege and the benefit of being a part of both, which is a powerful advantage in an increasingly global world.  These facts leave you well prepared.  But be wary that they do not become the limits of your world, because there is much more to be experienced that you have not yet imagined.

That’s why for the next few years you should really go wild, and no not in terms of your behaviour, I want you to be wild in your dreams, in the breadth of your ideas, in distance of your travels, in the exploration of your limits.  I want you to really go and fly, because the world will bring you back down to Earth soon enough, and there will be plenty of time for getting a job, starting a family, having kids, all of which are wonderful things, but university is a special time for growing, taking chances, and dreaming big.