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President Volodymyr Zelenskyy of Ukraine addressed the Johns Hopkins Class of 2023 via livestream during the university's Commencement ceremony, delivering a moving speech about the indispensable ideals of freedom, self-determination, and democracy and his nation's ongoing fight to defend those ideals in the face of foreign aggression.
Zelenskyy's remarks were broadcast live on giant screens next to the stage at Homewood Field, where graduates, family, and friends gathered for Commencement. Almost no one in attendance knew in advance that Zelenskyy would be the speaker—their first hint was the appearance of the distinctive blue and yellow flag of Ukraine in an introductory video.
Zelenskyy praised Johns Hopkins as one of the world's greatest universities and with his trademark sense of humor quipped that his speech would be brief and wouldn't delay the distribution of diplomas.
A focal point of Zelenskyy's address—given while wearing a plain olive green shirt and seated at a wooden desk flanked by Ukraine's flag—was that our most precious resource is time. One of the most common truisms, he said, is let's not waste time, and he said today's graduates need to figure out how they are going to use the time they have been given.
"Every person eventually realizes that time is the most valuable resource on the planet, not oil or uranium, not lithium or anything else, but time," Zelenskyy said. "The very flow of time convinces us of this. Some people realize this sooner, and these are the lucky ones."
He acknowledged that college students "need to waste some time" while they are relatively free from responsibilities, but cautioned today's graduates not to take time for granted. Speaking of his war-ravaged country, he said, "I do not wish any anyone to feel like they are in my shoes, and it's impossible to give a manual on how to go through life so as not to waste its time. However, one piece of advice always works. You have to know exactly why you need today and how you want your tomorrows to look like. You have to know this when you are a politician and have to achieve a certain goal for your country. You have to know this when you are a soldier and you have to defend your position so that the whole country is protected. You have to know this when you just have to go through life."
Zelenskyy praised the United States and the Biden administration for its unwavering support of Ukraine in its war against Russia: "I'm proud that Ukraine is not losing a single day in its defense against Russian terror. Every day we do everything, everything to become stronger, to give more protection to people, to save more lives. The United States has also not lost a single day in helping Ukraine repel the Russian aggression. President Biden, a strong bipartisan coalition in Congress, and most of all the American people, have like the generations before them, rising to this occasion and are leading the free world to secure freedom in Europe."
Zelenskyy's remarks lasted about 10 minutes, and he received standing ovations both before and afterwards. He was also presented with an honorary degree by Johns Hopkins University President Ron Daniels.
Zelenskyy accepted the invitation to speak to the Johns Hopkins graduates on behalf of his nation and in defense of democratic values that allow peace, opportunity, and freedom to flourish around the globe.
"As a fearless champion of his nation, President Zelenskyy has shown the world what true courage in the face of seemingly insurmountable odds looks like," Daniels said. "Working not only on behalf of his nation, but in defense of democratic values everywhere, he has shown an incredible ability to rally his country's citizens, and through their collective action, they have rekindled hope for the rest of us in all that democracies can accomplish. To hear from President Zelenskyy at graduation will be a once-in-a-lifetime experience for Johns Hopkins students at a moment when the stakes are so high for the future of global democracy. I am thrilled that one of our era's great democratic leaders will reinforce for them the importance of holding fast to one's principles and meeting with fortitude and humility the challenging moments of history that they will surely face in the years ahead."
Zelenskyy has emerged as a courageous and resolute champion for Ukraine and its people since the first days of Russia's invasion in February 2022. Faced with an urgent existential crisis—a multipronged invasion by a neighboring superpower whose military might far surpasses that of Ukraine—he has proven himself to be one of the great leaders of our time. He has summoned the fierce and proud spirit of the Ukrainian people, rallied millions around the world to support Ukraine in its fight for sovereignty, and become an international icon in the global struggle to preserve democracy and the principles that underpin it.
Through his persistence and passion, he has rallied a global coalition of western allies to his side at a moment when democracy is in peril.
Zelenskyy parlayed his success and visibility as an actor and comedian into a political career, becoming Ukraine's sixth president in 2019. His tenure has been defined by conflict with Russia, first in the form of territorial disputes and calls for diplomatic solutions, and culminating in the invasion that led to the still-ongoing war. Zelenskyy's leadership during this crisis has garnered international acclaim and numerous awards—he was named Time Person of the Year for 2022, received the Aachen International Charlemagne Prize in 2023, and earned a John F. Kennedy Profile in Courage Award, among many other honors and recognitions.