Panama‘s roots into the Georgia Institute of Technology go deep as Global Atlanta learned during a visit in 2014, and Tech grads saw on Saturday when Juan Carlos Varela, Panama’s president and a 1985 graduate with an industrial engineering degree, delivered one of three commencement addresses.
Mr. Varela was actually the third member of his immediate family to attend the university, which is famous throughout Latin America not only as a premier university in the United States, but because of Georgia‘s more favorable climate than that of competing institutions further north.
Global Atlanta visited Panama to report on the state of the canal at the time of its centennial celebration. Mr. Varela’s election in 2014 as president reinvigorated the country’s Georgia Tech alumni network, which began to meet regularly once again.
Meanwhile, Mr. Varela joined a Tech advisory board and even has provided a scholarship for a deserving Panamanian student to attend his alma mater. That student, Ulises Nuñez, became Panama’s first aerospace engineering grad from Tech this weekend with nearly a perfect grade point average.
Mr. Varela said that an engineering degree provided great training for assuming the presidency. He portrayed engineers as problem solvers ready to deal with the world’s problems.
“Inside those classrooms, you learned how to solve problems. Problems of math, calculus, chemistry and physics, but more importantly you were trained to find solutions and defeat any obstacles that you face in life. “
He credited his years at Tech with the training to set his priorities in life and to plan for the future.
“I am not here to talk to you just as the president of Panama,” he also said. “I will speak to you as a proud Yellow Jacket, one who was trained at one of the best public universities of this country, the land of the free and the home of the brave, the United States of America.”
He also challenged the graduates “to give everything back.”
“Don’t forget that a leader’s challenge is not leading. It is making others great. In the end, it’s not about how far you get in life. What really matters is how much you did for human kind to make the world a better place,” he said. “Work hard to be great, but work harder to be good engineers, administrators and citizens. Be a professional of character.”
He also encouraged graduates to prioritize family, have a little fun and care about the world.
“I have a simple formula for doing good: Always put the well-being of humans at the center of everything. This will always show you the path to find the best solutions.”
Before finishing, he couldn’t resist giving a shout-out to former President Jimmy Carter, another Georgia Tech grad, whom he thanked for “helping us to re-establish our democracy and rebuild the [Panama] Canal.”
Mr. Carter was responsible for signing the ownership of the canal over to the Panamanian government in 1977, starting a transition period that would see Panama gain full control in 1999. Many Georgia Tech graduates now work on the canal.