Q&A: Richard Verma, class of 2019’s commencement speaker


Richard Verma, ’90, gave the student commencement address when he was the class president. Verma will be giving the 151st commencement ceremony address this year on Monday, May 20, 2019, at Goodman Stadium. (Courtesy of Lehigh University website)

The Brown and White spoke with former U.S. ambassador to India Richard Verma, ‘90, the class of 2019’s commencement speaker to discuss his career, life at Lehigh and his involvement in the university as a member of the board of trustees. Note: This Q&A has been edited for length and clarity.

Q: How does it feel to have been selected to speak at the 151st commencement ceremony?

Richard Verma: It was such a surprise and also such a big honor. I’m grateful to President (John) Simon for asking me, and I’m really looking forward to graduation and recognizing the graduates and their families. I gave the commencement address 29 years ago when I was the class president in 1990. There’s been so many changes at Lehigh and in the world since then. Yes, there are a lot of challenges, but I’m also so excited for all the opportunities this graduating class will have.

Q: Having spoken at commencement before, what do you think will be the biggest difference?

RV: The first difference is it’ll be in the football stadium and not inside, so that will certainly be different, weather cooperating. The second big difference is I’ve had these 30 years go by and a chance to reflect on what was happening not only on campus, but in the country and around the world at that point. As I look back over these three decades and how things have changed or not changed, it will be like two bookends and an interesting chance to talk about what’s taken place in that time.

Q: What from your Lehigh experience has helped you throughout your career?

RV: I think the Lehigh family — my friends, the faculty, the alumni and all those associated with the school — is what has helped me the most. Of course, the education was rigorous and we all think our four years at Lehigh was the best in the history of the school. But, for me, the real impact of my college experience was that Lehigh became a bedrock and foundational part of my life after graduation. There is an amazing alumni network, and the great name and support of the school stays with you wherever you might end up in the world.  

Q: What did you study at Lehigh and how did this prepare you for your future after lehigh?

RV: I studied industrial engineering and I minored in international relations. Engineering was really challenging for me. I liked it, but I was really drawn to words and the liberal arts, like international issues and legal issues, so law school made more sense. So, that’s what I ended up doing in between my graduation and my service in the military. I went to Lehigh on a ROTC scholarship and it worked out. I found the engineering curriculum challenging and law school was challenging in a different way and very rewarding. It was a good combination.

Q: What advice do you have for the graduating class?

RV: One of the things I’ve learned, especially after turning 50 last year, is that I have far more to learn from the younger generations, particularly this graduating class, given all they have accomplished. If I was to give advice, it really comes in the form of observations about the world we live in, how small its become, how each of the graduates can have a big impact and how public service has shaped a lot of what I’ve done since graduation.  

q: What is your favorite part about still being involved at Lehigh?

RV: I love coming back to campus. You realize after you leave, there are few places like Lehigh. Now that I serve on the Board of Trustees, I get that opportunity a few times each year. You also learn that there are so many committed people — families, parents, alumni, friends and neighbors of Lehigh — who are working to make the school a little bit better each day.  

Q: What do you currently do at The Asia Group?

RV: We provide strategic advice to companies on their business strategies in Asia, mainly focused on what we call the Indo-Pacific, everything from India to Australia — and every country in-between. It’s been a lot of fun, requires too much travel, but this is a dynamic and complex part of the world, and it has been terrific immersing myself in what’s happening there.   

Q: What was it like being the ambassador to India?

RV: It’s difficult to sum up in a few sentences, but what a privilege and honor to represent the United States abroad. My parents arrived in the U.S. in the 1960s telling a classic immigrant story. For their son to go back to the country of their roots some 50 years later is such a long shot, but also such an American story. Lehigh gave me the boost I needed, and it’s been a true adventure ever since.

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