buildOn founder Jim Ziolkowski speaks at St. John's University's Commencement.

Igniting the Future: Jim Ziolkowski’s Commencement Speech

This past Sunday, our founder and CEO Jim Ziolkowski was awarded the degree of Doctor of Humane Letters, honoris causa from St. John’s University and delivered a commencement address for the undergraduate class of 2024. In his moving speech, he shared a powerful message of courage and hope that inspired not only the students and their families in attendance, but viewers across the globe.

Inspired to Serve

Jim opened the speech by recounting the story of how he founded buildOn. While trekking in Nepal after graduating college, he witnessed the joy of a community that was celebrating building a new school in Nepal. Inspired, he quit his corporate job and founded buildOn with his younger brother to unite communities through service and education.

It’s raining torrentially and the whole community is outside in the rain singing and dancing. It’s muddy. And I’m like, what is going on here? And it turns out that they were celebrating the opening of a school that they just built.

Jim Ziolkowski
“His Courage Became my Courage”

Jim recounted how buildOn faced financial difficulties and rejections from potential donors. Once they had raised enough money to build their first school in Malawi, he caught malaria and came within hours of death.

Drawing inspiration from the Bible, Jim persevered. “Fear is useless. What is needed is trust,” he quoted from the Gospel of Mark. He also found strength from the unwavering dedication of Steven Tani, a close friend of his in the village.

I looked at Steven and I knew he was never going to give up. He would not stop until we got the school built. So his courage became my courage. We stayed in it. We got the school built. When I left the village, there were 120 kids attending. I never looked back.

Jim Ziolkowski
The Ignition Effect

Jim recounted how buildOn grew immensely, constructing over 2,600 schools with communities across the globe. In the US, students have contributed nearly 2.5 million service hours to their communities.

Jim moved on to tell how years later, he returned to the Malawian village where we built our first school, and discovered a community that had been transformed. Five schools stood where once there was one. 

Fearing that his friend Steven had died from AIDS like so many in the village, Jim despaired. But not only was Steven alive, his daughter, Ruthie, became the first female college graduate in her district after attending the school that buildOn had built.

You are the ignition. You lit the fire. And now Ruthie’s lighting fires. And education is a fire that nobody can put out.

Jim Ziolkowski
A Call to Action 

Jim concluded his speech by urging graduates to embrace their potential, to become the ignition and light the fires of change themselves.

If you understand that fear is useless, and if you understand that we are all one, you’ll change the world. You’ll become the ignition, you’ll light the fires, and yours will be fires that nobody can put out.

Jim Ziolkowski
Watch the full speech here:

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