Good evening.

As you can imagine – and as I am learning – a President’s diary can get filled up by an innumerable number of engagements; and a President can get pulled in a million different directions. A President’s heart, however, is never as filled up as when she is invited to an engagement like the one we are having this evening – one which focuses on, and celebrates, our nation’s young people. In the case of an engagement such as this, a President is pulled in one direction, and in one direction only – towards the talented and enthusiastic young people whose achievements we have gathered here this evening, to honour. You have no idea how proud I am – as a Trinbagonian, and as a President – of all of you young people here this evening, and of how privileged I feel to have been asked to join in this celebration in recognition of youth excellence and achievement.

As you can also imagine from what I have said, I am extremely grateful to Minister Foster Cummings for his kind invitation to address this 27th iteration of the National Youth Awards, as it gives me the opportunity to convey, personally and directly, my congratulations and gratitude to those young people who have distinguished themselves in service to the nation and, in so doing, have made their parents, their communities and the entire country proud. Each of you has put your shoulders to the wheel and achieved outstanding success. Each of you is a walking and living and breathing embodiment of the truism that ‘anything worth having, is worth working hard for’. Each and every one of you therefore fills me with tremendous hope and confidence for the future of our country.

When I was growing up, a popular saying was that children ‘ought to be seen and not heard’. This evening, I can honestly say that I am happy that the young people here today either never heard that saying or, if they did, that they were wise enough to have ignored it completely. The young people whose successes we acknowledge today, have not achieved what they have by being shy wallflowers or shrinking violets. They have accomplished what they have by being a fearless and confident bunch of young people who made a conscious decision to pursue excellence and, having done so, have now emerged as beacons of light and inspiration for our entire nation.

One of the things that pulled me immediately in the direction of being here this evening, is that this evening’s ceremony offers a welcome respite from the usual daily diet of negative reports about young people, and gives the country a timely and a much-needed glimpse into the wealth of talent and ingenuity that resides within our nation’s youth. This country’s National Youth Policy admonishes us to remember that ‘young people should be seen as engines of growth, rather than a problem to be addressed’. Established in 1985 to ‘award, celebrate and validate the outstanding contributions of Trinidad and Tobago’s, these National Youth Awards, are, I would imagine, a critical tool in advancing the National Youth Policy and, I am certain, in reframing the narrative about young people.

I believe that a knock-on effect of celebrating the excellence of the young people we gather here to honour this evening, is that in celebrating them we will inspire other young persons to follow in their footsteps. I am confident that your accomplishments will encourage others of your age-group – some of whom have, sadly, found themselves involved in all forms of antisocial behaviour – to re-assess their life’s direction; abandon their present course; and, thanks to the example you have provided, to start their lives over.

When I was growing up, another popular saying was “To whom much is given, much is expected”. This time, that is one of the sayings to which I hope our young people will actually listen. Growing up, I understood that saying to mean: “If you have done well, you should then try to do good”. You have all done extremely well; and so I believe that the challenge is now for you to emerge from this positive experience and to go out into the world and do good. That is why I was so pleased to learn that you have an opportunity, almost immediately, to do good in the world by becoming mentors in your own right. As the 2023 National Youth Awardees, you will be engaged immediately in a number of activities with the Ministry of Youth Development and National Service that will enable you to do good in your communities and across the entire country. You will have the opportunity to participate in various outreaches as spokespersons; to promote the work and strategic objectives of the Ministry via traditional and social media; and to attend various expos and events and give addresses on various platforms. In a word – you will have the chance to be role models. And, if there is one thing of which we can all be certain, it is that good youth role models are desperately required in our country today. In this age of social media, where online influencers and gurus spread unwholesome and sometimes toxic opinions and advice about how young people — especially young men — should think and conduct themselves, our this year’s awardees have, not just the opportunity, but, I believe, the responsibility, to speak another truth into the world about young people – the truth that you, and others whom you will inspire, are good, and decent, and brave and talented and gifted and able. In addition to the example you have set and the inspiration you have become by dint of your impressive achievements, you have the further opportunity, through the outreach work upon which you are about to embark, to change the narrative about young people – once and for all. I invite and exhort you to do so: it is the young people who, in the end, are the best advocates for themselves.

I was also extremely pleased to learn that the awards given this evening go well beyond the usual but important spheres of endeavour such as academia and sport, and extend into diverse developmental fields such as Environmental Sustainability and Preservation; Youth Service and Humanitarianism; Leadership and Advocacy; and Health and Wellness. And here, I want especially to congratulate the Ministry of Youth Development and National Service, for recognizing and for understanding that, in order for our young people to be made ready and to be better prepared for all of the challenges of the modern world than we adults were, youth excellence has to be expanded beyond the traditional spheres that those of our generation knew, and has now to embrace those categories of endeavour that are being recognized and rewarded this evening. Unprecedented and ever-evolving challenges such as the climate crisis, increasing crime and conflict, global health crises, social media and the effect of technology on jobs and the world of work – such as Artificial Intelligence – will require young people to think differently and creatively and to draw upon new skills, in order successfully to navigate the new realities they are facing. Very soon, our present generation will have to give way to our young people; they will be in the driver’s seat sooner than we realize, and it is up to us to ensure that they are suitably equipped, trained and mobilised to take the wheel and steer us all into a better tomorrow. How fortunate we, as a country are, therefore, and how deeply grateful our nation ought to be, for the Ministry’s insightfulness and progressive thinking in identifying and immersing our young people, now, in areas in which they will be required to act in the future.

This focus on excellence in matters and things beyond the traditional, is, I believe, vital to our young people’s and to our country’s well-being. I believe that what our country needs, and what our young people are being called upon to guide us towards, is the recognition that excellence is more than being outstanding at a particular or in a single endeavour. True excellence encompasses our being the best, al-round human beings that we can be, in everything we do – no matter how small, and no matter how large. It calls on us to excel, not just at accomplishing things, but at developing better attitudes, mindsets and habits, and to live better lives, day in and day out. To round off your journey in excellence, you, our young people, now need to ensure that along with your warranted accolades and your deserved successes, you work towards growing your character, sharpening your moral compass and increasing your commitment to civic duty. Accomplishments, as important as they are, are only a part of the wider cosmic picture that you are being called upon to paint. And so, I encourage you to build upon your successes and to sow the seeds of selflessness, generosity, and compassion toward your countrymen. Become a contributor, rather than a consumer. Find ways to give back to the communities that have raised you. Get involved in a charity, for example. Or, get involved with a non-governmental organisation, or with any other form of community or national service. Let your motto be three words: “Give; give; and give”. Remember what I was told as a child: “To whom much is given, much is expected”.

Parents, mentors, counsellors, and teachers, I also want to congratulate and thank you. Your support was undoubtedly critical to our young people’s success. Providing a loving, supportive, forgiving, and a caring environment for young people is among the most important things an adult can do – that you have done so, and done so well, is written all over the faces of the capable, well-adjusted and talented young persons whom we honour this evening. On behalf of a grateful nation, I say thank you.

And so, my dear young people, I encourage you to keep at your passions; never settle, and never believe that you are too young, or too insignificant, to achieve. Never believe that lie. Believe, instead, the truth that tonight is just one big step in your journey to huge success. I am proud to witness your moment in the spotlight. Stay the course, even when the going gets rough. Three days from now, on Republic Day, I will be bestowing national awards on a number of persons who have given outstanding and meritorious service to our country. Perhaps in a few years, you too will be recipients of our nation’s highest awards if you keep up the good work.

I pray that each and every one of you will achieve your greatest potential. It will be the privilege of my life to witness all of you doing so.

Congratulations once again, and good evening.

I thank you.