Secretary Blinken At Graduation Commencement Ceremonies for Georgetown Class of 2022

MR DEGIOIA: By virtue of the authority vested in me by the Congress of the United States and by the Board of Directors of Georgetown University, I officially confer upon Secretary Antony Blinken the degree of Doctor of Humane Letters honoris causa. And it’s now my pleasure to present Dr. Antony Blinken, who will offer the commencement address. (Applause.)

SECRETARY BLINKEN: Hello Georgetown. (Cheers.) Thank you, Ambassador Bodine, for a truly incredible and overly generous introduction. I don’t know if it will be possible to live up to anything near what you said, but I am grateful for your remarks, and grateful as well for your remarkable service to this country over so many years.

President DeGioia, Dean Hellman, Provost Groves, distinguished faculty and staff, proud parents and grandparents, supportive and rival siblings (laughter); devoted aunts, uncles, and friends; and most of all, members of the Georgetown School of Foreign Service Class of 2022 (cheers): Thank you, thank you, thank you for the honor of being part of this outstanding institution’s commencement celebration.

Now, I’m not a Georgetown alum, but I am the son-in-law of two of them, Tony and Donna Ryan. Standing up here today in front of Healy Hall probably earned me more points with them than the current job that I hold. (Laughter.) It’s probably also true of my former boss, President Clinton, class of ’68. So thank you, Georgetown. The only difference, Mr. President, is that, like you, they actually earned their honors.

So I want to start by kicking the elephant out of the room. Yes, NYU got Taylor Swift as their commencement speaker. (Laughter and applause.)

Now, my staff did not let me bring my guitar up here to dedicate a performance of “We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together” to President Putin. (Laughter and applause.) They said it would be “undiplomatic” and also “cringe.” (Laughter.) Also, since when is cringe an adjective? (Laughter.)

In any case, guitar or not, I am thrilled to be here.

This is a special day for many reasons. And maybe the most exhilarating is that this is indeed the first in-person commencement since 2019, so it’s just wonderful to be in the same place with all of you. And I really want to commend these graduates for persevering through lockdowns, Zoom classes, quarantining, and – for some of you – through loss, including a beloved classmate.

I know this has not been an easy road. But you have traveled it together, and you’ve done it while practicing the core principle of cura personalis – of taking care of yourselves and taking care of one another. So today, I hope you’ll take a moment to savor the fact that you have done something extraordinary. You’ve completed a world-class education at one of the finest schools for international affairs on the entire planet. (Cheers.)

Now, this accomplishment is yours, but it also belongs to everyone who loved and supported you along the way. None of us achieves everything on our own. So before we go any further, can we please have a huge round of applause to all the family and friends who helped make today possible? (Cheers.)

There’s someone else who’s already been mentioned that I want to mention as well – someone that we dearly wish was here with us today, and who would be cheering for this class with all her might – and that is the great Madeleine Albright. (Applause.) Madeleine was a strong Georgetown partisan. This was her cherished home for decades. And as has been noted – in a little twist of history – she was the speaker for that last in-person SFS commencement three years ago.

And I have to tell you it feels a little bit like she has passed a torch to me today, and not for the first time. After all, I sit at her desk every day.

So on the occasion of the Class of 2022’s commencement, I thought what I’d do is talk a little bit about her and about two other secretaries of state we said goodbye to since last year, Colin Powell and George Shultz.

Now, they were three very different people – different backgrounds, different political philosophies, different styles of leadership. And the times during which they were secretary were different, too. But they devoted their lives to service. They left their mark. And their stories hold lessons for each and every one of us, especially for you, the graduates of this school.

Now, let’s face it: If anyone is going to appreciate secretary of state stories, it’s someone with the words “foreign service” on their diploma. (Laughter.)

I know that every young person graduating today is immediately inundated with advice, and it can probably feel impossible to sort through it all. So let me say this: Don’t think of this as advice, just a few stories from a few people who led remarkable lives and who once were sitting right where you’re sitting, deeply interested in the world, wondering how they would fit in.

And I know they wouldn’t mind if just for today we drop the honorifics. So if it’s all right, for today they’re not secretaries. They’re Madeleine, they’re Colin, they’re George.

The first lesson is about remembering where you came from. Colin drilled this into his three kids as they grew up.

He was the son of Jamaican immigrants in the South Bronx. His block, Kelly Street, had all kinds of people on it – West Indians, African Americans, Puerto Ricans, and Jews like the Klein family, who lived downstairs from the Powells. They had the only television in the building and they would invite the entire neighborhood – all the kids over – to watch it on Tuesday nights.

Colin later said his neighborhood stuck with him as a model for America at its best, a place where diversity made people’s lives richer, more vibrant, and where people looked out for one another even when they looked different.

Colin brought that spirit to every team that he built. It’s why he worked so hard, as he used to say, to make the State Department look more like America. And it’s why he’d be so proud of the outsized cohorts of Pickering, Rangel, and Payne Fellows here at the School of Foreign Service – including 33 current fellows, and 37 more starting next year. (Applause.)

Madeleine came to the United States at age 11 as a refugee. Her family had been driven from their home in Czechoslovakia twice – first by the Nazis, then by the communists. She already had experienced the horrors of war; she hid in shelters in London as bombs dropped from the sky.

She never forgot why it mattered for countries to stand up to tyrants and open their arms to the displaced. That was true whether she was speaking at the United Nations Security Council, swearing in a new group of American citizens, or meeting with refugees uprooted by war. She couldn’t help but put herself in the shoes of people fleeing repression, because she had once walked in those shoes.

George kept a giant globe in his office as secretary. Before any new ambassador left for their post, he would administer one last test. Show me your country on the globe, he’d say. So they’d spin the globe and they’d look for Argentina or Nigeria or Indonesia, wherever they were going. And George would gently take their finger and move it and put it on the United States. This is your country, he would say.

It was his way of reminding America’s diplomats that no matter how far they traveled, the people that they served were still here. Of course, if the members of this class stood before that globe, you’d point at dozens of different countries, some of which were not even on the map when George was secretary.

But here’s the point: No matter where you go or what cause you serve, try to hold on to what’s shaped you. Use those first coordinates, the places and people that make up your Map of the Modern World.

And try to remember this for other people. It’s worth putting some work into learning where other people come from, especially people whose map is vastly different from yours. That is the foundation of empathy, and it’s handy no matter where you go.

The second lesson is about always being a student.

Madeleine started teaching here 40 years ago. So I tracked down the most recent syllabus for her course, America’s National Security Toolbox. Here’s how it starts: “I am looking forward to both teaching and learning from you. Together, [we’ll] do our best to make sense of [what’s] happening in the world.”

Madeleine saw every student who passed through SFS as someone that she could learn from. She’d meet individually with every student that she came across during her time here. She quoted students in her books. In her interviews, she often said things like, “I have a student who” or “My students tell me.”

And as her daughters shared at her memorial service, Madeleine brought a stack of your papers with her to the hospital. She was still learning from you right till the very end.

Likewise, George always looked to engage people at every level. So some of you may know we have a system at the State Department that produces policy memos. Some of you are familiar with it. Indeed, a junior staffer would write a draft, it works its way up through the hierarchy, until eventually a senior official signs off on it.

When George had a question about a memo, he didn’t ask the senior person. He called the person who drafted it. He’d ask them to swing by his office. Many had never been in a room with a secretary of state. Now they were debating policy with one, because George knew that these desk officers had information that no one else did.

And as secretary, Colin would sneak away from his security detail to talk to people he probably wouldn’t otherwise meet. One day, he went down to the State Department garage. Now, those of you who know the garage know that it’s too small for all the cars to fit. So every morning, the parking attendants line the cars up in very, very tight rows. When they saw George – excuse me, Colin walking up, they thought he was lost. But he had come to talk.

He asked them where they were from, how did they like the job. And they told him things that only they could know – like how they decided which car got out first at the end of the day. If the person actually knew their names and treated them like human beings, they got out first. If they acted like the attendants were invisible, they were last.

Decency ruled.

Learning from others is a way of showing respect. It tells people that you see them, that you value them.

As anyone who knew Colin, Madeleine, or George can tell you, they spent their whole lives in learning mode. This openness, this curiosity, meant that they were always stumbling across new ideas and new ways of seeing things. And it meant life never stopped being interesting.

The third lesson is about getting lost. And not just in the ICC here on campus. (Laughter.)

It’s incredibly tempting to see the lives of the super-accomplished as somehow following a straight line that led all the way to the top. But in real life, it rarely goes that way.

Colin’s parents didn’t go to college, so they pinned very high expectations on him. His mom decided he should study engineering, so he signed up for it. But he just couldn’t get through mechanical drawing; he switched to geology. A family meeting was called. His parents made clear their disappointment. He wasn’t making friends at school either, and back home on Kelly Street, his neighbors were calling him “college kid,” and not always in a nice way. He felt like he didn’t quite fit in anywhere.

Madeleine got married three days after graduating from Wellesley. By age 24, she was mom to twins. One after another, she pushed on doors, only to find them shut.

When she and her husband at the time – who was a journalist – had dinner with the editor of his newspaper, Madeleine said that she too wanted to be a reporter. The editor immediately shot her down. “You wouldn’t want to compete with your husband,” he said. Madeleine was silent. Maybe that’s why she later urged so many women to learn to interrupt. (Applause.)

Years after, she said, “All of a sudden, these things that I thought I was going to be able to do, I couldn’t do.”

George was halfway through his senior year at Princeton, on a date at a football game, when word spread that Japan had attacked Pearl Harbor.

Soon after, he drove with a friend to New York City to sign up for the Royal Canadian Air Force. That was the quickest path at the time to actually get into action. Both of them failed the eye test. Dejected, they went out for drinks and learned one of life’s most painful lessons: Beware of bars with tattoo parlors in the back. (Laughter.) George and his friend emerged with matching tattoos of the proud old Princeton tiger – on their tails. (Laughter.)

So if you’ve had a big setback in your time at SFS and did not tattoo Jack the Bulldog on your rear, consider yourself a step ahead of George. (Laughter and applause.)

The point is this: We assume that giants like them always had it figured out. But they went through times when they felt profoundly lost. Everybody does. If you have no idea what’s next for you, even though that’s probably what everyone is asking you today, don’t be scared. That’s okay. That’s the way it is.

And don’t get knocked off your stride by all the Instagram and LinkedIn posts by peers celebrating their lives. It doesn’t mean they’ve got it all figured out, either. Don’t compare their outsides to your insides.

That also goes for the times when people are not at their best selves with you. As Colin used to tell his team, “We always need to treat people with a little more respect than they deserve, because we don’t know what’s going on in their lives.” A lot of times, it’s got nothing to do with you. Just keep going.

Not long after switching to geology, Colin kept crossing paths with a bunch of guys from the ROTC. He figured he’d give it a try. Putting on the uniform, he found that it fit.

Madeleine went back to school to get her Ph.D., which is how she met a brilliant academic whose family, like hers, had fled the Nazis: Zbigniew Brzezinski. When he became national security advisor, he hired Madeleine.

George and his tiger returned to Princeton, finished their senior year, and enlisted in the Marines – the start of what turned into a lifetime of service to the United States.

They found their way. You will, too.

The final lesson is about sticking with it for the long haul.

In Madeleine’s 2019 commencement speech, she drew parallels between 2019 and 1919, and warned of the rising tides of authoritarianism, nationalism, isolationism.

She made the case – as she did so often – for why service, your service, was crucial to meeting the challenges that we face. She said, and I quote, “You must remember that there is not a page of this institution’s hundred-year history of which [we’re] proud that was [authored] by a chronic complainer. We are doers. We have a responsibility not to be prisoners of history but to shape [it].”

There’s not really any doubt in my mind that all of you will find a way to serve, if that’s what you choose to do. That’s why you’re here. That’s who you are.

But to make a real dent, you’ve got stick with it. Progress takes a long time. It can feel like you’re getting nowhere. Don’t give up.

That’s the story of George, Madeleine, and Colin. Each served in many ways over their lifetimes – as teachers and soldiers, as diplomats and advocates. Some of those hats fit better than others. But they kept at it, despite losses, despite setbacks, even seeing the progress they worked so hard to achieve get rolled back.

They endured because they learned to take the long view, to accept that every cause worth fighting for would actually outlive them; to aim for the big wins, but also to savor the small ones.

Yakoob Haloughkah grew up in a tiny town in the Czech Republic. In 2007, when he was a junior in high school, he came across Madeleine’s memoir in the local library. He was so moved by the story he sent her a note in Czech telling her that she’d inspired him to pursue a career in international relations. He didn’t expect to hear back. Then he got a reply from Madeleine, saying he was making a wise choice, telling him to keep at it.

Six years later, Yakoob was sitting in her seminar at a grad – as a grad student at SFS. Today, he is a public policy professor at USC, where he tries to emulate Madeleine every single day.

I work with people like Yakoob every day at the State Department, people whose trajectory Madeleine helped to shape.

Suzy George, my chief of staff, got her first job in government when Madeleine was the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, and spent the next several decades by her side.

Ned Price, the spokesperson at the State Department, described seeing Madeleine walking down Prospect Street when he was a freshman here at SFS, feeling like he’d just spotted Madonna. (Laughter.)

Sarah McCool, who manages my team’s schedule, also wrote a letter to Madeleine when she was in high school. And Madeleine answered her, inviting Sarah to come meet with her before a speech that she was giving.

Each of these individuals – and they’re here today – is part of Madeleine’s legacy, and our country is so much better for it.

We often measure the impact of public servants, especially in international affairs, with a big ruler – the rise and fall of great powers, conflicts and alliances. But one of the things that made Madeleine, Colin, and George great was that they always measured their progress in the steps of the people around them.

When Colin was secretary, George sent him a letter that said, and I quote, “I am always amazed at the way people presume leaders in government focus almost exclusively on policy problems and [on] their own ups and downs. But leadership is about the people under your charge. A real leader is conscious of what he [or she] leaves behind.”

That’s the thing about this kind of work. It will always outlast us. So what we leave behind matters. We need others to pick up where we left off.

When I look out at all of you today, I see hundreds of people ready to carry the baton for another leg, picking up where George, Madeleine, and Colin, and so many others left off.

And so, graduates, as you leave the school of service for a life of service, I hope that you’ll see that everything you need to serve – to serve with purpose – is right here.

Let the loved ones celebrating you today help remind you always of where you came from.

Let your professors and fellow graduates and all that you learned in this extraordinary place remind you of the joy of forever being a student.

Know that you will get lost, and that the losses and setbacks may well outnumber the wins.

And as you stick with it, you’ll find that even the smallest steps forward will do more than sustain you. They will fulfill you. They will lift you up. They’ll lift up others. They will help shape this world for the better.

So Class of 2022, we welcome you with open arms to the ranks of the doers, and we can’t wait to see all that you – all that you – will get done. Thank you. (Applause.)

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