Remarks at the New York University Commencement Ceremony
I am honored to receive this degree. And on behalf of the other honorees, I say thank you. Thank you for giving us this singular privilege of being part of this commencement ceremony. As I look out at this huge crowd of graduates, family, and friends, I can only reflect on what an extraordinary moment in history you are receiving your degrees, a moment in time of our country and the world where your talents and your energy, your passion and commitment is more needed than ever. There is no doubt that you are well prepared for a world that seems somewhat uncertain but which will welcome the education that you have received on behalf of not only of yourselves and your families, but your communities and your country.
As Secretary of State, I am well aware of the challenges that we face. You, as new graduates, and your generation will be up against those challenges: climate change and hunger, extreme poverty and extreme ideologies, new diseases and nuclear proliferation. But I am absolutely convinced that you and we are up to the task. There is no problem we face here in America or around the world that will not yield to human effort, to cooperation, to positive interdependence that makes clear humanity is going on, our challenges are ones that summon the best of us, and we will make the world better tomorrow than it is today. (Applause.)
Now, I know that it is fashionable in commencement speeches to be idealistic, and that may sound so, but at the root of my conviction is a strong sense of reality. Because you see, I don’t think we have a choice. We can sit on the sidelines, we can wring our hands, we can retreat into cynicism, and we know what the results will be: We will cede the field to those whose ideologies are absolutely anathema to people of conscience and faith all over the world. So our positive interdependence, which is a fact, will prepare us to meet these challenges. But they can no longer be seen just as government-to-government. There is a time and an opportunity, and with the new technologies available, for us to be citizen diplomats, citizen activists, to solve problems one by one that will give in to hard work, patience, and persistence, and will then aggregate to the solutions we seek.
Now, I know we cannot send a special envoy to negotiate with a pandemic, or call a summit with carbon dioxide, or sever relations with the global financial crisis. To confront these threats and to seize the opportunities that they also present, we need to build new partnerships from the bottom up, and to use every tool at our disposal. That is the heart of smart power. But smart power requires smart people, people who have gone the distance for their education, who have opened themselves up to this increasingly complex and interconnected world, and this changing global landscape requires us to expand our concept of diplomacy.
Now, when I was graduating so many years ago, diplomacy was the domain of privileged men working behind closed doors. Today, our diplomats are not limited, and our diplomacy is no longer confined to the State Department or our embassies. We are laying the foundation for 21st century statecraft. Where? In the classrooms of NYU, in the board rooms of the businesses of this great city, in the halls of academia, in the operating rooms of our great hospitals. We are looking for those personal commitments and connections, and that is where all of you come in.
The biggest challenges we face today will be solved by the 60 percent of the world’s population under the age of 30. And already, young people, like all of you, are using their talents and ingenuity to help fashion their own brand of service and diplomacy.
A few examples: In the nation of Colombia, two young college graduates, fed up with the violence in their country, used Facebook to organize 14 million people into the largest antiterrorism demonstrations in the history of the world. (Applause.) In a few short weeks, their peaceful efforts did as much damage to the terrorist networks as years of military action.
I know that one of your graduates spent months on the slopes of Mount Kilimanjaro searching for sustainable development models to bring to women and families and help them lift themselves out of poverty. Another of your classmates was studying in China last year when the devastating earthquake struck, and that has led to work ever since to deliver supplies and assistance to villagers in remote areas. International students have gone on to fight for human rights in Rwanda, build civil society in the nation of Georgia, run businesses, and lead governments. And many of you, I know, used social networking platforms to make Barack Obama the President of the United States of America. (Applause.)President Obama and I deeply understand how important it is for the young people of our country, but the young people of every country, to be given the opportunity to translate your beliefs and ideals into service and action, just as John Kennedy did when he created the Peace Corps and as President Bill Clinton did when he created AmeriCorps. This is in the tradition of citizen service. (Applause.)
So we need to figure out ways to prepare all of our institutions of government, including and especially the State Department, to harness the efforts of those who do not enter the Foreign Service but still engage in your own type of foreign service. Our State Department personnel are skilled, dedicated, passionate, and effective. And for those of you still looking for jobs, we are hiring a new generation of diplomats. (Applause.)
I hope many of you will join our ranks in the Foreign Service and the Civil Service, but I know that not all will choose to become professional diplomats, and I also know that the State Department alone cannot tackle these great problems. So my message to you today is this: Be the special envoys of your ideals; use the communication tools at your disposal to advance the interests of our nation and humanity everywhere; be citizen ambassadors using your personal and professional lives to forge global partnerships, build on a common commitment to solving our planet’s common problems. By creating your own networks, you can extend the power of governments to meet the needs of this and future generations. You can help lay the groundwork for the kind of global cooperation that is essential if we wish, in our time, to end hunger and defeat disease, to combat climate change, and to give every child the chance to live up to his or her God-given potential. (Applause.)
This starts with opportunities for educational exchanges, the kind of dorm room and classroom diplomacy that NYU is leading on. I want to commend my friend, your president, the trustees of this great university, for understanding and believing in the importance of educational exchanges.
You know, study abroad is like spring training for this century. It helps you develop the fundamentals, the teamwork, and the determination to succeed. And we want more American students to have that opportunity. That’s why we are increasing funding for Gilman scholarships by more than 40 percent. More than 400 New Yorkers have used Gilman scholarships to spend a semester abroad, including nine students from NYU last year.
Now, of course, study abroad is a two-way street, and we should bring more qualified students from other countries to study here. NYU provides a prime example of what international students can bring to a campus and how they can benefit themselves and their countries. Over 700,000 international students came to the United States last year, and NYU had the second largest number of any school in the country. (Applause.)
Now, the benefits from such exchanges are so great that I am committed to streamline the visa process – (applause) – particularly for science and technology students so that even more qualified students will come to our campuses in the future. We’re also doing more to marry technology with global service. That’s why today I am pleased to announce that over the next year the State Department will be creating Virtual Student Foreign Service Internships to harness the energy of a rising generation of citizen diplomats. Working from college and university campuses, American students will partner with our embassies abroad to conduct digital diplomacy that reflects the realities of the networked world. And you can learn more about this initiative on the State Department’s website.
But I know that you don’t have to wait for us to create a new program. When you go home today, go online and find the website called Kiva, K-i-v-a, where you can help someone like San Ma, a mother in Vietnam who is seeking a microcredit loan to buy rice seed and fertilizer for her family farm; or log on to Heifer International’s site, and for less than the cost of a dinner out, you can donate a flock of geese to a hungry family in Asia or Africa; or help Wangari Mathai’s Green Belt movement in planting trees and offsetting carbon emissions and empowering women in Africa.
Now, supporting these projects and others like them doesn't require a lot of time or money. But for the people you help and the planet you protect, your participation can be not just a game changer, but a life changer. Global service also means promoting good governance. We need informed citizens, both here at home and around the world, to hold their governments accountable for getting results and finding solutions.
And this is not only directed at the graduates today, but there are a lot of proud mothers and fathers and husbands and wives and grandparents and children and others who have seen you to this day. And this is an offer and a challenge to all of us. In the times that we face, we know we don’t have a person to waste, we don’t have an idea to overlook. In fact, we have to be even more committed to reaching out and crossing the divides that too often separate us. For those who have come to this country to celebrate a child or a friend’s graduation, please take home this message: America more than ever wants your help; in fact, needs your help as we build these new partnerships and as we seek solutions to the global crises that cannot be solved by any one people or one government alone.
We need each other. We always have. It’s just so much more apparent today. A flu starting in one country spreads quickly around the world. An extremist ideology starting with a few people explodes across the internet. A global financial crisis affects farmers and small business people in every corner of the globe. That is a new reality. But equally important is that we also now have the tools to work together to forge this common approach to these common threats.
So, Class of 2009, you have an historic opportunity. Every class is told that, and to some extent I suppose it is always true. But just in the course of this commencement ceremony, you’ve heard several references to the global economic crisis. The times that you are graduating in are, yes, perhaps more difficult and somewhat more daunting. But that’s when we really rise together. One of the best lines from one of my favorite baseball movies, A League of Their Own – (applause) – said it well, “If it were easy, anybody could do it.”
You know, when the Yankees moved in to their old stadium next door in 1923, there was only person on the roster from west of St. Louis. Their team mostly looked the same, talked the same, and came from the same kind of cities and towns and rural areas across America. Think about the team that plays in this new stadium. It includes players from Mexico, Japan, Taiwan, Panama, four other countries. The Dominican Republic alone is home to seven Yankees. In the same way, NYU has evolved as well. The university was founded to serve the City of New York. Today it serves the world.
We know that there is much yet ahead that none of us can predict. There is no way to stop change. Change will come. What is unknown is whether it will bring progress or not. But you have done what you needed to do to get the best insurance policy you could, and that is an NYU education. (Applause.) And so armed with that education, I have every confidence that you will not only succeed by the dint of your own hard work and effort, but you will contribute far beyond your own personal needs. This is your moment. You’ve made it to the big leagues, and you are up to bat. Go out and give us a future worthy of this great university, of this great city, of this great country, and of the world we all wish to create together.
Thank you, congratulations, and Godspeed. (Applause.)