Ambassador Chris Lu
U.S. Representative for UN Management and Reform
Los Angeles, California
June 13, 2023
Parents, friends, faculty members, staff, and the extraordinary Class of 2023: Congratulations! It is a privilege to be here to celebrate all of you and your achievements.
Today is also a celebration of your families – and all the people who are like family to you. The support network that sustained you through Santa Monica College will continue to be in your corner throughout your careers. So, if you hear nothing else I say today, remember to thank your family and friends and give them a big hug.
Today, in the City of Dreams, we also celebrate one of our country’s most enduring values: opportunity. There is no better representation of the American Dream than a community college where first-generation college students make up more than half of the student body.
Community colleges have a special meaning for my family. In the 1950s, my mother and father were able to immigrate to this country because community colleges offered them admission.
My parents had no family here and not much money, their English was limited, and the colleges were in the segregated South. But they made the journey because they knew these acceptance letters from American community colleges were golden tickets that would transform their lives – and eventually mine as well.
My parents’ story is extraordinary but not unusual. Because it’s also your story – and the story of your classmates.
It’s the story of Ahmad Rizwan, who immigrated from Lahore, Pakistan 11 years ago. After receiving his degree today, Ahmad will be heading to UC-Irvine to study mechanical engineering.
It’s the story of Tafari Alan, a neurodivergent student who couldn’t find the right educational fit in high school. But she found it here. Today, Tafari graduates with high honors, five AA degrees, and the dream of someday becoming a community college professor.
And it’s the story of Jasmine Christmas, who survived sexual assault and cervical cancer and today will receive her ninth credential from SMC.
So many of you have similar stories of perseverance and triumph. That’s why we celebrate today. But just like the traffic building up on the 405 right now, you also know that the road ahead won’t always be smooth. You will face setbacks, people who dismiss you, and almost certainly, there will be life changes you can’t anticipate.
That’s certainly been the case for me.
A year after graduating from law school, I was hired as an attorney at a prestigious law firm in Washington, D.C. I was paid well, and I had a nice office. But there was a problem: I wasn’t very good at my job. It’s not that I wasn’t trying hard. I just wasn’t passionate about what I was doing. There’s nothing wrong with helping corporations with their legal matters. But it wasn’t how I wanted to spend my life, so my performance suffered. When it was time for my annual review, I was told that I was below average.
I felt like a failure, and the partners who ran the firm didn’t see much potential in me. On my last day at the firm, one of the partners said to me with a mix of sympathy and condescension: “A lot of people leave this firm and go on to have productive careers.”
Twenty-five years later, I still think about those words. In that time, I have helped elect and re-elect a President, ran a presidential transition, managed the President’s Cabinet, and now serve as a U.S. ambassador. So, yes, I think I’ve had a fairly “productive” career.
I tell you this story to illustrate a few insights I’ve learned during this journey.
First, follow your passions. In a 2005 graduation speech, Apple founder Steve Jobs said: “The only way to do great work is to love what you do. If you haven’t found it yet, keep looking. Don’t settle.”
For me, my lack of success at a private law firm led me to find my real passion: public service. Today, I’m privileged to work at an organization dedicated to making the world safer and more prosperous. And I still get goosebumps every time I sit behind the United States placard at the UN and speak on behalf of a country that opened its doors to my parents.
I encourage you to follow your passions, but let me warn you: passions can be as elusive as street parking in Santa Monica. They will evolve and surprise you along the way. So, follow your passions with enthusiasm, but remain open to the possibility that new passions may lead you to unexpected horizons.
I started my career as a lawyer, then shifted to politics and policy, first domestic policy, and now international relations. I’ve taught at universities. I’ve worked at a tech startup. I’ve been a talking head on cable TV. I’ve loved all of that, and the honest truth is that I don’t know what I’m going to do next. But I know it’s going to be something I’m passionate about.
Now that you’ve followed your passion, let’s talk about the skeptics and the naysayers who will question your abilities and doubt your potential. Instead of letting them drag you down, use them as your personal cheerleaders. Embrace the power of resilience and turn their skepticism into your motivation.
If you’re a football fan, you know that Tom Brady, the greatest quarterback of all time, was drafted 199th when he came out of college. Here’s what he later said: “I was always motivated by people that say ‘you can’t do it,’ ‘you’re not good enough, you’re not fast enough, not big enough, you’re not a good enough arm.’” Brady continued: “Nobody really believed I could be a high-caliber player in pro football, but you know what? I believed I could.”
In the same way, I’ve never given up on myself, even when I’ve been dismissed by doubters like that law firm partner. Luckily, I’ve had a lot more supporters on my side.
And that brings me to my last point: draw strength from those in your support network – and those who’ve paved the way for you.
I would not be where I am today without parents who had the courage to move to a strange country to build a new life for themselves. And I’ve been blessed with a wife who has humored me through multiple job changes, far too many moments of self-doubt, and the long hours required by my jobs.
In the same way, your family and friends have walked alongside you. They’ve provided financial support and free babysitting, they’ve commiserated with you at the Coffee Spot, and they’ve stayed up late to help with your homework. Lean on them for guidance, celebrate your success with them, and never forget to express your gratitude for believing in you.
Class of 2023, if you follow your passions, turn your naysayers into cheerleaders, and lean on your support network, I know that you too will have a “productive career” – whatever that means for you. Go out and show the world what you’re made of.
Congratulations and good luck.