Remarks by Ambassador Linda Thomas-Greenfield at the 2022 Commencement of Columbia University School of International and Public Affairs, in New York

Ambassador Linda Thomas-Greenfield
U.S. Representative to the United Nations
New York City, New York
May 15, 2022


Hello, Class of 2022. You look so wonderful out there. Dean Christensen, distinguished alumni, faculty, students, and staff – it’s an honor for me to be here with you today. And I want to thank you, Dean Christensen, for that gracious introduction.

Most importantly, SIPA Class of 2022: congratulations! [Cheers and applause.]

Graduates – you made it. The Columbia blue gown and cap you don are proof. The degree you’ll receive – which I encourage you to frame before it gets misplaced and crinkled, like mine of many years ago – is also proof. Your family, your friends, your supporters here today – and those watching us livestream from afar – are proof.

And I know so many of you are too humble to take the time to praise yourself. But right now, you should go for it. Give yourselves a pat on the back and another round of applause. [Cheers and applause.]
And, of course, you should shower that same praise on your loved ones who helped make this day possible. Who believed in you when you had two papers due and an exam to study for – but felt like there wasn’t enough Publique’s coffee [laughter] or time in the world to get it all done. They deserve credit, so let’s also give them a hand. [Cheers and applause.]

All of you were so fortunate to have a community of people who had your backs – who helped you transition as you started this new chapter in your life – and who helped you adjust and pivot as you faced challenges and doubts along the way. Perhaps for some of you, one of those challenges was coming to this amazing city, New York. New York is a very special place. But I have to be honest with you, the first time I came to New York, it seemed kind of daunting, and I’ll tell you that first time was in 1976, before many of you were born.

I grew up in a small town in Louisiana where everyone stopped on the street to say hello. We smiled at each other. We acknowledged each other. Well, here in New York, that didn’t go over so well. [Laughter.] So when President Biden asked me to serve as our Ambassador to the United Nations – I was filled with immense pride – but I also wondered if New York could ever feel like home for me. Well, over the past year and a half, I’ve discovered that in New York, anyone – anyone – can belong, can find community, and can take part.

I recently learned that New York is home to as many as 800 languages. You hear them everywhere – in the subway and on the sidewalks. And it’s not just the different languages spoken here that makes New York special – it’s the people, it’s the perspective – it’s the perspective that you find every single day. With all of that diversity comes a true diversity of thinking, a real marketplace of ideas. And to me, in this way, the UN embodies New York. It’s a place where the entire world literally converges. Where we aren’t afraid of new ideas or vigorous debate. Where Member States big and small have a powerful voice and a single vote on the global stage.

And of course, as the dean noted, the UN and SIPA share a common history – two institutions born in the aftermath of World War II. In 1945, world leaders came together to establish the United Nations – a place where global issues could be worked out through diplomacy, and not bloodshed. One year later, SIPA was founded. And its graduates, embodying your mission – and I quote, “to prepare diplomats, officials, and other professionals to meet the complex needs of the postwar,” unquote – these ideas have furthered our goals at the UN and at public institutions everywhere.

And I’ve seen the tremendous value of a SIPA education up close. In fact, I have many SIPA alumni on my team, including here with me today, many others working in the U.S. Mission to the United Nations. And I’m not going to embarrass them by calling them out, although I thought about doing it. [Laughter.] But I know that they are proud graduates of this university, and I know that this university is proud of them. And it’s thanks to them that every day we are able to promote human rights, we’re able to advance peace and security, and defend democracy at the UN and around the globe. Not to mention that they have helped me to feel at home in this city.

Graduates, I know you, too, have found community here at SIPA and in New York. And I hope that you have encountered challenging ideas – and you’ve learned how to meet people who are different from yourself – you meet them with kindness and generosity, with warmth and curiosity, with hospitality and an open mind.

I hope you have gained some well-earned New York grit. And I hope you have learned to solve intractable problems and approach every challenge with determined optimism. Because we’re going to need you. In fact, we do need you. The world right now is facing some truly sobering challenges. And you are the ones who will have to take them on.

Look no further than the tragic toll gun violence takes in this country. Yesterday, we saw this with our very own eyes. And I’m deeply saddened and horrified by the unthinkable mass murder of innocent civilians in Buffalo, New York. How is it possible that people are targeted while they’re just going out to do their daily shopping? How does this just keep happening in our country? White supremacist forces continue to inflict terror on Black communities, and we have to stare them down; we have to act.

Or look to Ukraine – where Putin’s unprovoked, brutal invasion has displaced millions of people. Last month, I traveled to Moldova and to Romania, two countries that have accepted over a million Ukrainian refugees. I met hundreds of women and children and elderly Ukrainians who left their homes and their loved ones behind – not knowing if they would ever see them again. Many wanted to remain close to Ukraine, hoping that they would be able to return home soon – despite seeing all the devastation and destruction every single day.

The Ukrainian people have won our hearts – they’ve won our hearts and our minds – they’ve won the hearts and minds of the world, as they valiantly fight for their sovereignty, for their dignity – and for their democracy and for ours.

And President Zelensky has shown the world what true leadership looks like. He has used his powerful voice and example to galvanize us to Ukraine’s defense. And that’s exactly what we have done at the United Nations – where we kicked Russia off the Human Rights Council, and 140 Member States voted to condemn and isolate Russia. [Cheers and applause.]

But make no mistake, it’s not just everyday Ukrainians who bear the burden of Putin’s war. It’s journalists, too – who are risking their lives to expose the horrors of this war. Tragically, at least seven journalists have been killed while covering Russia’s war of aggression.

And today, I’m thinking of Palestinian-American journalist Shireen Abu Akleh. [Cheers and applause.] Shireen was killed just days ago in the West Bank. And I met her – I met her during a trip to Ramallah last summer, and I instantly recognized that she was someone who was in the ring for all of the right reasons. There must be justice for her – and for all journalists senselessly killed while doing their jobs.

And let’s not forget, Russia’s war of choice is also taking a toll on people well beyond Ukraine’s borders. This war has exacerbated global food insecurity. That’s because Putin’s forces have prevented Ukrainian farmers from harvesting their crops and destroyed Ukrainian infrastructure and grain storage facilities. Russia has bombed ships carrying goods out of the Black Sea and blocked Ukraine’s major ports. And we’ve seen reports of Russia stealing Ukrainian grain.

Ukraine was once the breadbasket of the world. Now its own people wait in breadlines. And people around the world – especially in African countries and the Middle East – will suffer, even starve, as a result of this brutal war.

What’s happening in Ukraine is a truly global crisis. And if the last few years have taught us anything, it’s that most of our biggest challenges – most of our biggest challenges require global solutions and global leadership.

COVID showed us that our own health is only as strong as the world’s public health. That if we want to defeat COVID-19 and prevent future pandemics, we can’t just close our borders and hope for the best. We have to lead. We have to lead and we have to drive international cooperation and collaboration.

Climate change. No one country can address the existential threat of climate change alone. You all know that. We need to work together before it’s too late. And it’s your generation – and generations that come after you – that will be the most impacted by rising temperatures and sea levels, by devastating natural disasters that we’ve already seen.

On all of these issues – and many more – I’m proud of the indispensable leadership that the United States, working with our allies and our partners, has demonstrated. But this administration will not solve all of these challenges outright. The fight to protect our planet. To safeguard democracy and human rights. To – as the UN charter calls for – “save succeeding generations from the scourge of war.”

These are long-term fights. And Class of 2022 – these are your fights. You will be at the forefront now.

So if you take one thing away from my remarks today, let it be this, and I’ve said it before: we need you. We need your energy. Your optimism. Your commitment to justice. Your global perspective. And you’re ready. SIPA has provided you with the tools you need to succeed. So don’t doubt yourselves. Know you will encounter challenges – but just remember that, during your time here, you have been in training for just these kinds of moments. And of course, you have also been training for those challenging moments your entire life – throughout your diverse and distinct lived experiences.

My experience growing up poor taught me that adversity strengthened my resolve and it defined my values. And in my professional life, I learned a similar lesson from my role model and my late friend Madeleine Albright.

Madeleine’s life was, in a word, remarkable. She was forced to flee Nazi invasion and communist oppression as a young girl – but went on to reach the highest levels of government as a powerful crusader for democracy and for human rights. She didn’t just break the glass ceiling, that lady shattered it. [Applause.] And in doing so, she redefined what’s possible for those of us who follow in her footsteps.

Her work left an indelible mark on our country and the world – and even on this campus. After completing her PhD at Columbia and writing a dissertation on the journalists involved in the Prague Spring, she stayed deeply involved in this community. In fact, she spoke at this very commencement last year. And she reminded graduates that we all have the power to make change. She said, and I quote, “When the cynics tell us that our ideals are out of date, we reply that the future is ours to” change – “to shape.” I’m sorry.

Class of 2022: the world is yours. The world is yours to shape. It’s ready for you, and I can tell you, you are ready for it. So don’t wait. [Applause.] You’re ready. So I’m telling you, don’t wait for someone to give you the keys; open the door for yourself. You don’t need anyone to open doors for you. Don’t think that your time to make change will come down the road when you rise in the ranks – or have more power of seniority. This is the time for you now, so take up the leadership mantle. And let me tell you, leadership comes in all shapes and sizes – and from all kinds of backgrounds – as Madeleine taught us all.

Graduates – as you head out into the world, I want you to remember that your name is far more valuable than your title. And no matter what you do next, and I have no doubt that you all will do great things, you have a responsibility to take on the world’s challenges – and to do so, I encourage you, do it with kindness and compassion.

It is up to you to be strong, especially when your values are tested. And to always lead with empathy. Take advantage of the immense privilege that receiving this degree has bestowed on you. And use your power, your ideas, your education, your voice to leave the world a better place than you found it.

And I have to say that I regret that our generation did not always do that for you, but you have a chance to correct that wrong for the next generation.

So go out there and make us proud, and change the world.

Congratulations, 2022!