Remarks by Ambassador Linda Thomas-Greenfield at the Commencement Ceremony of the Bronx High School of Science

Ambassador Linda Thomas-Greenfield
U.S. Representative to the United Nations New York, New York
June 23, 2023
Good afternoon, everyone. To President Hoyle, to the distinguished faculty and staff, to the friends and families and loved ones gathered here today. And more importantly to the Bronx High School of Science Class of 2023: congratulations. [Applause.]
So you did it! You made it to commencement, and you deserve a pat on the back. And I’m serious – right now, give yourselves a pat on the back, and a hand of applause. [Applause.]
I know how hard it was for you to get here. Bronx Science is famous across this city and around the world for its rigorous academics. You passed linear algebra and molecular cellular biology. I can’t even pronounce it. You made it through slushy winters and math test Fridays. You took electives as varied and challenging as game theory and animal behavior. You even survived the wasps, the seagulls, and the physics wing skunk.
So, I know some mornings, perhaps, while you were trying to balance your many classes and your extracurricular activities, your home lives and your school life, you might have fallen asleep on the four train. That’s okay. You made it here today. I saw a few of you come in a little late, but you made it. And hopefully, you’re wide awake now. And I hope I don’t put you to sleep with my speech.
Seriously, you deserve so much credit for all the hard work that led you to this moment. But the truth is, you did not get here all on your own. You had friends to read over your papers and problem sets. You had teachers to challenge you, to guide you, to push you to heights that you never thought you would reach. You had staff members and administrators, looking out for you and making your school experience the best it could be.
And when schoolie wasn’t good enough, you could get that necessary brain food, falafel, fries, or a chicken cutlet sandwich from Tony, Jerome, Ned, or Jay. Most important of all, you had your family, your parents and your loved ones, the people here with you today, doing everything they could to support you on your journey. So I want all of you students right now to turn to see where your supporters are, where your family members are, and say quietly thank you and give them a big round of applause. [Applause.] Thank your parents.
Graduates, being here with you has made me think back to when I was your age graduating from high school. And it was a long, long time ago. I grew up in the South as you heard, and I went to segregated schools. And I have to tell you my school was an excellent school, just like yours, with teachers who were doing their best. But at our time to support us with limited resources. And like some of you, I was the first in my family to graduate high school and to go on to college.
My father’s definition of success had been making sure that I had better opportunities than he had, and making sure I never went to bed hungry. So when I was where you’re sitting right now, I had to redefine success for myself. If success was graduating high school and going to college, what was next? What did success look like to me?
Now don’t be fooled by where I stand today. You heard Kayla give that amazing bio, and I still wonder who that person is when I hear that bio being read. But, I didn’t have dreams of being a diplomat when I was your age. In fact, I didn’t know the first thing about foreign policy. I hadn’t gone to Model UN, like some of you. We didn’t have one. I was as naïve as a Bronx Science first-year who buys a fourth-floor pool pass.
So when I made my way out into the world, I had no idea what I wanted to do. None. All I knew was this: a new door had opened, and a new door had opened for me and I was going to walk through it.
After college, I didn’t know what my life’s ambitions were going to be. I thought maybe I might want to be a lawyer, but I decided to go on to graduate school first to study political science. When I was in graduate school, I thought I might stay there and become an academic, get my PhD.
So I took a research trip to Liberia that actually changed my life. I fell in love with Africa. And I was fascinated by the U.S. Foreign Service officers that I happened to meet, whose work inspired me and thrilled me.
It looked so exciting. So when I got back, after teaching for a couple years, I changed course, and I applied to the Foreign Service. And to be honest, I thought there was no chance I’d get in. And obviously, I was wrong.
When I joined the Foreign Service, I thought I’d spend a few years traveling around the world. But instead, it became the next thirty-five years of my life. And during that time, the same pattern emerged: instead of taking the job I wanted, I did the job the world needed me to do.
Within the Foreign Service, I wanted to be a counselor officer, issuing visas to people around the world, but I ended up on a political track, where I honed my diplomacy skills. And for the first half of my career, I sought out placements and postings working with refugees where we had to boil our drinking water, wash our vegetables with chlorine to kill the bacteria – that I know all of you have studied in your science classes.
For a while, through my postings in places like Kenya, and the Gambia, Pakistan, I thought that that’s what everybody in the world did. But after Pakistan, I was pushed to go to Switzerland – a very different kind of place – to oversee our work helping refugees. I didn’t think it would be my kind of posting – I didn’t have to boil my water or bleach my vegetables – but I ended up loving the job.
Something similar happened after I served as Ambassador to Liberia – you heard, I did research in Liberia 30 years earlier, so it was full circle for me. I was the first African American woman to be the Ambassador to Liberia with the first African woman ever to be elected president of a country in Africa. [Applause.]
And the plan for me was to go next to be Ambassador to Ghana. It was my dream job. And I couldn’t have been more excited. But instead, I was asked to serve as in what I thought was this boring job as the Director General of the Foreign Service – essentially, the head of personnel for employees in the State Department. I told everybody, repeatedly, that I was the wrong person for the job. But I ended up taking it. And once again, I fell in love with the job.
The next year, Secretary of State Kerry came to me and said he needed me to serve as the Assistant Secretary for African Affairs. And I told him I had more work to do as the Director General. But Secretary Kerry came back to me again and said that I was the only person that both he and President Obama wanted for the job. So what do you do? You say yes. So, I fell in love with that job too.
Then I retired from the Foreign Service. I thought I was done with government. But after President Biden won the election, he asked me to help with his transition. And as a part of that role, I took down names of all kinds of people who wanted to be the U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations. And I was shocked – because I didn’t put my name on that list – when I learned the person the President wanted for that job was me. Now, that naive little girl from Louisiana, who didn’t know the first thing about foreign policy, represents the United States of America to the world.  [Applause.]
Graduates, my point is not to brag about myself, my point is this: even if you think you know what you want to do, let me tell you, you don’t know exactly where life will take you. And if you don’t know what you want to do yet, that’s okay. That’s a great place to be.
Don’t just take my word for it. Last week, in fact this week, I had a conversation with Dr. Mae Jemison, the first woman of color to go into space. She too, told me that she didn’t always want to be an astronaut. She thought she wanted to go into space, but she didn’t know what that meant. And she went on to become a doctor. She spent years as a doctor in peace corps, traveling the world.
Then one day the doors opened to NASA. She applied. She walked through those doors. And that trip to space she told me changed her life. And it inspired countless others as well. And I know, that there’s at least one person in this room who will also go into space like Mae Jemison. [Applause.]
One lesson she took away was to not dwell on past failures, but instead, to look to the present and aim for a better future. She was convinced that scientific innovation, in particular, is poised to transform our world.
I agree. And that’s where you all come in. Because graduates, you’re entering a world in desperate need of your help. Your whole education has been about empowering you. Now you have the chance to give back and to serve the world.
Your generation is going to be the one to tackle the climate crisis. You’re going to prevent the next pandemic. To take on global hunger, end systemic racism, address so many challenges we can’t even predict yet. That’s a lot to bear but don’t worry. I have faith in you, and I know your teachers have faith in you; your parents have faith in you. We believe in you.
You are the reason that I personally fight every day for peace and security around the world. You are the reason I have hope for the future. This school has unlocked countless opportunities for you. And I know you’re all going to seize them. If you are kind and compassionate, if you are humble, and if you work hard; if you harness the power of diversity, and seek out people and perspectives and opportunities different from the ones you know; and then you’ll do great things in the world.
So don’t get fixated on one goal, on that light at the end of the tunnel. Instead, look out for the open doors on the side. Look at those doors and maybe just peek in – a little peek. Go through one. You never know where you will end up. Congratulations, Class of 2023. [Applause.]