Ambassador Linda Thomas-Greenfield
U.S. Representative to the United Nations
New York, New York
May 8, 2021
To President Wiewel; Dean Suttmeier, distinguished alumni, faculty, and staff; and most importantly to the Lewis & Clark College Class of 2021: Congratulations! You did it! And you have so much to be proud of. You worked hard. Maybe you spent late nights at Watzek – or perhaps early mornings at the Co-Op. However, you did it, you persevered. You grew as individuals, and as a community. And what’s more, you did it all through a pandemic.
Of course, you didn’t get here all on your own. As much as this is your day, your achievement is shared by everyone who helped you along the way. So, take a moment, thank your supporters – your friends, your families, your partners, your professors, and all the people who showed you love and kindness and made this major milestone possible. And then, don’t forget to thank yourselves!
I’d also add that you should be particularly proud to have graduated from an institution that values a global education. As this pandemic has proven to us beyond a shadow of a doubt, our world is deeply interconnected. Which is why, as a career diplomat, it warms my heart to see so many of you focused on interacting with the global community. Your class comes from over 50 different countries. Record numbers of you will serve in institutions meant to foster international relations, like the Peace Corps. And with Ambassador Marquardt – who graciously invited me to join you here today – you even have a diplomat-in-residence!
But that’s no surprise coming from the school where my mentor, the late Ambassador Ed Perkins, attended and served as a trustee. I bring up Ambassador Perkins because this commencement address also marks the launch of the Ambassador Edward J. Perkins Distinguished Speaker Series. So, I thought I might use this occasion to talk about my mentor, and a few of the life lessons he taught me – lessons I’ve brought with me throughout my career, and I hope you might find useful as you embark on your own journeys into the world.
I knew about Ambassador Perkins long before he knew about me. He was a Louisiana native like myself, and he was already an icon in the State Department when I joined in 1982. He would go on to hold some of the country’s most important diplomatic jobs. He was the first ever African American Ambassador to South Africa, during the height of apartheid. And he held so many other high-level posts serving this country, including Ambassador to Liberia, Director General of the Foreign Service, and the United States Ambassador to the United Nations.
I would say it’s a coincidence that I later went on to hold all three of those positions. But it’s not. Seeing him in those roles allowed me to see myself in them too. But long before any of that, I first met Ambassador Perkins when I was serving in Nigeria. We took a trip to an oil rig in the middle of the Gulf of Guinea, where I was assigned to be his control officer. Now let me translate that for you: I was assigned to carry his bag and tell him where to go. Most people in my position wouldn’t have been thrilled about the duties, but I was determined to be the best – no matter how menial the task.
After I got back from the trip, I received a personal, handwritten letter. It was from Ambassador Perkins, thanking me for my hard work during his travels. He must’ve had hundreds of people working for him, but he took the time to thank me. It meant the world. With that note, he taught me a simple lesson that I want to pass on to you: always thank the people who help you, especially those who might go otherwise unnoticed. And an addendum: in our electronic era, a handwritten letter goes a long way.
Years later, when he was the Director General of the Foreign Service, Ambassador Perkins reached out to me to see if I would consider taking a job as his staff assistant. I just had two small children, and truth be told, I was overwhelmed and daunted. I was honest with him about my worries, but instead of second-guessing me, he encouraged me. He said, “You can do it. And we’ll make it work.” So, I took the job – a job that launched my career forward. It was hard. But I am forever grateful that he pushed me to stretch. Because he did, I’m here today to encourage you to push yourselves further than you think you can go. You may not know just how much you’re capable of.
When I think about Ambassador Perkins as a leader, and as a person, there’s one story that sticks out above the rest. As his staff assistant, I was expected to get into the office before Ambassador Perkins. But that never seemed to happen. I had a 35-mile commute, but even when I’d get there at 6:30 in the morning, he’d be there working already. I decided I was not going to let that happen again. So, the next morning, I woke up early, drove all the way in there, and clocked in at 5:30 a.m. And to my relief, the office was empty. I’d done it.
As I was getting prepared for that day’s work, I decided to go into his office to ready his papers. And there was Ambassador Perkins. And not only was he in there, he was meeting with his driver from the motor pool, offering him career advice. I told him, from then on, I wasn’t going to try to beat him to the office.
But I learned something from that meeting too. Ambassador Perkins knew he wouldn’t have time during the day to meet with his driver. So, he had gotten up early – and made time – to make sure he could pass on his wisdom and his advice. To be a mentor. That’s the last thing I want to ask of you: make time to mentor. Even when it’s not convenient. As graduates of this proud and prestigious institution, you already have earned so much wisdom that you can pass on to so many. So, don’t forget, as you launch your careers, and your lives, to make time for those coming up, just as many have made time for you.
Now, I know some of you don’t know what you’re going to do next. So, I would be remiss if I passed up this opportunity to strongly urge you into a career of diplomacy. At a moment when so much is at stake, the world urgently needs more diplomats in the mold of Ambassador Perkins. We need advocates for peace and justice. Leaders who will seek to understand each other, see our shared challenges, and work toward mutual prosperity. And if you’re still not sure, well, when Ambassador Perkins was at Lewis & Clark, he was undecided too. He told the college president he wasn’t sure he was studying the right thing. The president replied with wisdom that Ambassador Perkins never forgot. He said, and I quote, “If you ever do get to the place where you are confident that you’ve made the right decision, you will not continue to search and seek out other avenues that might have been. And that search is what makes life worth living.” Unquote.
Ambassador Perkins kept that search up all his life. It compelled him to keep moving forward, to keep advocating for America, to build bridges around the world. His passing left a hole in my heart. It’s a huge loss for all of humanity. But Class of 2021: on this exciting day, on this beautiful, wonderful day, I am so thrilled to see his legacy live on in all of you. I hope you take the time to thank those who helped you get here. I hope you will stretch yourselves in your next step, and in every step to come. I take heart when I think of all of those who will learn from your wisdom. And I have full faith that you will spend your life searching for the right path, and share your many, many gifts with the world along the way. I can’t wait to see what you accomplish.
Thank you, and congratulations!