Ambassador Linda Thomas-Greenfield
U.S. Representative to the United Nations
October 7, 2022
Let me thank all of you for joining us face-to-face. So many of you are here on a Friday afternoon. This is really, really fantastic. And I particularly want to thank the Wisconsin Alumni Association for putting together this amazing event for me to have the opportunity to meet with students; I cannot imagine ever coming on this campus without taking time to meet with students who are sitting in the same chairs that I sat in – I don’t want to tell you how long ago – but it was a long time ago. And I really want to thank Professor Ebbinghaus for hosting our moderated discussion.
There’s a lot that we can discuss today. I want to talk about what’s happening around the world. I want to talk about how the United Nations works. Why our engagement there is so important – particularly right now as we’re dealing with so many issues around the world. I want to talk to you about Russia’s war in Ukraine. About how we’re combating global food insecurity and what we’re doing to take on the world’s most pressing humanitarian challenges that we are facing every single day.
But actually, what I’m going to do with you today, I want to take a moment to talk to you about the importance of public service. As we were walking around Alumni Park and looked at the Madison motto about service, it really makes sense for me to spend some time with you on that and then you can ask me questions about all these other things that are happening around the world.
Some time ago, I was walking on the streets of Arlington, Virginia – where I was living before I moved to New York – and someone stopped me on the sidewalk and she said, “Are you Linda?” And everybody around the world, they all know me as Linda. Very few people call me Ambassador Thomas-Greenfield – presidents and students all call me Linda. People in my office refer to me as LTG because they don’t want to call me Linda. But usually, people who remember me, call me Linda. And when this person said that to me, I didn’t know who she was. And I kind of looked at her and thought maybe it’s someone who works at the State Department – maybe somebody I met some time ago speaking to universities; maybe she has seen me at a congressional hearing and just thought this was an opportunity to say hi to Linda, because she couldn’t remember my double barrel name. But she said to me, “I am a Sudanese refugee. And you processed me for resettlement to come here to the United States.” And it kind of took the wind out of me, because I always talk about the fact that every single day, we do things that we know is making a difference in people’s lives. And that is what public service is about.
Most of the time, we don’t know what we do. We don’t know how we impact a person’s life. But her speaking to me and telling me that I processed her as a refugee – and it was probably 15 years earlier that I processed it – and she remembered, and it brought home immediately how important the work was that I was doing, because there standing in front of me was someone whose life had been changed forever because of something that I had done. And the truth is, I was doing my job – refugees came, I interviewed, I filled out papers, I helped them get through the process that got them to the next interview, which would be with the immigration service. But I never knew what happened to those cases. I never knew generally who was approved and who was disapproved. So, here was somebody standing in front of me that I had selected into the program and had been approved in the program and is living in the United States 10 years later and remembered that I helped her.
So, it was very, very moving to me, you know, at that point that what you’re doing is positive. You know at that point that it’s having an impact on people’s lives. And you know, for me, I mean, I had chosen the right career because it was emotional to me seeing that person. And I’ve seen others that I’ve met over the years, but this was the first time that I met someone directly, and I thought, “Wow. I had done good. You’re doing something good.”
So, once you graduate from this esteemed university, you’ll have a lot of options in your life on what you want to do, how you want to lead your own lives, and what you want to do to make a difference in the world. And my advice to you is simple: Make sure that what you are doing is something good. Something that you can feel proud of. It doesn’t matter if other people are proud of you for it. But if you feel good about what you’re doing, then you know that you’ve made the right career choice. And I think that making the right career choice is about doing public service. And its public service whether it’s in the government, it’s in the United Nations, it’s working at this university, it’s working in your community, as I saw this morning, when I visited the Badger Rock Urban Community Farm and saw the amazing work that adults were doing mentoring young people, and these young people talking about how they were working to change the world; that they’re doing something good.
So, it’s been a long time, you don’t have to do it for ever. If you only do it for two years and then you do something else – sometimes I talk to young people who say “I have to make some money.” And they go out and say, “Well, I know I’ve done good, but I made money. But then now that I’ve made money, I can go out there and do something good with the money that I have earned.”
I’ve done this for 35 years, I didn’t make any money – government service – you don’t do it for the money, you do it because it makes you feel good. And so, I spent 35 years in the Foreign Service. I retired in 2017 and continued to do good. I spent a lot of time on this campus between 2017 in 2019, when COVID happened. And then in 2020, the President called me back into service. I had never given up service, but it was a different type of service. So again, I felt at peace with myself because I felt like I was making a difference.
But you can do Peace Corps for two years. I love Peace Corps – I always tell the Peace Corps director that I recruit for Peace Corps whenever I go out; the State Department pays me to go out to recruit for the State Department, and I recruit for Peace Corps, because I think Peace Corps is an extraordinary steppingstone for changing people’s lives. And from there, you can do anything. If you can spend two years in Peace Corps working in The Gambia – I served in The Gambia, met volunteers there; I served in Liberia and met volunteers there. And I have seen them all go on to do really great things.
Of course, my bias has to be the Foreign Service, where I’ve spent most of my career. Foreign Service took me around the world – I had postings in Pakistan, The Gambia, Jamaica, Switzerland, Nigeria, Kenya, and over the course of my career I travelled to almost every country on the continent of Africa and almost every continent in the world. It led me to being the first ambassador, first female ambassador to serve in Liberia – which was kind of shocking to me in 2008, that we’d never had a female ambassador in Liberia. I didn’t realize it until I arrived in the embassy, and they have this – they call it The Wall of Thieves – I don’t know why. But there’s a row of pictures of all of the ambassadors who ever served, and we had a mission in Liberia since the 1850s and they had pictures of all of the ambassadors and not a single woman until me. So, when I took my final picture, all of these pictures were black and white, guys in dark suits, I decided I was going to wear red – the only color picture of the 100 faces up there, that’s me in my red suit. And the next ambassador happened to be a woman who replaced me and then she took a picture and she wore a red suit. So, we’re going to change the color of the world.
The Foreign Service gave me mentors to look up to, leaders to follow, and lessons to learn. It showed me the world and UW made that happen for me. It was a professor here that encouraged me to travel to Africa for the first time – that was Professor Crawford Young, for those of you in the political science department – he passed away two years ago. Crawford was really an icon at this university. And I was just saying he was on the fourth floor of North Hall. You’d have to run up late for class at 7:30 in the morning – I don’t think you guys do 7:30 classes anymore – we did 7:30 classes. And I would always be late, and I’d run up Bascom Hill, out of breath, and then have to run up four flights of steps to get into Crawford’s class, out of control breathing. Now, I was 26, and that hill challenged me the whole time I was here. Now I can walk up that hill without even missing a breath. I went up today – anybody from the security detail, believe me I’m going to say anything about you guys. [Laughter.] But I went up the hill today, and I didn’t even get breathless going up the hill, so I don’t know what happens in 40 years. I have more energy now than I had when I was a 26-year-old running up that hill.
But Crawford Young encouraged me to pursue a career studying Africa, as he did with so many other African leaders around our world – he had actually taught the Permanent Representative for Democratic Republic of Congo, is a Crawford Young acolyte, he graduated from the University of Wisconsin, Georges Nzongola. I know others all over the world. But I took that first trip to Africa to Liberia, so kind of a circle as I ended up being the ambassador there. And it was there that I became interested in the Foreign Service and the rest is history. So here I am.
So now it’s your turn. You’re being prepared for whatever it is that you’re hoping to do to change the world, and I know you will. And my advice to you is not only do good but seize the opportunity; seize the moment. Find a way, your way – not my way, not your parents way, although I’ve tried to get my kids to do it my way – but find your way to serve. And make sure that what you do, that you’re proud of what you’re doing each and every day and know that what you’re doing each and every day is good.
So, with that I’d love to have a discussion with all of you. [Applause.]