Commencement 2015: Speeches - Madeleine Albright

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COMMENCEMENT SPEECH


Madeleine Albright delivers the Commencement Address during the Phase I ceremony of Tufts University's 159th Commencement on Sunday, May 17, 2015.
Photo by Kelvin Ma/Tufts University

Madeleine Albright
Commencement Address to the Class of 2015

May 17, 2015

President Monaco, distinguished faculty and trustees, honored guests, most important people, members of the Class of 2015, families and friends: good morning.

I want to begin by thanking Tufts very, very much for this honorary degree. And I know I speak for my fellow honorees in saying how grateful we all are, and I am so honored to be with all of them, because they are a remarkable group of people.

As the Class of 2015 well knows, a degree is a very precious thing.

It is very satisfying to work hard and earn one.

It is an utter delight to receive one simply for showing up.

But that is not the only reason that I am excited to be here.

Although I didn’t attend Tufts, I feel a personal connection to this outstanding university.

Back in the 1960’s, this is where I met one of my heroes, former Secretary of State Dean Acheson, after he delivered a speech.

I never, ever, imagined then that I would one day be appointed to Acheson’s job.

It’s not that I lacked ambition; it’s just that I had never seen a Secretary of State in a skirt.

As a professor and mother of three college graduates, I have to confess that I just love commencement ceremonies.

They are a unique milestone in our lives, because they celebrate past accomplishments and future possibilities.

To the parents of the Class of 2015, I can only say the moment has finally come.

Having once been in your position, I expect that you’re thinking with some amazement about how short the interval is between diapers and diplomas.

To the students, I say congratulations.

In order to reach this day, you had to pass one of the most difficult tests of all: surviving a truly wicked Boston winter.

Now that you’ve all thawed out, you will soon realize that graduation is one of the five great milestones of life; the others being birth, death, marriage and the day you finally pay off your student loans.

Today is a time for celebration, and for looking back and admitting that all the hard work of reading and writing, and studying and cramming before tests was indeed worth it.

In future years, you will recall this ceremony and you will understand that today, May 17, 2015, was the day you first began to forget everything you learned in college and graduate school.

But as the names of dead European kings and the body parts of dissected animals begin to fade, the true value of your days on the hill, in Boston, or in Grafton will become more and more apparent.

For by studying here at Tufts, you alongside students from more than 100 countries, have gained a global perspective – and that’s true whether your degree is in economics or veterinary medicine, whether you studied the art of diplomacy or the science of engineering.

This outward orientation is vital because the Class of 2015 will live truly global lives. You will compete in a global workplace, shop in a global marketplace, and travel further and more often than any prior generation.

To succeed, you will require the kind of knowledge that extends way beyond mere facts to knowledge of self.

I know from my own experience that such wisdom can be hard to obtain.

I arrived at Wellesley College about halfway between the invention of the Apple Watch and the discovery of fire.

I had one basic goal – which was to be accepted.

As an immigrant, I didn’t want to stand out; I wanted to fit in.

Fortunately, in the 1950’s, conformity was encouraged – though we were also in a period of transition.

Women were finding our voices at Wellesley, but we were also expected to be young ladies – except perhaps during that occasional outing to Boston.

In college, I learned much about Renaissance composers, and Shakespearean plays and the periodic table; but I also learned an awful lot about myself – that I wanted to use the fine education I had received for something more meaningful than table conversation; that I wanted to test – not simply accept – the limits and boundaries of the life I was preparing to lead; and that I wanted to give something back to this country that had given so much to me.

I suspect that the same is true for you and your experience here at Tufts.

You arrived here having already lived 21st century lives.

Some came from the nearby towns in New England, others from the suburbs of Los Angeles and the city neighborhoods of Chicago.

Some were raised amid the skyscrapers of Hong Kong, others in Iraqi refugee camps in Syria.

Some lost loved ones in 9/11 – and all of you lived through the trauma of the Boston marathon bombing and its aftermath.

Regardless of where you came from, at Tufts you have learned much about what is outside you and much about what is inside you, as well.

You learned how to put your opinions – and your assumptions – to a test.

This is important, because from this day forward, you will have to rely not on grades or guidance from professors to tell you how you’re doing and where you stand.

You will have to rely, instead, on an inner compass; whether that compass is true will determine whether you become a drifter who is blown about by every breeze; or a doer, an active citizen determined to chart your own course, question your assumptions, and, when necessary, sail unafraid against strong winds.

I look around this morning at the Class of 2015, and I have to tell you that all I see are doers.

Which is good because, in years to come, there will be much for you to do – both here at home and overseas.

I am keenly aware that commencement speakers have a habit of ticking through the world’s problems, and then challenging graduates to fix them.

And yes, that is what I plan to do.

But when I tell you that the world needs you, I really, really do mean it. For we are living in a time that is more unsettled, more complicated, and more in need of a new generation of leaders than any that I can recall.

At home, America’s great challenge will be to retain a sense of community and common purpose. As today’s graduates reflect, we are a diverse people.

We’re all proud of the distinctions that give us our separate identities; and loyal to the groups to which we belong. This kind of solidarity is a means of honoring ancestors and a way to inspire the young. It makes us feel less alone, and helps us find for ourselves a unique place in a crowd.

But there is also a danger; because when pride in “us” descends into fear or hatred of “them,” the American tapestry unravels and the social fabric is torn.

The result may be a young African-American gunned down in Florida, a shooting at a Jewish Community Center in Kansas City, or a gay couple brutally attacked at a New York restaurant.

Yes, we are proud of our group identities, but it is what comes after the hyphen in Czech-American, African-American, Latino-American, White-American, or any of the hundreds of other varieties of American that counts most.

No matter our race, creed, gender, or sexual orientation, we are all equal shareholders in the American Dream. And that means we do not fear our differences, we embrace them.

Living up to that principle, and valuing fairly the contributions of each other, is what Tufts’ Council on Campus Diversity was all about, and it is the great test our nation must pass in the 21st Century.

Around the world, we will face other tests, the outcome of which is equally uncertain.

Today, the international landscape is as contradictory and combustible as I have ever seen.

Technology and globalization have helped bring about unprecedented prosperity and progress for millions of people, but they’ve also cast new shadows upon the world.

We see this in the resurgence of nationalism in Europe and Asia, alongside rising sectarianism and extremism in the Middle East.

We see it in the widening gap between rich and poor, and the growing dangers to the environmental health of our planet.

We see how technology has given new destructive tools to groups who use religion as a license to murder, as if God’s commandment were “thou shalt kill.”

And we see how many of the assumptions of my generation, and your parents’ generation, about the 21st century have been proven wrong.

To put it another way: the world’s a mess. That is a diplomatic term of art.

I am sorry, but it is true.

Yet for all the anxieties and turmoil that surround us, I have to say that I remain an optimist – though an optimist who worries a lot.

Around the world, America remains the brightest beacon of human liberty.

We are diverse, we are entrepreneurial, and we are resilient.

No other country is in a better position to succeed in this new era than we are – so we must be unafraid to exercise our leadership in support of peace, in defense of liberty, and to further justice.

But we must also realize that, that for all our power, we can rarely succeed by simply going it alone.

If we want the world to heed our views and follow our lead, we must listen to the concerns of others.

We must listen confidently to rising powers such as China, who want to have a greater say in global governance, as we push them to abide by the same rules that we ourselves uphold.

We must listen to scientists who say global warming is a real and grave threat to our future; scientists who believe that conservation is a national security imperative, not a four-letter word.

And we must listen to those who argue that globalization should not lead to marginalization of the world’s poor.

I have traveled almost everywhere, and I have found that there are essentially three categories of countries in the world today.

In the first, people work all day and still don’t have enough to eat.

In the second, families are able to scrape together just enough food to meet their basic needs.

In the third category of countries, diet books are bestsellers.

Of course, the same distinctions also apply to the neighborhoods of Boston and Baltimore, and to the mountains of Appalachia and the American West.

Confronted with this hard truth, some people simply shrug their shoulders and say that such inequality is too bad, but there is not anything anyone can do about it.

I say, such unfairness is intolerable, and we each have a responsibility to change it.

As the “light on the hill,” the Tufts community has always taken these responsibilities seriously – and today’s graduates are no exception.

Through protests and marches, you have made your voices heard on behalf of the voiceless.

You have stood up on behalf of workers, you have spoken out against the scourge of sexual assault, you have made clear that black lives matter, and you have pressed for action on climate change.

With the assistance of institutions such as Tisch College, you have shown yourselves to be active citizens – and I am proud that this commitment to public service was recognized when the Truman Scholarship Foundation, which I chair, named Tufts its honor institution last year.

So there is an awful lot to congratulate you on today.

But, as I said earlier, I want to challenge you to do far, far more after you leave this wonderful place.

For while there was a time when you could say that you did not know enough, today – armed with this extraordinary education – there can be no doubt that you can help produce enough food, build enough shelter, deliver enough medicine, and share enough knowledge to allow people everywhere to live better and more productive lives.

Now, I don’t intend to put the weight of the world upon your shoulders, because that is always be your parent’s job.

But I do hope – actually, I insist – that each of you, after bidding farewell to Jumbo, and having your last drink at the Burren, use the knowledge gained here at Tufts to be more than a consumer of liberty.

I insist that you also be a defender and an enricher of it, employing your talents to heal, help and teach – both here at home and abroad.

I insist that you be doers, not just hearers.

I insist that you put your opinions to the test, when required, you dare – as Tufts' motto suggests – to be voices crying for peace and light.

Because your choices will make all the difference to you, and to us all.

The future depends not on the stars or some mysterious forces of history; but rather on the decisions that you make – and I truly, truly mean that.

You are the leaders of tomorrow, and it will be your job to pick up the baton so often mishandled by the leaders of yesterday and today.

It the job that you must approach with modesty, for some of what is thought to be knowledge today will be considered mistaken assumptions tomorrow. But humility and critical thinking, when combined with courage and determination, are indispensable qualities of leadership.

It is said that all work that is worth doing is done in faith.

Today, at this ceremony of cherished memory and shared resolve, let us each embrace the faith that every challenge surmounted by our energy; every problem solved by our wisdom; every soul awakened by our passion; and every barrier to justice brought down by our determination will ennoble our own lives, inspire others, and explode outward the boundaries of what is achievable on this earth.

To the Class of 2015, I say again, “congratulations.” And thank you so much for making me a part of your remarkable class.