Commencement Address by Ambassador Susan E. Rice, U.S. Permanent Representative to the United Nations, at the UN International School, UN General Assembly Hall

Susan E. Rice
U.S. Permanent Representative to the United Nations 
U.S. Mission to the United Nations 
New York, NY, United States
May 31, 2012


Good afternoon, everyone. Thank you, Director Shapiro and Principal Hand. And thank you so much, Patricia, for inviting me to speak here today.

It’s really great to be at this tremendous event, and you all as a class look tremendous. I think you probably couldn’t begin to know how beautiful and diverse and exciting you all are to watch coming down this aisle. And I feel very privileged to be able to be part of this.

We often speak of “the United Nations family,” but at UNIS, that’s literally true. In 1947, a few families connected to the UN founded this exceptional school. Since then, UNIS and the UN have grown up together. We are part of one United Nations community as well as the larger New York City community. You represent the values of diversity, tolerance and mutual respect that were the virtue of the UN idea itself.

Today, you graduates remind us just how much UNIS has to offer.

So let’s begin with the main business here: Congratulations to the Class of 2012!

I think all of us – parents, families, friends, teachers, and fellow students – are thinking the very same thing and that is how incredibly proud we are of you and all that you’ve accomplished. And we can’t wait to see you start to make your own way in the world.

So now, students, let’s also hear it for your parents and your families. You may not know how hard they work, but I do. I hope you do know how much they have supported, saved, and sacrificed to help you get here today. They may have driven you a bit crazy at times, but that’s because they love you and they want to always see you do your best. Plus, don’t forget that you’ve driven them at least as crazy too, as my mother never forgets to remind me.

I should confess I celebrated my 30th high school reunion earlier this month. Still, I remember my graduation day like it was yesterday. I remember that sense of fulfillment. I remember feeling sad to part with such good friends and a nurturing community. I remember being fired up but a little apprehensive at the same time about college. I remember perceiving a wide-open road ahead, yet preferring to focus on celebrating the success at hand.

Now, as a mom, I look at you all, and I can’t help but think and wonder what it will feel like when my own kids make it this far. Proud, indeed. Sad, for sure, that you’ll be leaving home. A little relieved, perhaps. But, mostly, incredibly excited to see who you become and how you will live your lives.

And that’s what I want to talk about briefly today: what is a life well lived? How can you carry the lessons of this very special school with you? How can you make your own mark in our rapidly changing world?

This school has given you tools and experiences that will serve you very well in our 21st-Century world—a truly interwoven world bound tighter by new technologies and new forms of communication—a world in which the different ways we’ve all been made should be something to celebrate, not to fear.

You’re probably starting to ask yourselves what you want to do with your talents and your drive—thinking about what it means to be happy and successful. You’ve been given a great deal, and that means you have a great deal to give back.

If you remember just one thought from today (and I know that’s asking a lot), I hope it will be this: A good life is one in which you serve more than yourself. A good life is one in which you serve more than yourself.

Be about getting meaningful things done—about promoting positive change in other people’s lives.

A life well lived is a life of service—to your family, to your community, to your nation, and to the world. Whatever, you choose to do, whether trading derivatives on Wall Street or delivering vaccines in rural West Africa, whether inventing the next great technology or raising your family, you can do it in a way that serves others. Service comes in all forms and sizes. And it’s all good. You just have to make that commitment to be about more than yourself and mean it.

In my view, service starts at home. So, first, never short-change family and friends. They’re your rock and your shelter—the foundation that makes everything else possible and everything worthwhile. Take care of them, especially when times are hard.

Second, give to your community. Be your neighbor’s keeper. Remember, the truest test of a society’s decency is how it treats its most vulnerable. In this city and in this country, we can do better. And, whether we do is up to each of us. It’s up to us whether we shelter the homeless, feed the hungry, clean up our environment, mentor the fatherless child, nurture the arts, and provide care to the poor when they get sick. The great heavyweight boxing champion, Muhammad Ali, used to say: “Service to others is the rent you pay for your room here on Earth.”

Third, whether you are from Europe or Asia, Africa, the Middle East, or the Americas, real patriotism means helping to build your country’s future. Helping it to reach its full potential. That work can be economic, social, or political. It can be within government or civil society. It can be in the private sector or the press. Whatever you choose, find a way to innovate, to seed development, or to create jobs. Uncover your unique talents and use them to help those around you.

Fourth, serve your world as well as your nation. You are inheriting a planet facing some urgent challenges. The grown-ups in this room know them well: conflict, poverty, climate change, terrorism, proliferation, famine, tyranny, bigotry, disease. I wish we could say we’re leaving you a perfect world, but we aren’t. But the good news is: the opportunities you face are unprecedented – democratic revolutions in parts of the world that have only known repression, agricultural innovations that can lift millions out of hunger, information technologies that are changing the world at warp speed, major medical breakthroughs that will extend the length and quality of countless lives. So, we need your energy, your intellect, your creativity, and your hunger for justice to seize these opportunities and to address our most pressing challenges. We need you to solve problems. Get good done. Stand up and step up.

And, please, don’t think you’re too young to start changing the world. Young people are founding billion-dollar businesses and creating soul-shaking art. They’re leading political revolts and revolutionizing communication. They’re demanding justice for the Joseph Konys of the world. They’re teaching their parents that race doesn’t matter. And that it doesn’t matter who you love but how well you love. They, like you, are dreaming big dreams and smashing old prejudices. Let there be no doubt: you are going to make a difference—not in spite of your youth but because of it.

But, in order to lead, whether at college or beyond, you’ve got to follow your passion. You’ve got to focus on what fires you up. It’s hard to be great at something that you don’t truly love. And, if you don’t find the right career path right away, well, try Plan B, C, or D. When I was in college, I figured I’d become a public-interest lawyer and run for public office. That was the plan. I started studying international relations as a graduate student as a way to round myself out, not to find a career path. Then, unexpectedly, I got hooked, and after a while, here I am. So sometimes it’s the calls you don’t expect that come to be a life’s calling.

You have only one life to find out what you’re truly capable of and to leave your mark. So, push yourself. Try new things. Search out new adventures. Travel the world. Get out of your comfort zone. It may be a little scary at first, but testing your limits is good for the soul.

Also, you’ve got to learn to roll with the punches. You are going to plan out your life, perhaps, but if you do, no matter how much you plan, you’re going to still get some curve balls—or googlies, for the cricket players among you. When they come, take your best swing at them.

Class of 2012, you begin with a tremendous head start, a fine education, and that is a huge gift. Education is not just the key to a better living. It’s also the key to a more just and prosperous world. The skills you are acquiring through education don’t just enable you to do well; they enable you to do good.

Education lets you read perceptively, listen carefully, and live deeply. It helps create minds that are skeptical, supple, humane, curious, good-humored, and brave. Few things in life are worth more.

Finally, a good education increases your possibilities for happiness, and that’s why your parents insisted on all this. Your UNIS education is a gift—a gift you have all made so much more valuable through your hard work.

Take that gift and run with it.

We’re counting on you.

Go make your nation stronger. Go make our world better. Go live a life of service.

Good luck and thank you very much.


PRN: 2012/134