Remarks for the University of Vermont Commencement

Samantha Power
U.S. Permanent Representative to the United Nations 
Burlington, VT
May 18, 2014


(Applause) President Sullivan, trustees, faculty, alumni, parents and especially the incredible members of the class of 2014 – Good morning and Hallelujah! (Applause)

I am most honored to be among you, to share the stage with my fellow honorees - such generous and brilliant trailblazers. I am truly humbled to be among them and to share this glorious day with you, my classmates.

Today is a day of celebration. Can we get another rousing round of applause for the parents and step-parents who not only made this day possible, but made you possible. (Applause). And I also - I have to give another shout out - to my dear friend and former roommate and the greatest mayor that Burlington has ever known, Miro Weinberger. (Applause).

I would also like to congratulate the entire university community, as you have successfully completed your two hundred and thirteenth year. This makes you just about as old as I feel after nine months of arguing with Russia at the UN. (Laughter)

The big difference is that you all are a whole lot better looking than the average member of the Security Council. (Laughter) This campus too is a gorgeous slice of a beautiful state. It’s no wonder that UVM is one of those rare universities where, with the wilderness beckoning, students actually leave their rooms voluntarily.

This school, known as a public ivy for its academic excellence, is also renowned for its values. You were the first American university to declare public support for freedom of religion; you have a proud tradition of breaking down racial and gender barriers; you live and breathe climate neutrality and sustainability; and you have lately shown your determination to eat what food activists call “real food.”

The theory behind a commencement address is that an older person imparts to younger people some advice about how to live – based on the idea that the elder generation is wiser. I have yet to meet a college student who agrees with this premise. (Laughter).

I know a lot of you have big dreams, and it is completely inspiring to look out at you and see you bursting with ambition of the best kind – ambition to change the world around you. But I also know some of you have doubts – doubts about whether the world can be changed, doubts about whether we can afford to help people struggling abroad given all that needs to be done at home, and doubts about whether you personally, you as individuals, have what it takes to make an impact. So, I am going to use my remarks today to address each of these doubts in turn.

First, let me address those of you who think the world might be just a little too messed up to be changed. I hear you. Sometimes in my job as ambassador to the United Nations I feel I am in a marathon with no finish line. Take climate change, rightly one of your big concerns. There’s more evidence than the Green Mountain Range, and yet some people want to continue to debate the long-established science. And there is so much else to worry about -- inequality both at home and abroad, sexual violence as a weapon of war, Ukraine, South Sudan, Syria. No wonder many people prefer social media to traditional media. It’s much more soothing to see one’s photo “Favorited” than to be confronted daily by images of melting icebergs, girls kidnapped simply for attending school, or Syrian kids being struck down by barrel bombs. To some extent news has always been an infamous downer. Supreme Court Justice Earl Warren once said, “I always turn to the sports pages first, which records people's accomplishments. The front page has nothing but man’s failures.”

But the truth is, away from the headlines, change is happening for the good, and it is happening fast. In the past quarter century, the United States, the United Nations, and our many partners have helped to reduce extreme poverty worldwide by more than fifty percent and nearly cut in half both the number of women who die in childbirth and the number of children who perish before the age of five. In the field of medicine, tuberculosis treatments have saved 20 million lives since 1995; and the number of children infected with HIV has declined by 50 percent in the last decade. Taking a few country specific examples - In Burma, we see Aung San Suu Kyi, who lived under house arrest for 15 years, now serving in the parliament, leading the opposition and widely thought likely to be the next President. In Afghanistan nearly forty percent of girls there are enrolled in school, up from with three percent under the Taliban. (Applause). And twenty years after 800,000 people were slaughtered during the genocide in Rwanda, 96% of Rwandan kids go to primary school (the highest rate in Africa, and a number that doubled in just four years) (applause). In that same county, and this should be a message to us all, women comprise more than sixty percent of the lower house of parliament. (Applause).

Technology, which is a mixed bag, has been used to spread vicious propaganda lately in Russia and used to track down civilians to be attacked in Syria, has been a source of positive change. For centuries, women have been cooking with wood and then slowly dying from the smoke that penetrated their eyes and lungs, making exposure to smoke the second leading cause of death in some countries. Today though, a global campaign is underway to install 100 million safe stoves before the decade’s end. In Kenya, a young entrepreneur has developed an ultra-thin computer chip that can be put in the sole of a shoe. When under pressure, the chip generates enough energy to re-charge a person’s phone. This can be a huge deal in areas that lack conventional sources of power.

My point is, sure, there is a lot going wrong out there in the world, but there’s a lot going right as well. Or as the great poet from just north of here put it: “There is a crack in everything. That’s how the light gets in.”

I would like to address a second concern that many of you have as well – the concern that we have enough problems here at home and can’t afford to pay attention to problems happening overseas. Let me agree with part of this – we have plenty of problems at home, and there is plenty that all of us should be doing about them. And some of you are already on the case. When Hurricane Irene struck Vermont your sophomore year and hundreds of homes and businesses and bridges were destroyed, many of you helped flooded communities, delivering supplies and even organizing events for kids who couldn’t go to school. Your student body has done more than 100,000 hours of community service each year you’ve been here, also raising hundreds of thousands of dollars to fight hunger (selling one grilled cheese at a time), to cure cancer (staging a dance marathon and relay races), and to research Alzheimer’s disease. In the United States today many believe – after two long wars, where Americans – particularly our men and women in uniform – have made untold sacrifices – many believe it is time to “come home.” The latest polls show an all-time low in public support for an active foreign policy, as well as a growing desire to turn away from the world. More than half of Americans polled agree with the following sentence: “the U.S. should mind its own business internationally and let other countries get along the best they can on their own.”

I get it. I get why it is tempting to believe we do not have the time, the resources, or the bandwidth to address problems over there when we have so many right here. But you all know better -- we just don’t live in a world where we have the option of disconnecting or retrenching. We live in a world where what happens overseas has a direct impact on us here. We live in a world that cannot afford to do without the moral voice, the clarion vision, and hopeful promise of America and the American dream.

We do not have to choose – and we cannot afford to choose – between here and there. We are not the world's policemen and we should not be the world's policemen. But even in a world of limited resources, we cannot afford to choose between educating our children in America and supporting efforts to take on those who would kidnap hundreds of girls in Nigeria. We cannot afford to choose between fighting the scourge of heroin addiction here in Vermont and ending the Assad regime’s use of chemical weapons against his own people. We cannot afford to choose between providing healthcare here at home and leading the global effort to rid the world of HIV/AIDS. We are America. We act and we lead. The stronger we are at home, the stronger will be leading abroad. And the more peaceful and prosperous the world is, the better off you and the rest American people will be over time.

One American who gets this is the youngest U.S. Senator ever to be elected from the Green Mountain State. You can look out at Lake Champlain - I've lost my sense of direction. Where is it? Back that way? - and know that it was Senator Patrick Leahy who found the funds to clean it up. And it was Pat Leahy who added 125,000 acres to the Green Mountain National Forest and preserved more than 350 Vermont farms. You know that Pat Leahy. (Applause). But less visible to you are all the things Senator Leahy has done to advance U.S. values and U.S. interests abroad. Thanks to Senator Leahy – just one man, one guy, one Vermonter -- the United States no longer exports antipersonnel landmines (applause). Thanks to one Vermonter, the US no longer provides military training and assistance to foreign troops who have committed gross violations of human rights. In tirelessly promoting our values, Senator Leahy knows that the more the United States is respected, the more we play by the rules of the road, the more easily we can get other countries to join with us in confronting threats and the safer the world will be for our children.

Even if you are with me up to this point, Class of 2014, I know that the third doubt may creep in. You may be thinking to yourself, “there are people out there who can change the world, but I’m not one of them.”

That’s your choice to make.

Don’t raise the bar too high on yourself. You don’t have to run Human Rights Watch, lead a Navy Seal unit into battle, found a Charter school, or perform emergency surgery on fleeing refugees overnight. Start by doing what it is in your power to do right here and now. Louis Brandeis once said, “The only title in our democracy superior to that of President is the title of citizen.” And I believe that.

Every day you commit even a small act of kindness; you are changing someone’s world. Every day you involve yourself in local politics, tutor in a school, write a check - even a small check - for your favorite cause, or even just speak out against injustice you see around you, you are changing your slice of the world. Start there. But please don’t stop there.

I know it all seems daunting. One of my favorite expressions is “never compare your insides to somebody else’s outsides.” When I sat where you sit, I was convinced everyone else had it all sorted out, and I was the only one who had no idea what would come next. When I showed up as a journalist in the former Yugoslavia a year after my college graduation, I watched the seasoned war correspondents who seemed so sure of themselves and tried to hide my fears – fears for my physical safety, but also fears of failing to do my job right.

I will tell you one quick story that underscores why one should never compare the churn that one feels inside to the others’ outsides exterior calm. I went to work at the White House as President Obama’s human rights advisor in January 2009. Soon after arriving I was called to my first meeting with the new President in the Oval Office. I was thrilled. The only trouble was I couldn’t find the Oval. Nobody passed out maps of the West Wing, so I Googled, printed out a small map from the Washington Post website, which was unfortunately not drawn to scale and preceded to get completely lost. By the time I found my way, and I was to lead the briefing, I was late. To my first meeting with the President of the United States. I was also seven months pregnant at the time and was also breathless and discombobulated. When I walked in, I sat down awkwardly among my colleagues who had no choice but to start the meeting without me, and I set down the water bottle that every pregnant woman keeps nearby. Unfortunately, as soon as my battered Poland springs bottle - I know I shouldn't say that, I'm in Vermont. Sorry. But as soon as that bottle touched the surface of the centuries-old coffee table in front of me, an arm reached over my shoulder and removed the unsanitary item from view of the 44th President of the United States.

Now at the time I thought this was a truly exceptional – and exceptionally mortifying – experience. But it turns out that and I told this story once before publicly, my colleagues each approached me. The same colleagues who strode around as if they White House from the beginning of time -- later told me some version of this story. They had all gotten lost on the way to the Oval Office. They just hadn’t told anybody. When you get out into the real world, it is easy to believe that you – and only you – are the one who doesn’t belong.

Even when you reach the pinnacle of your career, you will know your own weaknesses better than anyone – you will have unique insight into all you haven't mastered. My friend the human rights advocate John Prendergast and I have long referred to our heads as “bat caves,” where doubts – the bats – fly around, sowing the fear that we may not be able to make the change we seek.

But as you get older, although the bats don’t ever really go away, you begin to realize, everyone has his or her own version of the bat cave. And the people who succeed in changing the world are not those that slay the bats – they are those who simply acknowledge their insecurities and forge ahead, unafraid to fall flat, but quietly determined to land right – and to do right.

So that’s what I have got for you Class of 2014. The world is plenty messed up, but you can help change it. We need you to stay engaged both at home and abroad. And no matter what your “insides” are telling you or how assured others seem on the outside, you - as in you personally, each of you - can make a profound difference if you set your mind to it.

You have lived in the shadow of the Vermont peaks for four years, and I urge you to make it your task to overcome mountains that others have found too high to scale.

I am confident that you will do great things in the years ahead. But you also have it in your power right now to do good things. To notice what is going on around you, and to undertake small acts of kindness that will change someone's world in the years ahead.

And I thank you for letting me share this glorious day with you. And I wish you satisfaction personally, and great impact on the world around you in the years ahead.

And above all, I congratulate you, the class of 2014. Thank you. (Applause).


PRN: 2014/112