December 5, 2022

Remarks by Ambassador Linda Thomas-Greenfield at the 2022 Commencement of the University of Wisconsin-Madison

Ambassador to the U.N. Linda Thomas-Greenfield attends the virtual Global COVID-19 Summit, Wednesday, September 22, 2021, in the South Court Auditorium of the Eisenhower Executive Office Building at the White House. (Official White House photo by Erin Scott)
Ambassador to the U.N. Linda Thomas-Greenfield attends the virtual Global COVID-19 Summit, Wednesday, September 22, 2021, in the South Court Auditorium of the Eisenhower Executive Office Building at the White House. (Official White House photo by Erin Scott)

Thank you, Yahvi, and thank you for getting my name correct. [Laughter.]  To Chancellor Blank, Provost Scholz, members of the Board of Regents, distinguished faculty and staff, friends, family, and alumni; and most importantly, to the University of Wisconsin-Madison Class of 2022:  I cannot tell you how pleased and honored I am to be here with you in Madison.  Class of 2022 – congratulations!  [Applause.]

You made it. This is it. This is what you all have been waiting and working for. You’re at commencement. You came from all across the country and around the world. There are over a hundred nationalities represented in your class. And now, no matter where you came from, whether it was down the street or across the ocean, you got through. 

You made it through all of your courses, all of your exams. Your summer internships and study abroad travels. You even made it through winter. [Laughter.] You had weekday hangouts at Memorial Union, and Saturday’s jumping around here at Camp Randall. Early morning classes and late nights in College Library. I remember those days. And maybe you spent some of your late nights at the Kollege Klub. [Cheers.]

No matter what, I know it wasn’t easy. Not at a school as rigorous as Wisconsin. The world even threw a global pandemic at you, just to keep you on your toes. But you persevered. You did what it took to get you to this day. And now you’re at commencement, and you deserve to pat yourselves on the back. So give yourselves another round of applause. [Applause.]

Class of 2022, this is your accomplishment. But you know you didn’t do it by yourselves. You had professors, you had faculty and staff guiding you along the way. You had parents, family, and friends pushing you to succeed. You had the entire University of Wisconsin community at your hands.

So let’s also take a moment to thank all of your mentors and your friends and your loved ones who helped you to get to this special moment. So give them a hand of applause as well. [Applause.]

So now that you’ve made it, you’re probably asking a few questions about what’s next. Like, when is this speech going to be over so we can start our real celebration? [Laughter.] Or something more profound – like, what am I going to do with the rest of my life?

Sitting in this stadium – and I can see that some of you look a little tired, maybe you’re a little dehydrated from a late night of hydration; I heard some of you last night [laughter] the hot sun is baking down on you, your entire future ahead of you, you’re wondering what’s next, and you’re probably not the most comfortable you’ve ever been. That’s good. That’s how it’s supposed to be. You are all about to leave your comfort zone. 

Graduates, that’s what I want to talk to you about today. It’s about making yourselves uncomfortable.

Because truth be told, coming back to this campus today, remembering my first days here – uncomfortable is one of the first words I think of. Now, don’t get me wrong. I loved my Wisconsin experience. It made me who I am today – the United States Ambassador to the United Nations. [Cheers and applause.]

But for you to understand what I mean, I need to take you back a few years. I’m going to take you back before cell phones. There was a time before cell phones. [Laughter.] Before 24-hour cable. Before Chasers came back. [Laughter.] This was a time before personal computers and laptops. A truly ancient time. People were using things like typewriters. Anybody know what a typewriter is? 

In fact, it was before any of you graduating Badgers were even born. It really was a long time ago. 1974. I was 22 years old. And I was on an airplane for my very first time. In fact, it was my first time above the Mason-Dixon line. It was my first time leaving my home state of Louisiana at all.

I didn’t like being on a plane, and I still don’t by the way. I feel like people just weren’t meant to go that high. I even felt it yesterday as I was flying in. But when I landed here in Madison for graduate school, I saw the stunning lakes. And Madison looked and felt like a foreign land to me.  I had no family here, no friends. And most of the people were white, and I was not.

Instead of my grits and gumbo, you gave me brats and cheese curds. [Laughter.] And I’m sorry, I still don’t like cheese curds. [Laughter.] But – but what I did like was Rocky Rococo’s Pizza. [Cheers.] And again, it was a long time ago. It was a dollar a slice, and it was right on State Street.

All that was quite different. And I have to tell you again, I was very uncomfortable. Then came winter. [Laughter.] My first. I’ll never forget my first snowstorm in Madison. It was really coming down, and the wind was blowing snow everywhere. I’d never seen anything like that before. In Louisiana, one flake would come floating down and the whole state would shut down.  But it was so beautiful and I wanted to enjoy this beautiful wonderland, but I had a class. And actually, truthfully, I thought class might have been cancelled. It was snowing, right? But my roommates set me straight, explained to me that a little snow never stopped anything in Madison. 

So I headed to class. And it wasn’t just any class – it was with my mentor, the renowned Professor Crawford Young, in North Hall, all the way across campus from where I was living. And the class started at 7:30 in the morning. Do you guys even have 7:30 classes anymore?  [Laughter.]

So I threw on my heavy Louisiana winter coat – or what I thought was a heavy coat – and some sneakers. Yes, sneakers. And I started to head over. Back then, Bascom Hill – you all know Bascom Hill – wasn’t a hill, it was a mountain to me. And at least it felt that way every single time. So I hiked up the hill huffing and puffing my way to class, and as I climbed the four flights of stairs in North Hall, I was breathless.

When I finally walked into my class, everyone heard me coming. I was heaving. I was freezing. My feet made this loud squelching sound with every step. My sneakers were filled with slush.  And I was soaking wet all over. You can imagine how I felt. That’s right – uncomfortable. Very uncomfortable. 

And yet, even then, shivering in my sneakers, I did not regret my choice. Maybe I regretted my clothing choices. Which is why, after class, I went out and bought wool socks, winter boots, a heavy, heavy parka from Sunny’s Surplus. But coming to Wisconsin? That choice, at that point in my life, was the best decision I had ever made.

Being uncomfortable here in Madison taught me how to adapt, improve, to learn. It taught me how to overgrow – to overcome challenges and to grow as a person. That winter, I learned to layer. And over the next few years, demanding classes sharpened my mind and my writing skills. New friends – including my first-ever white friend – expanded my experiences and my horizons.  And by the way, we are still friends today.

And Wisconsin’s tough, exacting, rigorous professors? They unlocked the world for me. Literally. That same 7:30 a.m. class professor, Crawford Young – who sadly passed away in 2020 – reignited a latent interest I had in Africa. He became my mentor. And he urged me to travel abroad. 

At his prodding, in 1978, I went to do research, that time in Liberia, an actual foreign land. That was another totally new, different, and uncomfortable experience for me. Trust me, it’s not pleasant riding in the back seat of a taxi with four other women, traveling for miles and miles on a bumpy road across the continent of Africa in 100-degree heat.

But I was so inspired by my trip, I decided to join the Foreign Service and to see the world. Many years later, I would return back – to serve as America’s first-ever female Ambassador to Liberia. [Cheers and applause.] And it all circled back to right here, to the University of Wisconsin, when just a few years ago I helped develop the Mandela Washington Fellowship for Young African Leaders Initiative, which brings the next generation of African leaders to this campus as well as others across the U.S.

Of course, University of Wisconsin-Madison was among the first cohort of schools selected to host the fellows – and has done so ever since, and I thank you. [Applause.] By hosting and serving as ambassadors to future leaders in Africa and across the globe, you have made all of us so incredibly proud.

So Class of 2022, what I’ve found over the years – what I learned here in Wisconsin, and in Liberia, and in every other phase of my life – is that adversity, discomfort, hardship make you braver, smarter, and stronger. If you stay comfortable – if you stay in your comfort zone, sticking to what you know – then you are making a bet. You are betting that your life and the world will stay the same. But let me tell you, you’re going to lose that bet every single time. You need to prepare for change, and be prepared for challenges and prepared for discomfort. 

You saw this for yourselves when the pandemic hit. Remember how quickly and how dramatically your lives changed.  

Or think of the people of Ukraine. One day they’re going about their ordinary lives, just like you. The next, they’re fighting – they’re fighting for their lives, they’re fighting for their families, for their sovereignty, for their dignity. They’re fighting for democracy. They’re fighting for our democracy. [Applause.]

Trying to predict the future is impossible. But shutting yourself off from the world, trying to hide from its problems, won’t serve you. Because global challenges, even those in faraway places, are going to impact you. 

After all, what is happening in Ukraine is not just about Ukraine – it is also about all of us. Putin felt threatened by Ukraine because it was a burgeoning democracy. And he knows that when people see freedom next door, they start asking themselves why they can’t have freedom, too. And that matters to us – and it should matter to you – because we’re the world’s most powerful example of democracy and freedom. [Applause.]

What happens, then – what happens when our own democracy is under threat? When our own foundational freedoms are undermined? What’s happening in Ukraine puts a fine point on just how important it is that we cherish our own hard-won freedoms – and that we take action to protect them, from voting and volunteering to marching and protesting.

This is something UW-Madison knows about well – as you were in the forefront of anti-war protests in the 1960s and the 1970s, when I came to this campus. And if that feels too abstract to you, consider the way Russia’s war on Ukraine has affected the entire world. 

Ukraine was once the breadbasket for the developing world. Now, Ukrainian civilians wait in breadlines. And Russian ships are blocking key ports and actively stopping food and fertilizer from leaving the country. So not only are Ukrainians going hungry now – it also makes life worse for the people in countries that relied on Ukraine and Russia for food, especially in the Middle East and in Africa. It makes desperate hunger situations even more dire, far outside Ukraine’s borders. And have you noticed that the price of food and gas has gone up? You can attribute that, in part, to Russia’s war too. 

This challenge comes at a moment when we are deeply concerned about the ways other conflicts and global forces, like the pandemic and climate change, are affecting fuel and food security around the world. Trust me, this is something I’m very focused on right now at the United Nations. In fact, next week we are leading “Days of Action” on global food security, and I have invited Secretary of State Blinken to chair a meeting on this issue at the Security Council. And I encourage you all to watch.

This school understands the importance of food security better than anyone. You have one of the world’s leading Agricultural and Life Sciences Departments – even back when I was a student. [Cheers.] You were on the cutting edge of promoting food production in Africa. More broadly, Wisconsin is farming country. In the same way that Ukraine was the breadbasket for the developing world, Wisconsin is at the heart of America’s breadbasket.

So it matters that temperatures are getting more extreme here. You might have noticed the even colder winters, the hotter summers. I don’t ever recall 90-degree days in May in Madison. That completely changes the dynamics of farming here – and it affects the rest of America. It makes it harder, for example, to raise livestock like cows. And what would Wisconsin be without its dairy?

So it’s a challenging enough environment everywhere for food already – a shortage happening because of the war in Ukraine doesn’t exactly help.

Which brings me to my point: The world you inherit is going to throw all kinds of new, unexpected challenges your way. There’s the challenge we already know about. Your generation will have to face down dictators and threats to democracy. Climate catastrophes and maybe even future pandemics. And then there’s all the challenges we don’t know about. The ones that aren’t even on our radar yet.

And we need you, we need all of you, to be prepared. We need you to find solutions to these challenges. To be able take on a world where the environment isn’t always welcoming, and transform it into a better, safer, and kinder place.

And I know that sounds like a lot. But fortunately, you don’t have to do it alone. Because when you fall down – when you lose your way, and you will on occasion – remember just – that you’re just getting a bit uncomfortable to prepare yourself. And when it happens, you have this community, the Wisconsin community, to lean on. You have friends that you can turn to for help. You can seek out your mentors, as I did for many, many years here in Madison, and ask your role models for advice.

So long as you stay true to your values, and you keep faith in yourselves, you will find your way through. When one door closes, just open up another one. And ultimately, you will grow stronger. You will work your adversity muscles. And then, when the next challenge comes along, you’ll be able to flex those muscles. That is, as long as you’ve gotten out of your comfort zone. 

Finally – no matter how hard it gets, no matter how uncomfortable you are – I want you to remember the most important lesson that you’ve learned here. More important than any test, any homework assignment, any class at all.

And that lesson is the lesson of kindness: Be kind.  

That two-word mantra [applause] that mantra has guided me my entire career, my entire life. Whenever I was uncomfortable at Wisconsin, someone’s kindness lit a path forward for me, whether they were teaching me how to layer or showing me the world. And ever since, even in the hard-nosed field of foreign diplomacy, even when we’re squaring off against global adversaries, being kind has always been my best first move. Always. And I know you will find the same to be true.

So, graduates, I am so proud of you. You are our hopes and our dreams. You still have so much to learn – but I know you’re going to make a difference in this world.

Before I go, I want to give you one final moment: Take it all in. Take this time to reflect on your past four years. Think of all the trials and the tribulations, the challenges you faced, the hills you had to climb. Like Bascom Hill. 

So this morning, I got up at 6:00 a.m. and I walked up that hill. Now, I remember when I was 22 [laughter] when I was 22, I huffed and puffed up that hill. This morning, it wasn’t even a challenge. [Cheers.] I was prepared. So that hill that seemed like a mountain was just a little bump in the road. Trudging up it every day was a true challenge.

So I promise you, the moment you turn your tassels, you’re going to feel this moment. You can go up any hill. You can climb any mountain. You can take on the world. You are ready. This is your time. Now get out there and make us proud. 

Congratulations, Madison! [Cheers and applause.]

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