UN Ambassador Linda Thomas-Greenfield’s commencement address to the Holy Cross Class of 2021
On May 21, Ambassador Linda Thomas-Greenfield addressed the Class of 2021 at the College of the Holy Cross. Ms. Thomas Greenfield currently serves as the United States ambassador to the United Nations under President Biden. In her words to the graduates, she spoke about the Jesuit tradition of service and how it has set them up to respond to today’s greatest challenges.
Below is the full text of Ambassador Thomas-Greenfield’s address:
To President Reverend Boroughs; incoming President Rougeau; Provost Freije; distinguished alumni, faculty and staff; and most importantly to the College of the Holy Cross Class of 2021: Congratulations!
You did it. You persevered. Through lectures. Through exams. Through Midnight Breakfasts and Battle of the Bands. Through a pandemic that put so many of those fun traditions on pause. But you made it. Of course, you didn’t get here all on your own. And as much as this is your day, your achievement is shared by everyone who helped you along the way. So, take a moment to thank your supporters—your friends, your families, your partners, your professors and all the people who showed you love and kindness, and made this major milestone possible. And then, don’t forget to thank yourselves!
The Jesuits were some of the world’s earliest diplomats.
You have so much to be proud of. And you should be particularly proud to have graduated from an institution that asks you big questions. Questions core to your mission. Questions like, how do we find meaning in life? What are our obligations to one another? What is our special responsibility to the world’s poor and powerless? Over four years, you have explored these challenging, fundamental questions. And with any luck, you’ve come up with an answer or two.
But now, you’re faced with a whole new set of questions. Like, what’s next? Where should I go? How should I lead my life? I’m sure you’ve picked up a few ideas during your time at Holy Cross. But I thought on this occasion, I might pass on a few guiding principles of my own—lessons I’ve learned throughout my career, that I hope you might find useful as you embark on your own journeys into the world.
The first is to look to, and call upon, your mentors and role models. And at Holy Cross, you’ve been blessed with plenty of options. Like your president, Father Boroughs, who has been such a strong steward and moral compass for this excellent institution for a decade. Or your incoming president, Vincent Rougeau, who will break barriers and serve as the first lay and Black president of Holy Cross. In fact, he will be the first Black president of any American Jesuit college or university in over a hundred years—a remarkable achievement that inspires me and should inspire us all.
You can also look to your professors, or your fellow classmates, or even the distinguished alumni whose ranks you now join. Alumni like the person responsible for my speaking to you today, Ambassador Harry Thomas, who I first met on a commuter bus when he was a mid-level officer. If you don’t know him, Ambassador Thomas has served our country around the world, and been our ambassador to Zimbabwe, the Philippines and Bangladesh. And whether he did it intentionally or not, by going into diplomacy, he followed an old Jesuit tradition.
In fact, the Jesuits were some of the world’s earliest diplomats. Consider a border dispute from 1685. The Russian Empire and the Qing Empire in China can’t seem to agree on where one kingdom begins and the other ends. They’d like to decide without going to war. But no one from either side spoke the other’s language. So, two Jesuit priests stepped in. They represented China and negotiated with a Polish man representing Russia. How? The three diplomats spoke Latin. Together, they used the shared language to preserve peace, and brokered the Treaty of Nerchinsk.
Your environment has encouraged you to—according to that Jesuit principle—be men and women for others.
So, to those of you who took Latin—perhaps it will come in handy, more often than you thought! What’s more, the brokering of that treaty leads me to a point I know Holy Cross has made to you too: As you think about the future, I urge you to think about who you want to become rather than what you want to become. Those Jesuits settling the border dispute didn’t call themselves diplomats or ambassadors or peacemakers. They called themselves priests. But when they saw they could use their skills to advance peace, it didn’t matter what they were. Just that they wanted to do good.
Who you are and the choices you make—how you choose to use your skills, how you put your values into practice, how you make an impact on the world—matter far more than any position or job title. Whenever I speak to recent graduates, I urge them to go into my field—diplomacy.
As the pandemic has proven to us beyond a shadow of a doubt, our world is deeply interconnected. So, we need ambassadors and advocates for peace and justice. Leaders who will seek to understand each other, see our shared challenges and work toward mutual prosperity. But whatever profession or career path you enter into, remember your job, or title, or background all matter less than who you choose to be.
Of course, it also matters where you are. At Holy Cross, your environment has encouraged you to—according to that Jesuit principle—be men and women for others. To follow that principle, as you figure out where your journey will take you next, I would encourage you to go where others need you. And let me explain what I mean by that.
When I asked him why he lived in this remote area of Kenya, far away from his friends and family, he explained it was where he felt he could do the most.
When I served in Kenya as a refugee coordinator, I would take trips to an isolated refugee camp in a northern region of the country. It was a long 10-hour drive to get there. Along the way, I would always stop to see an American priest who lived in a very remote village. And when I asked him why he lived in this remote area of Kenya, far away from his friends and family, he explained it was where he felt he could do the most.
He wasn’t the only person of faith seeking to help that I encountered while I was in Kenya. Around the same time, a group of nuns in Rwanda were trying to spread peace and provide support right after 800,000 people were killed during the 100 days of terror. Unfortunately, after helping as many people as they could, they soon found their own lives were in danger. Their gardener warned them that he had been asked to kill the nuns. He urged them to flee instead. But unfortunately, the nuns weren’t allowed to cross the border out of Rwanda. So, their order from Paris sent an emissary to me in Kenya, asking if the United States could help. Though I didn’t know these nuns personally, I was in awe of how they had risked their lives for the greater good—and how they had gone where they felt they were needed.
So, we quickly got to work. We drew up 29 letters—one for each sister—and wrote their names in big, italic print. We declared that each of these sisters was well and favorably known to the United States government—and that if they could be allowed to cross the border, we would take it from there. We didn’t know if it would work. But it helped to make it all look more official, so we tied the letters together with ribbon, and we hot-sealed them with red wax. We sent the letters off and crossed our fingers. Fortunately, it worked. The nuns were allowed to go through the border safely.
And a few months later, the Reverend Mother gave me this rosary as a thank you. I’m not a Catholic, but I carry it with me always, as a reminder of their bravery, of my own commitment to caring for others and of the value of going where I’m needed. At this moment in history, the world truly does need you.
Class of 2021: I have hope—I have light in my eyes—because of you.
Earlier this month, I met the head of the International Committee of the Red Cross, who had just been in Al Hol displaced persons camp in war-torn Syria. About two-thirds of the 62,000 people at the sprawling camp are children. Many of them are orphaned and separated from their families. They face constant hunger and dangerous disease—including rampant Covid. Their suffering is a living testament to the brutality and the horror the conflict has inflicted over the past ten years. The head of the Red Cross told us that this camp was where, in his words, “hope goes to die.” That broke my heart. I was devastated to think that there could be a place without any hope or happiness.
These stark realities are a reminder that we have so much work to do. When our diplomats advocate for increased humanitarian access, coordinate foreign assistance to help those in need or impose sanctions on individuals committing human rights violations, what we’re really doing is working to keep hope alive—everywhere we can.
And graduates, there is no one better poised to help us with that effort than you. You are the next generation of do-gooders—equipped with all the tools to change the world. To make our world more free, more prosperous and more secure. And to ensure there are no hopeless corners of our world. That may sound like a heavy burden, but hope doesn’t have to be huge. It can be as simple as a hug, or a hot meal, or a smile. Whatever you can do to bring light to somebody’s eyes.
Class of 2021: I have hope—I have light in my eyes—because of you. When I think of your promise, your potential, I swell with pride. With your Holy Cross mentors and role models by your side, I believe you will become men and women for others. I trust you will go where you are needed. And graduates, I know you will keep hope alive.
Congratulations, again, and good luck!