Marcia Bloom Bernicat ’75, U.S. ambassador to Bangladesh, gave the keynote speech at Lafayette’s 183rd Commencement today. Bernicat and four other guests received honorary degrees.
The text of her speech:
Congratulations to all of you.
What an honor it is to be back on the Hill, to hail the achievements of the Class of 2018 and to wish you well. It is also a privilege and, quite frankly, intimidating to share the stage today with my fellow honorary degree recipients, all of whom have contributed so richly to our world.
I want to thank you, President Byerly, for inviting me to be this year’s Commencement speaker. It has taken me way too long to tell you how thrilled I was when you were appointed president of Lafayette College. As a member of only the second class of women welcomed as students to this campus—and there were only 250 of us that year—I thrilled at the news that you would be leading this extraordinary institution. Belated congratulations.
It is really important next to recognize the family members and friends who provided guidance, encouragement—and perhaps the occasional push—that helped ensure that you graduates would be sitting here today. Please, let’s give them our thanks and a round of applause!
Sitting where you are, ahem, a few years ago—at least it feels that way some days—I wanted someone to tell me that they expected me to make this a better world, and I’m sure that was, at least in part, what our commencement speaker, former Attorney General Elliot Richardson said, but I honestly do not remember.
So, while you may not remember in years to come, I would like to tell you that I have been really blessed in very many ways. One is that, thanks to being a diplomat, I get to tell my story on a regular basis. Some days I don’t think it is so extraordinary, but most days I cannot believe how amazing a ride it has been.
By the way, most people you tell will be amazed by your story, and as Americans in particular, our individual stories tend to captivate because we carry the world in our DNA and because of the experiences that we and our ancestors have had here. The opportunities embedded in such experiences far exceed those afforded to most people in the world.
Getting to tell my own story also gives me the opportunity on a regular basis to reflect on where I come from—a reminder of “which way is up,” as it were—what I have been able to do and, most hopefully, to teach something to someone. Reflection is something of a luxury in today’s fast-paced, action-oriented world. But telling your story is worth doing. One of the things I wish for you today is that you will pause from time to time to tell your story, to yourselves as well as to others. And how fortunate it is that our story has a chapter written here at Lafayette.
The proverbial “they” say that the first rule of giving speeches is to know your audience, but I think it also helps if the audience knows something about the speaker. I’m a Jersey girl from the New York half who grew up in a lower-middle-income family of three children. My parents grew up in poverty but worked hard to ensure their children could have a college education.
Public speaking is my least favorite professional skill, by the way—ironic for an ambassador, whose key task is to communicate. I came to Lafayette to become a teacher, preferably one who would work overseas, even though I had never traveled outside the U.S. and only once left the East Coast. I left Lafayette headed, very indirectly, on a path that would lead to a 37-year career and counting serving on four continents as a foreign service officer, which is what we in the U.S. call our diplomats.
To be honest, I chose Lafayette because the College chose me. I cannot overestimate the impact Lafayette has had—and continues to have—on my life. I draw on the rich friendships, leadership skills, academic rigor, and critical thinking I gained here every single day. Think about it: Lafayette chose to invest in each of us the day they sent us our acceptance letters.
Remember how it felt to receive yours? I still do. Be thankful. You may not think of it this way, but you have been given a rare opportunity to earn a college education. Today you enter a privileged and tiny group of global citizens. Imagine, only seven percent of the world’s entire population has a university education. Only seven percent. Please, consider it not only as a privilege—although it is—but also as a responsibility. How are you going to use the investment that is you?
I would urge you to see that investment in part as your responsibility to continue to find ways to serve. Find where your passion meets your communities’ and the world’s greatest needs. You have the resources and the responsibility to do so. Be open to wherever your path may lead, be open to new ideas and new relationships, and never, ever let your passion fade.
As you start the next phase of your journey, I want to leave you with two thoughts. First, I encourage you to be open to wherever your path may lead; it could be a far better fit for you than the one you are planning. Remember, I set out to be a teacher, which would have been terrific, but I could not find a job. At Procter and Gamble, my first employer after graduation, we produced a good quality product in an ethical manner, but that was not ultimately where I thought I could contribute the most, though it did allow me repay my student loans. P&G led to my being admitted to Georgetown’s School of Foreign Service, which in turn led to an internship at our embassy in Liberia right before a coup occurred that would change several West African countries. About halfway through that experience I knew I wanted to be a diplomat.
Later, during my very first assignment in fact, I was again reminded that getting your second choice can be the best. I wanted to go to Bangladesh after my first tour in Mali, also in West Africa. Instead, I was sent—a bit pouting, by the way—to our small consulate, or branch office, in Marseille, France, which was a much richer work experience for someone so junior and, it’s also where I met my husband. Assignments in Casablanca and Barbados were also second choices, but the first gave me some hard and valuable lessons on how to effectively manage difficult supervisors, and in Barbados we closed dirty banks through which some of the 9/11 attackers had funneled their money. Such vital work in such an unlikely place. Getting your first choice is of course great, too. Olivier and I served in India as we had hoped, where we adopted our two sons from Mother Teresa’s orphanage. And by the way, nothing, nothing has ever topped the experience of being their mom.
So, today you graduate with a degree in a particular discipline, but if you end up working in a completely different field than what you are planning, don’t worry. Everything you have learned here will be of use to you, will continue to guide you regardless of where your path may lead.
You may choose a career of service. The first and most important thing I do as an ambassador is to represent you to the people of Bangladesh and to help keep our country safe. But among our many other duties, your team at the U.S. embassy also works to help people hear, and consider, a position that may differ from their own. In those instances, we hope to change the minds of those who, as representatives of another sovereign nation, do not always agree with us. Ultimately, however, it is important that our interlocutors understand that position. Such understanding often leads to mutually beneficial outcomes. Sometimes it prevents differences from deepening. Each agreement, sometimes a true breakthrough, built on the mutual goal of “getting to yes,” is a triumph.
So, the second thought I want to leave with you has to do with listening and not losing sight of the difference it makes. One of my favorite activists and songwriters is Pete Seeger. He popularized an old hymn that became the civil rights anthem “We Shall Overcome.” I was surprised to hear it sung widely in Bangladesh, by the way, and it is even being taught to the children of Rohingya refugees. The following Pete Seeger quote is truer today than ever before. He urged, “It’s a very important thing to learn to talk to people you disagree with.”
Unfortunately, many of us don’t do that very often. We naturally choose our friends based on mutual beliefs, backgrounds, and aspirations. And thanks to social media in particular, it is easier than ever to avoid information we disagree with, or to dismiss those with whom we disagree, much less to discuss points of disagreement with them.
If you remember nothing else that I have said today, please remember to seek out and have those “difficult” conversations. Try and understand the other person’s point of view and to help him or her understand yours. Our lives are, for good or ill, all linked together on this planet. From so many years of living overseas and meeting people from all walks of life, I believe that by far the majority of people in this world are fundamentally good and vastly outnumber the people who truly want to do evil. And we want the same thing—a better life for ourselves and our families. Surely we can find a way to bridge our differences.
We don’t always have to change each other’s minds, but the only way we are going to resolve the problems we face in our communities, in our country, and globally is to engage with each other. It is when we embrace the fact we have differences, then constructively and peacefully work through how to resolve those differences, that we will advance. But it has to start with listening to one another.
Let me end by drawing inspiration from columnist and New York Times bestselling author Regina Brett. I urge you to Google her because every one of the “45 Life Lessons and 5 to Grow On” that she offered back in 2006 remain relevant today and are wnorth keeping in mind. I’ll offer just two today:
Number 45 on her list states definitively, “The best is yet to come.” In spite of how many extraordinary or sublime moments you have been fortunate to have in your life, surely you can believe that statement today, degree in hand, armed with new knowledge, and new resolve. But I implore you, strive to feel that way every day. There is always more to reach for, more to do, more to experience, and more to be grateful for. Let me assure you, I have never ceased to be amazed at how much better life can be when you expect it to be that way.
Finally, I will end with life lesson Number 10: “When it comes to chocolate, resistance is futile.” For me, anyway. I have found chocolate to be one of my best motivators. It literally brought me into this world, but that’s a story for another day! Knowing what motivates you will help you to keep going on the days you are otherwise too tired or too discouraged to take that one more step.
A number of Ms. Brett’s life lessons revolve around seeing beauty, doing what pleases you, and embracing the joy of living. I can have no greater wish for all of you today.
To the Class of 2018 and soon-to-be fellow alum, congratulations.