My Commencement Address at UPenn

05/18/2015 02:45 pm ET | Updated May 18, 2016

Thank you, Provost Price.

President Gutmann, trustees, faculty, alumni, friends and family, and class of 2015 -- has a nice ring to it, doesn't it? It is an indescribable privilege to share this remarkable day with you.

Graduates, you made it! You've got your families and loved ones -- people who have been in your corner for as long as you have been breathing -- here to hail you. Some even up in the cheap seats. You're surrounded by some of the greatest friends you will ever make -- people who will have your backs for decades to come. I'm reminded of the William Butler Yeats poem, which ends beautifully: "Think where man's glory most begins and ends. And say my glory was I had such friends." In many ways, these bonds are every bit as great an achievement as the diploma you may frame.

One of my greatest achievements is up here on stage with me today. I got to marry your Law School commencement speaker, Professor Cass Sunstein, my best friend. Cass' commencement speech yesterday was about Star Wars and the law, and our six-year-old -- I hear some Jedi knights in the back -- and our six-year-old, Declan, insists that his Dad's speech is way better than mine. But I'm hoping I get the votes in the over-six crowd. Cass may be the most cited law professor in the world and the co-inventor of Nudging, but in my house he's better known as the man who will climb onto any roof and into any pond -- no matter how gross -- to retrieve whiffle balls crushed by Declan, our aspiring Major Leaguer.

And let's be real: None of you graduates -- and none of us on stage -- would be here today if we also didn't have a parent, a step-parent, a teacher or a mentor who hadn't made what mattered to us matter to them through the years. So, grads, let's give it up to our parents and our loved ones.

Now, looking back on all you've done to get to this point, you should feel a great wind at your backs. And you're going to need it. Because, class of 2015, the world outside Penn's walls leaves a lot to be desired. That is diplomatic speak for: Things are really screwed up!

Violent extremist groups like ISIL are executing civilians and selling girls like cattle in markets. Russia is using military force to lop off parts of a neighbor's territory. Thousands of migrants -- most fleeing brutal wars in Africa and the Middle East -- are drowning while trying to cross the Mediterranean; thousands more Rohingya and Bangladeshis are fleeing persecution and economic despair in Asia. These migrants have been smuggled or trafficked by people who take their money and then abandon them at sea. It feels, as Shakespeare wrote in The Tempest, "Hell is empty and all the devils are here."

Even with all that you've learned in your time at Penn, heading out into a world that looks like ours can feel overwhelming. Intimidating. Paralyzing, even. Where do you start on problems that seem so big and injustices that run so deep? How do you go about making this broken world even a little less broken?

I had those same questions more than two decades ago when I sat where you are sitting. The challenges that my generation faced also seemed well beyond our reach. And it wasn't as if warlords or dictators were about to stop in their tracks if they saw a liberal arts graduate striding purposefully toward them. While I knew that individuals had in history -- and still could -- make a difference, it seemed presumptuous -- even pompous -- to imagine that I could be part of it, that I could be one of them. And if you had told me that I, an Irish immigrant to this country who went to public schools in Pittsburgh and Atlanta, would not only get to be the United States Ambassador to the UN, but also be invited to speak at Penn's commencement, I'd have wondered whether you'd been spending far too much time drinking at Smoke's. So you have, in fact? I was a good athlete, a good friend and a pretty good student, but growing up, I was never known for my patience (a prerequisite for tolerating bureaucracy), for my ability to be diplomatic (generally a feature of practicing diplomacy), or even for my idealism (an absolute necessity for a career in public service).

And yet, here I stand before you, having served in the U.S. government for six-and-a-half years, still training, I'll admit, for a black belt in bureaucracy, and having concluded that, in diplomacy, being diplomatic is a tad overrated. But after 23 years in the "real world," and especially, especially, after my time in government, I am more idealistic than I have ever been in my life, utterly convinced that individuals can make a tangible difference in promoting human dignity and in making the world and our communities in this country a little less broken.

Now, I don't know how many future public servants or diplomats are out there today. A few? Good. Hopefully not only the ones who were drinking at Smoke's. But I know that this miraculous, miraculous institution was conceived as a place to spawn a spirit of service. In 1749, when Benjamin Franklin made the case for a college here in Philadelphia, his vision was distinct from that of the handful of colleges in the colonies at the time.

"The Aim and End of all Learning," wrote Franklin, was, "an inclination joined with an ability to serve mankind, one's country, friends and family." That's important. Let me repeat, that "an inclination joined with an ability to serve mankind, one's country, friends and family," was at the root of the founding of this great institution.

A few of you out there may already see yourselves on the road to answering Franklin's call. You may know you have both the "inclination" and the "ability" to serve usefully. But others of you may question whether you have what it takes to serve your community or your country, much less mankind or womankind.

I've spent the past couple decades trying to find the ability to match the inclination. In the process, I've worn a lot of different hats. I've been a war reporter and a human rights defender. A professor and a columnist. A diplomat and -- by far, most thrillingly -- a mother. And what I've learned from all these experiences is that any change worth making is going to be hard. Period. But there are four ways that -- no matter the field or the profession, the country or the scale -- you can improve your odds of making a tangible difference in a world that needs you.

First, and this is foundational, if you want to change the world, start by "acting as if." Prior generations have put this a different way -- "Fake it 'til you make it." But see what happens if you act as if you -- your little self -- can narrow the massive achievement gap between our nation's rich and poor public schools; maybe, if you set out to do that, if you "act as if," you will find yourself helping tutor a girl in reading or math at the school down the block. See what happens if you act as if you can fight the epidemic of sexual violence in the Democratic Republic of Congo; maybe you will find yourself volunteering at an abuse hotline across town and offering comfort to someone who has no one else to talk to.

See what happens if you act as if you can promote LGBT rights in countries where being gay is still considered a crime; maybe you will take it upon yourself to convince a grandparent or parent why nobody should be denied the right to marry the person they love.

I bet if you ask President Gutmann, Provost Price, Chairman Cohen, your professors, your parents or the mind-blowing other honorary degree recipients here today, they would say that they had done a bit of "acting as if" in their esteemed careers.

"Acting as if" was how I got started professionally. In the 1990s, I was deeply moved by images of mass atrocities coming out of the former Yugoslavia, and I decided to try to help. But what could I, a history major, do that was useful? I decided -- ridiculously in retrospect -- that my experience covering women's volleyball for my college newspaper was sufficient for me to at least try to become a war correspondent. When I got over to the region, I'd never before interviewed refugees or peacekeepers or anybody, really, besides athletes. But I moved to the Balkans and began observing the journalists around me who seemed to know what they were doing and I did my best to copy them - all the while trying to look professional. And with each story I reported, this became less of an act and more of a reality.

There's always a learning curve when one starts something new. In August 2013, I started my job as U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations. Almost immediately, I found myself in some extremely tough, high-wire negotiations with Russia aimed at removing chemical weapons from Syria -- a crucial task, given the willingness of the monstrous Assad regime to use such weapons on its own people.

One Sunday morning, during the most grueling stretch of the negotiations, I take my son Declan to grab breakfast at a diner. He is four-years-old at the time, and I haven't been able to hang much with him because of these round-the-clock negotiations. And of course, that's the moment President Obama decides to call me on my cellphone. Why do bosses always do that?

The President stresses the importance of these negotiations, and he urges me to find the sweet spot in my negotiating posture. "Don't overshoot the runway," he says. "But don't undershoot the runway, either."

I say, "Understood, Mr. President. I've got this." But I've been in the job for less than a month! And in my head, I'm thinking, "Where the hell is the runway?" But I found it. And I'm here to tell you, "act as if" and you really will figure it out.

My second recommendation -- if you want to make change -- is for you to make sure you know something about something. The beauty of this is it is completely within your control. You can start by reading more than 140-character-long publications by those who have thought about a problem before you. You can track down experts and pepper them with questions -- and then read and learn some more. If you're interested in international issues, you can learn a language - another one on top of the one you already learned here. And when you believe you know something -- and may even have arrived at a theory of how change might come -- get out to the place where the problem actually lives. Go to the field -- whatever or wherever that field may be. The field is where tidy problems get messy, and where you will have occasion to go deep, not wide.

Take my move to the Balkans back in the day -- this seemed like an exceedingly narrow early career choice. I signed up for a class in Serbo-Croatian, a language with limited reach, even today in my current job; I read dense history books on the region (a part of the world that is said to have "so much history it doesn't need a future"); and I moved to report on wars that seemed far away to most Americans. Even though I focused on an extremely narrow slice of the planet, by going deep I got up-close exposure to issues that had application well beyond the Balkans -- issues that all these years later are my daily bread in working on challenges all around the world -- ethnic identity, international justice, humanitarian assistance, refugee returns, peacekeeping, how to reform the UN.

One's theory of change quickly gets challenged, though, when you're out in the real world. I'll give you one example. Last fall -- when the Ebola outbreak was exploding in West Africa and dire projections estimated that more than a million people could be infected within a few months -- public health experts identified burial rituals as a major form of transmission. That's because local custom is for family members to wash and bury the body of the deceased -- a fatal practice when dealing with Ebola victims, whose bodies can transmit the virus for several days after death.

So, the international community's solution was to get the word out on this acute health hazard and dramatically scale up the number of safe burial teams. The trouble was: even having done that, the phones at the safe burial call centers didn't really ring, and people continued to bathe and bury their loved ones. Ebola just kept spreading. Finally, though, by getting out to the hotspots and immersing themselves in the data and the culture, and by listening, epidemiologists and aid workers were able to figure out why people were not calling: It turned out families of victims saw handing over the bodies to these burial teams as a breach of faith. Now, that's the kind of insight one could not get in a UN briefing thousands of miles away -- one could only get it by bumping up against the problem in the real world. Armed with this understanding, a Grand Imam in Guinea went on the radio to tell people that safe burials were consistent with Islam, and urged imams of the 12,000 mosques across the country to disseminate the same message. It was a series of adaptive solutions like this one that helped bend the deadly curve of the Ebola outbreak, and will soon help end it.

Now, every individual needs other individuals by their side if they are to make a lasting difference. My third recommendation if you want to serve - along with "acting as if" and knowing something about something -- is that you must persuade people to join you in your efforts.

And, to persuade people, you have to meet people where they are. It's what Atticus Finch meant when he told Scout, "You never really understand a person... until you climb in his skin and walk around in it." All advocacy is, at its core, an exercise in empathy.

I'm not talking about persuasion for persuasion's sake; I'm talking about building the coalitions that you need to serve effectively. Few were as skilled at this as Penn's founder. In October 1776, the 70-year-old Franklin was dispatched to Paris to try to win French support for the American Revolution. He immediately set about learning France's different constituencies and what mattered to each of them.

For France's foreign minister, who saw the world in zero-sum terms, realist terms, Franklin drafted a memo arguing how French support for America would greatly weaken France's arch-rival, Britain. When it came to appealing to the French public, Franklin played up the romantic ideal of America's struggle for liberty against tyranny. He also penned anonymous satires lampooning his British enemies in the press. And to win over the elite, he never passed up an invitation to a swank dinner party or salon, leading another American diplomat to complain that Franklin was, "more devoted to pleasure than would become even a young man in his station." But the diplomat missed the point; Franklin was working the room.

When he discovered - after wearing a fur hat one day -- that the French saw it as a sign of his American down-to-Earth authenticity -- Franklin took to wearing it whenever he went out in public. So what if the hat was Canadian? Franklin was working his brand.

The point is not that Franklin was cynical; he was a true believer in the idea of American independence, and he made extraordinary sacrifices in fighting for it. Indeed, when he was in Paris pounding the pavement, his own city of Philadelphia was sacked, his home looted, and the university he founded -- your university -- turned into a barracks for occupying British troops. The point is that Franklin knew that to win over the French, he had to meet them where they were.

If he had not succeeded -- and he succeeded gloriously, winning the support of each key French constituency he targeted -- America may well have never won its independence. And Penn might still be a British barracks. Wouldn't that be awkward?

One factor behind Franklin's success was simply that he was in Paris. In Franklin, the French saw the living, breathing embodiment of a revolution that otherwise might have seemed far away and insignificant. That brings me to my final recommendation: humanize your cause. Don't take for granted that the worthiness of your cause will win you allies; bring it down to a scale that people can relate to.

This is particularly challenging in times like ours -- in which we are bombarded with an endless stream of atrocities, injustices, and inequalities, flashing across the big and small screens we live in front of, and coming at us through internet pages that refresh every few seconds with just the latest bad news. It is no wonder our nerve endings are battered and our empathy muscles so worn out.

I face this challenge every day in my job at the United Nations. Even at the UN Security Council -- whose job it is to help resolve conflicts -- you can often sense the detachment with which diplomats read off their statements and recycle the same empty condemnations, with no expectations of changing the facts on the ground.

Last fall, President Obama managed to help humanize the Ebola crisis with a simple gesture. After a Liberian man, Thomas Duncan, arrived in the United States with the first case of Ebola, some people in our country allowed their fears to get the better of them. Some called for our government to seal the borders, and even to prevent desperately-needed American nurses and doctors from volunteering for the relief effort, though the experts were adamant that the epidemic had to be beaten at its source. And some leaders -- including several not all that far from here -- imposed policies that called for quarantining everyone who had returned from the region.

It was at the peak of that hysteria, which you all remember well, that President Obama invited to the White House Nina Pham, the Dallas nurse who had been infected caring for Mr. Duncan, and who had just recovered. As Ms. Pham stood in the Oval Office -- free of the disease, but stigmatized, as all Ebola survivors were, as a potential carrier -- the President did something very simple: He gave her a hug. It wasn't only Americans who saw that embrace; it was the hug heard around the world. When, at the President's request, I traveled to the Ebola-affected countries a week later, people were still marveling about that hug. Victims who had beaten the virus but been cast out by terrified communities felt that America had hugged them too; those who feared, feared less.

Part of humanizing means not only humanizing the bad news, but humanizing those who bring light to the dark places -- people who, against all odds, are building that human dignity right back up -- no matter the obstacles.

Few groups on today's planet are more sinister than Boko Haram -- the violent extremists in Nigeria who have kidnapped and enslaved thousands of women and girls, and forced a child as young as seven to blow herself up in a crowded marketplace. In February 2014, Boko Haram raided the northern Nigerian village of Izghe, killing more than a hundred people and abducting scores more, including 16-year-old Binta Ibrahim and her sisters. They were taken to a neighboring village, where Binta recognized three child captives from her village: a two-year-old named Matthew, and two four-year-olds, Elija and Maryam. Separated from their parents, they had no one to look after them.

So Binta, who -- mind you -- was just 16, started to take care of them. One day, the village was hit by an air raid, and the Boko Haram fighters fled for cover. Binta's sisters decided to make a run for it, urging Binta to come with them. But, Binta said, "I had these three kids to care for and I couldn't abandon them." She stayed.

Not long after, Boko Haram forced the captives to march to a hideout in the forest. But the three kids were so malnourished that they couldn't walk. So Binta strapped Matthew and Elija to her back, and wrapped Maryam around her waist. And -- carrying three children -- she began to walk. She trekked for an entire day like that, and then a night; and then another day and another night. She said, "There was nothing to do but rest when I couldn't take another step, and then press ahead when I had recovered."

After two days, they finally arrived. She saved those kids' lives.

A few weeks ago, Binta, Matthew, Elija and Maryam were rescued, along with more than 700 other captives. When a journalist caught up with them in a refugee camp, where Binta continued to look after these kids, the reporter asked her why she risked her life for those three children. Binta responded, "I love them as if they are my own," pulling her fists into her chest for emphasis.

Binta is a Muslim. The three kids she saved are Christian. Tell me a more powerful rejection of Boko Haram's perversion of Islam than Binta's love for those kids.

And you can find the sources of light close to home, too. Around 15 years ago, professors from Penn's medical school noticed a growing number of Latin American immigrants showing up at the emergency room with chronic illnesses or ailments that could have been prevented. Most were undocumented, uninsured and unable to communicate in English. They feared seeking medical help could get them deported. So the Penn doctors decided to start a program to help this vulnerable community -- not just treating the emergencies, but the root causes of their health issues. They called it Puentes de Salud, Bridges of Health, and they began holding walk-in clinics a few nights a week -- sometimes in the back of a gas station or a church basement.

Puentes relied on a consistent stream of student volunteers from Penn, and community members who they trained as promotoras -- or community nurses. As the undocumented population in South Philadelphia grew from around 6,000 people when the program started to some 30,000 people today -- Puentes grew, too. Med students volunteered in the clinics. Students from the Graduation School of Education helped design curriculums. Wharton students gave financial literacy workshops. And students from other schools got involved, too.

One of them was Daphne Owen. In 2009, Daphne was helping pay her way through Bryn Mawr College by working at a local dive bar, where she made friends with a group of Mexican dishwashers. They told her about how their kids were falling behind in school because they struggled with English. So Daphne did some Googling and found her way to Puentes, where she eventually worked with staff to create an after-school program for the kids of Spanish-speaking immigrants. Today, that program is tutoring and mentoring hundreds of kids in South Philadelphia. And today, Doctor Daphne Owen is graduating from Penn Medical School.

Amidst all the darkness of the world, it can be easy to lose sight of all the bright spots. But look around you: They are all around you.

Consider this: From 1990 to 2010, the number of people living in extreme poverty in the world -- people who live on less than a dollar a day -- fell by 700 million people. At my last graduation -- from law school, in 1999 -- the idea of an American state legalizing civil unions for LGBT persons wasn't even on the radar. Indeed, that year, 36 states had passed statutes or constitutional amendments banning marriage for same-sex couples. Today, the same number of states, 36 -- have legalized marriage for same-sex couples. And if there is justice, the Supreme Court will soon affirm marriage for same-sex couples as a constitutional right across this great land.

Class of 2015: You are going out into a world of profound challenges, it goes without saying. But the Binta Ibrahims and the Puentes of the world show us that -- whether in Nigeria or in Philadelphia -- the path to solving these big problems begins with small solutions. And it starts with individuals. Individuals like you.

You can see that in the teenager who straps three kids onto her back and her waist and walks for two days straight. You can see it in the doctors who notice new neighbors living in the shadows and extend a hand.

Penn grads, you have the inclination and the ability to change your communities, and to change your slice of the world. Act as if. Know something about something. Bring others along. And humanize your cause.

Franklin was right when he said the purpose of the education you have all just received is not to serve yourself -- but to serve your community, your nation, your world. This has been Penn's mission from its conception. It must continue to be your mission from this day forth.

Best of luck, Class of 2015. Go at it!