If anyone appreciates stories about secretaries of state, it’s certainly someone with the words “foreign service” on their diploma. Today, Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken spoke at the graduation commencement ceremony for the Georgetown Class of 2022 at the Walsh School of Foreign Service (SFS).
Graduations are always a special moment for friends, family, faculty, and of course, the students themselves.But this year was particularly exhilarating as it was the first in-person commencement at Georgetown since 2019. The excitement was certainly in the air as our nation’s top diplomat stepped up to the podium. Secretary Blinken reflected on the life and legacies of former Secretaries of State Madeleine Albright, Colin Powell, and George Shultz. As Secretary Blinken said, “They were three very different people – different backgrounds, different political philosophies, different styles of leadership. And the times during which they were Secretary were different, too. But they devoted their lives to service. They left their mark. And their stories hold lessons for all of us.”
The Four Lessons
The first lesson was about remembering where you came from. Secretary Blinken said, “No matter where you go or what cause you serve, try to hold on to what’s shaped you. And try to remember this for other people. It’s worth putting some work into learning where other people come from – especially people whose map is vastly different from yours. That’s the foundation of empathy, and it’s handy no matter where you go.”
The second lesson is about always being a student. The Secretary said, “Learning from others is a way of showing respect. It tells people that you see them and you value them. As anyone who knew Colin, Madeleine, or George can tell you, they spent their whole lives in learning mode. This openness… this curiosity meant they were always stumbling across new ideas and ways of seeing things. And it meant life never stopped being interesting.”
The third lesson is about getting lost. Secretary Blinken said to the students that “It’s tempting to see the lives of the super-accomplished as following a straight line all the way to the top. But in real life, it rarely goes that way. We assume giants like them always had it figured out. But they went through times when they felt profoundly lost. Everybody does. If you have no idea what’s next for you, even though that’s what everyone’s asking you today – don’t be scared. It’s OK. And don’t get knocked off your stride by all the Instagram and LinkedIn posts by peers celebrating their wins. It doesn’t mean they’ve got it all figured it out, either. Don’t compare their outsides to your insides.” Secretary Blinken told the students that Secretaries Albright, Powell, and Shultz “found their way. You will too.”
The fourth and final lesson was about sticking with it for the long haul. Secretary Blinken said, that “to make a real dent, you’ve got stick with it. Progress takes a long time. It can feel like you’re getting nowhere. Don’t give up.”Secretary Blinken said, “Know that you will get lost, and that the losses and setbacks will often outnumber the wins. And as you stick with it, you’ll find that even the smallest steps forward will do more than sustain you. They will fulfill you, lift up others, and help shape this world for the better.”
Secretary Blinken concluded, “That’s the story of George, Madeleine, and Colin. Each served in many ways over their lifetimes – as teachers and soldiers, diplomats and advocates. Some of those hats fit better than others. But they kept at it, despite losses, setbacks, and even seeing the progress they’d worked so hard to achieve get rolled back. They endured because they learned to take the long view. To accept that every cause worth fighting for would outlive them. To aim for the big wins, but savor the small ones.”
These lessons aren’t only for the Class of 2022 but also to anyone in public service, or considering a career in public service.Take a moment to read or watch the Secretary’s full remarks, and if you are considering a career in public service, visit careers.state.gov to learn more about opportunities at the Department of State. We can’t wait to see all that you will accomplish.
About the Author: Johanna Schnitzler serves as a public affairs specialist in the Department of State’s Bureau of Global Public Affairs.