April 25, 2024

Secretary Antony J. Blinken At the Georgia Institute of Technology Commencement Ceremony for the Class of 2023

Secretary Antony J. Blinken At the Georgia Institute of Technology Commencement Ceremony for the Class of 2023

 

SECRETARY BLINKEN:  Class of 2023, congratulations!  You made it.  You got out.

(Applause.)

I want to say a special thanks right from the start to Zaria Redhead.  Wasn’t she extraordinary?  (Applause.)

But each of you – each of you – has survived one of the most rigorous academic programs on the planet.  You’ve endured hikes up Freshman Hill.  You have powered through all-nighters, with, as I’ve already heard, a little help from Waffle House.

You’ll never again have to wear a rat cap – unless you want to.

Now, as America’s chief diplomat, a key part of my job is trying to resolve the world’s most intractable conflicts in places like Georgia.  Yellow Jackets or Bulldogs?  Atlanta or Athens?

And look, to be a trusted go-between in conflicts like these, you can’t pick a side, even when – deep down – you know that one is right.

But experienced diplomats know how to send the subtle signals that let people know where they stand.

And so, esteemed graduates, I ask you:  What’s the good word?

AUDIENCE: To hell with Georgia.

(Applause.)

SECRETARY BLINKEN:  So this morning’s ceremony got Tech legend Harrison Butker, whose field goals have twice won the Lombardi trophy for the Chiefs.

You got stuck with the guy whose last trophy came in youth soccer for “participation.”  (Laughter.)

So, I want to make it up to you.  That is why I am proud to announce that, today, I am nominating one of Tech’s own – renowned physicist, cellist, social media influencer, George P. Burdell – as America’s next ambassador to France.  He’s earned it.  (Applause.)

Now, to get down to business.  Before we get to where you’re headed, let’s just take a moment to reflect on where you’ve come from, or better said, who you’ve come from.  The people, as you heard the president say, who helped get you to this day, who always believed in you, even when you were a ramblin’ wreck; the people who put their heads down so that you could lift yours up: moms and dads, brothers and sisters, aunts and uncles, grandparents, best friends.

Many of them are here today cheering you on, and those who can’t be, are part of who you are.

This is their day, too.  So let’s give them big round of applause.  (Applause.)

Class of 2023, I have to tell you I remember almost nothing about what the commencement speaker said at my college graduation.  Not because it was a terrible speech – it wasn’t – or because it was a long time ago – it was – but because my mind was elsewhere.  And I suspect that may be the case for many, if not most, of you today.

Graduation is one of those moments when your past, your present, your future all seem to be converging at once.  You feel, rightly, immensely proud of what you’ve achieved – and, at the same time, maybe a little bit anxious or even outright terrified about what you’ll do next.  It’s a time when the question of who you are – and who you’ll become – looms large.

I can tell you from experience:  It’s a question you’ll probably be grappling with years to come.

So I thought the most useful thing that I could do today is to share a few tips from my own experience about how to navigate the periods of uncertainty that lie ahead.

First, get comfortable with what you don’t know.

Two decades ago, I was hired as the staff director for the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.  A big part of that job was fielding questions from senators, especially the chairman of the committee – a guy named Joe Biden – like how much aid we’d given a foreign country over the last decade, or how long judges served on their supreme court.

A lot of the time, I didn’t have the answer.

Now, when you get asked a question you don’t know – especially by your boss – it’s easy to feel like everyone will realize you’re an impostor.  You might be tempted to wing it – to fake it ‘til you make it.

Don’t do it.  Memorize this answer instead: “I don’t know, but I’ll find out.”

I still use this line, including in Cabinet meetings with my boss, who’s now President Biden.

Here’s why:  If you give your boss bad information because you’re too embarrassed to admit that you don’t know, you’re on the way to losing their confidence.

It’s getting the right answer that matters, even if it takes some time to find it.

That’s important when you’re the one in charge, too, because acknowledging that there are things that you don’t know signals to your team that they can also be honest with you.

And it’s also okay not to have the answers to the big questions like what you’re going to do with your life.  Everyone struggles with those.

Now, you probably wouldn’t know that from people’s Instagram or LinkedIn accounts, where everyone seems to be crushing it.  But remember, these are kind of like the real-world versions of George P. Burdell – they’re highlight reels with the toughest parts edited out.

You never know what’s going on in someone else’s life, so err on the side of grace.  And don’t compare their outsides to your insides.  Focus on your own journey.  Be patient with yourself – you’ll get there.  You just may just need to wander a little bit first.

Wandering is how Buckminster Fuller – one of our nation’s greatest innovators – found his way.

He was born in 1898[i].  He failed out of Harvard – twice.  He joined the Navy; he started a family.  He had a successful construction company.  Then his world unraveled.  He lost his three-year-old daughter to a terrible illness; soon after that, he lost his job.  Broke, sad, depressed, he considered two paths: either he would take his own life, or he would fully dedicate himself to serving humanity.

Bucky chose life, but he had no idea where to direct his new sense of purpose.  He spent two years rigorously observing the world around him, driven by the belief that nature’s patterns would teach him how to use technology to improve people’s lives.

His first discovery was inspired by the triangular structures of spider webs and the branches of trees, which led to his realization that the right combination of tension and compression could make light, flexible structures incredibly strong.

He called the principle “tensegrity,” and designed an entire home based on it, whose lightweight parts could fit into a single shipping container.  It was Bucky’s answer to affordable and sustainable housing, and when Fortune Magazine put his prototype on its cover, he received 30,000 unsolicited offers.

Bucky led a wildly prolific life.  He earned 25[ii] patents in everything from cartography to car design, all focused on serving humanity.  To this day, his designs are all around us.

I was in Montreal recently, and we had a town hall at the U.S. pavilion from the 1967 World Expo – a geodesic dome that’s over 20 stories high.  Bucky designed it.  And the mace that Vice Provost Jacobs carried when leading you out onto the field today – its design is based on Bucky’s principle of tensegrity.

So get comfortable with not having answers.  The search for them will lead to your most important discoveries.

Second, know what you do know – the principles that guide you – no matter what changes around you.

Jimmy Carter, of course, spent one of his undergraduate years here at Tech, and he later said that the only way he could “get out” was by getting elected president and then picking up an honorary degree.  He had a beautiful saying for our core beliefs, which came from his high school teacher: “We must adjust to changing times and still hold [to} unchanging principles.”

That’s true for individuals; it’s true for nations.

As President Biden often says, we’re at an inflection point, when we face defining questions about the future we want and how to get there, including when it comes to technology. The unprecedented leaps in AI and biotech and quantum computing and other fields that you’ve studied are already having a profound effect on the lives that we live, how we live, how we learn, how we work.

It can be difficult to keep up, no matter what field you’re working in.  At the State Department, I’ve realized that I need scientists and technologists in the room just to tell me whether I need scientists and technologists in the room.

But as developments in recent years have made clear, technology – like any other field – is not inherently good or bad.

This fundamental truth is baked into Georgia Tech’s mission statement, which commits this institution “to develop leaders who advance technology and improve the human condition.”  In other words, whether technology makes our societies more or less equitable, whether it promotes or represses human rights, whether it brings us together or drives us apart, that will come down in no small part to what you do.

That’s the story of Joy Buolamwini, Tech class of 2012.  From the moment she started building websites in high school, she knew that she wanted to use her programming skills to serve other people.  But Joy spent almost all her time coding, and little time talking to the people who were using what she made.

That changed during her junior year at Tech, when she went to Ethiopia to help the Carter Center build an app to track neglected diseases.  That experience pushed Joy to get out into communities where she could interact with people who were using the technology that she was designing.  And that contact raised questions, questions she hadn’t grappled with before – like how seemingly minor choices in language could make people feel excluded, or how to engage people in designing the tools that were intended to serve them.

Joy found a cardinal direction on her internal compass:  Always – always – see the people behind the code.

Years later, she was designing an app that could superimpose the faces of other people – like one of her heroes, tennis legend Serena Williams – on top of her own.  But the software Joy was using couldn’t detect her face.  It only worked if she covered her skin, which was black, with a white mask.

She tried out other facial recognition programs – same result.

So she peeled back the code and found the problem:  The programs were trained on databases made up mostly of the faces of white men.  The result was an algorithm that literally – literally – couldn’t see Joy or many other black women.

But Joy refused to stay unseen.  She took the brave step of calling out the facial recognition software made by big tech companies and the harms that algorithms could cause.  She published research; she wrote op-eds; she testified before Congress; she created museum exhibits.  She convinced companies to sign onto a pledge limiting their use of facial recognition software, and formed a group of coders to fight for greater equity and accountability in the AI that she continues leads to this day.

So like Joy, each of you will have to find points on your compass.

Let me share one of my own, which has a lot in common with Joy’s:  Never lose sight of the people – the real people – on the other side of your decisions.

A great journalist from many years ago, Edward R. Murrow, once told a group of American diplomats that the most crucial connection in international relations is made in the last three feet, by one person talking to another.

The more layers there are between us and the people whose lives are affected by our actions – whether those layers are screens or miles or ideological bubbles – the easier it is to stop seeing the connections that we can only make in those last three feet, and the easier it is to start seeing people as numbers or statistics – the other – rather than as fellow human beings.

Around the dinner table, when I was growing up, I heard a lot about our country as a beacon of hope.  My grandfather came to the United States after fleeing pogroms in Russia.  My stepmom found refuge here after fleeing the communist regime in Hungary.  And my stepdad was rescued by American GIs after enduring the horrors of the Holocaust.

So to this day, when I meet with refugees – whether they’re Ukrainians uprooted by Russia’s brutal invasion, or Nicaraguans who escaped their country’s repressive regime, or the Syrian and Afghan employees that I met earlier today working here in Atlanta at the Refuge Coffee Shop, I see my own family in their shoes.

These meetings are also a chance to hear directly from the men, the women, the children whose fates are too often decided without their voices – in air-conditioned conference rooms, in policy memos, in spreadsheets.

Now, some people believe that when it comes to shaping our policies, empathy clouds our judgment rather than clarifies it, and that if we want to advance the interests of the American people, we have to worry less about the hardships and injustices faced by people beyond our borders.

I’ve never seen it that way.  In fact, when I look at the programs that continue to make our country a beacon of hope – and strengthen our standing in the world – they almost always are ones where we’ve remembered to see ourselves in others.

Programs like the President’s Emergency Fund for AIDS Relief, PEPFAR, which has saved more than 25 million lives and counting in the 20 years since President George W. Bush created it. Programs like the international exchanges that have fostered ties between generations of students, professors, leaders from the United States and other countries – including President Cabrera – and I’m so delighted that the Fulbright program can take responsibility and credit for you being here, not to mention your marriage.  Programs like our sustained efforts to promote the human rights of women and girls and LGBTQI people around the globe.

It’s up close, in those last three feet – that’s where we remember that the true measure of any policy – or any app, or any start-up, or any organization, anything else that we do – is the tangible difference it makes in the lives of our fellow human beings.

Third and finally, always be open to rethinking the things that you thought you knew.

That includes the path you’re on.  It’s never too late to change course.

That’s what happened to me.  I went to law school after college and then headed to a big firm. The job checked a lot of boxes.  I had brilliant colleagues, intellectually rigorous work.  The salary wasn’t bad, either.  But my heart just wasn’t in it.  So one year, ten months, two weeks, three days, and five hours after I started, I quit.

Some of my best friends while I was in law school were film students, and a few of them had recently started a production company.  So when I left, they asked me if I wanted to join them, and I said yes.

I loved movies, and the idea of being part of building something from the ground up was incredibly exciting.

We produced a handful of films – including one about a brooding student-turned-vampire – no, not Twilight – and we put on a film festival in New York.  But most of the creativity was coming from the writers, the directors, the actors – not me.  Collaborating with them made clear they had gifts that I did not.

And as much as I love movies, I was looking out at a world that was changing quickly, and I was feeling the pull to be a part of it.  Apartheid was coming to an end in South Africa.  The Soviet Union had collapsed.  The people of newly independent nations were finding their own way.  There were peace talks between Israel and the Palestinians, a growing ethnic conflict in the Balkans.

I wanted to get involved; I just didn’t know how.

Then I caught a break.  Someone that I’d worked for years earlier told me about an opening for an assistant job at the State Department.  I applied – and I got it.

Now, it was a pretty junior position.  My first office – well, let me put it this way.  The previous occupant of my first office was a very large safe, so that gives you some idea about what the office was like – basically, a windowless closet.

But from day one, I was hooked.  Diplomacy felt urgent, challenging, directly connected to improving people’s lives.  It was a way to serve my country, which I badly wanted to do.  I felt grateful every morning walking into work.  I still do.

Now, I’m biased, but I think you might feel the same way.  So I hope that some of you will consider putting your skills toward public service – maybe even toward making our foreign policy better – for the good of Americans, for the good of people around the world.  We need your help.

In my case, it took a few tries, but I found my place.

And I learned something important along the way:  I had to be open to starting over.  When things didn’t turn out the way I hoped, I had to change my experience, not my expectations.

Long before he was President, Jimmy Carter was a young dad with three small kids and a promising career in the Navy’s nuclear submarine program.  One day he got a call that his father, Earl, who was sick with cancer, was dying.

Jimmy drove from his base in New York to Plains, Georgia – a town of around 600 people where he’d grown up.

Now, Earl Carter, his dad, cast a big shadow in Plains, and Jimmy had worked hard to get out from under that shadow.  But there was something about reflecting on his dad’s life during that visit that planted a question in Jimmy.  Not only was the family peanut farm one of the town’s biggest employers, but Earl was a church deacon, a leader in the Elks club.  He served on the local school and hospital boards.  When kids in Plains couldn’t afford clothes for graduation, the teachers told Earl and he donated them, anonymously.

If the family business went under, Jimmy knew the town would go with it.

Seeing the community that his dad had worked so hard to build made Jimmy wonder whether it made sense and what it would be like if he tried something similar.

After Earl died, Jimmy struggled with whether he should move his family back to Plains.  And on paper, it made no sense.  The family business was deep in debt, and he knew little about farming or running a business.  He had a bright future ahead in the Navy.  But he went back anyway.

His superiors thought he was crazy.  His wife, Rosalynn, was so mad she refused to talk to him except through their kids.  The first year, the farm earned $280.

But Jimmy found something different in Plains – something that he’d been missing for years that he hadn’t been able to put his finger on: a sense of community.  And as he and Rosalynn turned the business around, he threw himself into local service: getting involved in the Lions Club, the Boy Scouts, the school, hospital, and library boards, in his church.  Then he decided to run for a state senate seat, and the rest, as they say, is history.

Class of 2023, you have a mantra here at Georgia Tech: “We can do that.”

And it rings true for so many of our shared hopes and ambitions – far beyond this campus.

But I would humbly suggest, as Zaria also suggested, that the most important in “We can do that” is not “do” but “we.”

We can do that — whether that “we” is a family, a campus, a city, a country, or the world.

That’s certainly true today.  Think about your experience.  Look around.  No one gets out by doing it alone.  You got out because you did it together.

And I’m confident that as you reflect back on how you made it to this day, behind everything you’ve done and everything you’re proud of, there is a “we.”

It’s the one constant in navigating all the uncertainty that you’ll face – whether that’s getting through the times when you don’t have the answers, or figuring out the principles that will anchor you in life, or keeping yourself open to rethinking the things that you thought you knew – you must always, always be guided by people you love and trust.

And so, esteemed graduates, don’t forget:  The key to navigating all uncertainty is never trying to do it alone.

Find your “we” – and there’s absolutely nothing you cannot do.

Thank you, and congratulations!

(Applause.)

[i] 1895

Official news published at https://www.state.gov/secretary-antony-j-blinken-at-the-georgia-institute-of-technology-commencement-ceremony-for-the-class-of-2023/