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School of International Service 2019 Spring Commencement Ceremony

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Dean's Address


SIS Dean Christine Chin delivered an address to Spring 2019 graduates on May 12 in Bender Arena.

Undergraduate Speaker Address


SIS Undergraduate Student Speaker Lynrene Vyette Tiya delivered an address for graduates.

Esteemed guests, faculty, trustees, family, friends and graduates, it is an honor to be before you at the American University School of International Service Commencement Ceremony.

First, a number of thank-yous are in order. To my family or should I say my tribe, thank you endlessly. I wish a special Happy Mother’s Day to my Mom, to Grandma who I know is watching over us, and a Happy Mother’s Day to all of those here who have served motherhood roles.

I am here by way of Kenya. I come from grandparents who worked the soil abundant in mangos, cassava and maize. Grandparents that believed that how you treated the soil is how the soil would treat you and the generations to come. I am here by way of my parents who left Nairobi. Parents who sacrificed comfort and security for their shot at the American Dream. My parents worked towards an abundance that was not promised to them, but they chased it anyway, working towards a different kind of future.

Class of 2019, here we are.

Where does it begin? Well, we all remember taking World Politics our freshman year, right? On the front page of my first exam, was a blank map of the world. The exam asked us to label 20 random countries out of 195. Now, I don’t know about you, but it was in that moment that I realized that SIS was not here to play. Then, on the first day of my Gender and Conflict class with Professor Sajjad, she said that by the end of the semester, you’ll see the implications of gender bias and intersectionality in everything. Well, I haven’t been able to watch a movie casually since, so thanks! SIS has certainly pushed us to look closer at the details, to consider a multitude of perspectives and possibilities, keeping in mind that the international is always personal.

In our own stories and coming-to-be’s, we would not be here if not for the many that have paid it forward to us. At American, I owe much to the professors that shaped my academic experience. Professors Wigfall-Williams, Shinko, Sybil, Dibinga, Peterson, just to name a few. Fearless and inventive professors, leading their respective fields. My time has been shaped by your mentorship, empathy and thorough, thorough grading.

But in this time of celebration, let’s take a moment to reflect, as graduates of the International School of Service, what compels us to serve?

I was drawn to AU and SIS because I was confident that this school that would set me up for anything. A springboard to the Peace Corps maybe, finally mastering French or landing my dream job in DC. But it wasn’t always easy keeping that perspective. There I was, sitting in class, diving deep into theory, research methodologies, cognitive dissonance, and the like. Meanwhile life is spiraling outside and there are a million and one news updates about the realities of this very difficult world that we live in. See, in the thick of things, I couldn’t help but feel frustrated and disconnected. What was I supposed to do with all these conceptual tools that I gained?

Stuck in this rut, I was reminded of this idea of putting the work in. See, for my grandparents and my parents, the fruits of their labor were not in the things that they accumulated, but in the very essence of continuity that they cultivated.

In order to bridge that disconnect that I was in, I had to step back and let go of some of the expectations and check-boxes that I had. And instead, focus on translating concepts into reality, from the classroom into the field, the international relations field that lies before us. 

It’s on the walls of SIS, “service is a mindset, not a moment.” Service is venturing into the uncomfortable and the unfamiliar, sometimes giving up our sense of security or entitlement. It is patient, active, receptive listening. It’s anticipating that our very assumptions and certainties may be wrong. The wins may not be big or instantly gratifying, but with courage and inspiration, we start somewhere. This is what prepares us for the next thing.

The work may take us to the other side of the world, but let’s not forget that the work is also right here. In the offices of our internships, the Master’s degrees we may pursue and the volunteer efforts we may choose to champion. Ask the questions that everyone else in the room may be too scared to, dig deep into what biases and judgments we bring into those spaces, look around and see who isn’t at the table that should be. This is how we shake the dust.

Before me are future human rights lawyers, researchers, diplomats, entrepreneurs, translators and public servants. A cohort that is willing to cross borders and break bread over differences. But the impact of this achievement, this degree that we now hold in our hands, is only as powerful as our willingness to pay it forward. To not settle for how the world is today, but to work the soil and use the tools bestowed upon us to reap what a future may look like when we all, collectively do better.

To the class of 2019, my fellow graduates, we must not take this feat, this privilege, this opportunity lightly for there is too much at stake. This moment is now our momentum. In Swahili, we say twende. My fellow graduates, onwards.

Graduate Speaker Address


SIS Graduate Student Speaker Ricardo Sanchez delivered an address for graduates.

Welcome distinguished guests, faculty, family, and friends. Thank you all for gathering today to recognize the achievements of SIS’s Class of 2019.

I was born in Colombia in the 1980s. The drug wars were wracking the country, violence and uncertainty were a way of life. Every morning before she went to work, my mother made food for me and my sister, and then she locked us in a room. She left and locked the door.

Safety was essential for my mother, and in that room at least, we were safe. My mother was herself a victim of sexual violence, and as a child I had seen her physically abused.

She knew, that even though the door protected us from outside threats, it did little to alleviate the psychological and economic hardships we endured. She protected us as best she could, but she understood that the locked door, wasn’t enough.

She wanted more for us. She wanted to give us a decent life. So when I was five years old, my mother sent us away to the United States to live with a father we had never met.

I moved to Elizabeth, New Jersey, an underserved, immigrant community where a nice car -- a suped up Honda Civic -- was what we dreamed of. My father worked 18-hour days and we went to school.

Like the rest of the town of Elizabeth, my schools were not places of grand ambition. They were rough. There were gangs, and there were drugs. In my eyes I was an average student.

My grades were ok, but I wasn’t invested. In high school, a group of teachers, who for reasons that are still unclear, saw a potential in me -- potential that I didn’t even recognize.

They put me in the honors program. There, my peers were quiet, they listened, they worked hard, and they asked questions -- and nobody launched chairs across the room in the middle of class. 

I made new friends and cleaned up my act. My peers were ambitious and I wanted to graduate at the top of my class. I also knew that I wanted to serve my adoptive country, its people, and the rights and privileges it grants those fortunate enough to live here.

My sister had joined the army after high school. Always a competitive sibling, I wanted to outdo her. So I joined the Marines Corps. (Stop and look at General Jones and say Hoorah).

I was a weapons technician. I fixed weapons and at times removed unexploded ordnance so Marines could come back home alive to their families. 

One time, a round got lodged inside the barrel of a gun. In case you were wondering, the key to success here is to veerryyy delicately punch out the round -- ideally without having it explode. 

Eventually I was promoted into a leadership position. I learned that my Marines, just like my father, were working 18-hour days and barely saw their families.

By listening to them tell their stories -- about their families, about their lives off base, about what was really important to them -- I realized that this life of long hours at a dangerous and underappreciated job was not good enough. 

I asked higher command for an additional Marine. I reorganized their schedules into eight-hour shifts.

And I came in on weekends following training exercises so they would not have to. Providing them physical security, safe weapons, wasn’t enough. 

When I left the military and enrolled at SIS, I learned that empathy was critical when engaging not only with our allies, but also with our adversaries. SIS taught me how to see people as more than the products of their conditions.

If we focus only on law and order or physical security, we will not be helping provide people with a decent life. If we, as practitioners of international affairs, are going to serve, we need to understand more than the physical threats that people face.

Yes, we must understand the history of a country, their ways of life, and their political and economic situations. But we also need to understand their aspirations and what living a decent life means to the people with, and for whom, we serve.

SIS gave me a new lens for understanding not only my own life, but also what’s essential to a career in foreign policy.

As I reflect on my life, and the experiences that have led me to this point, I understand why the locked door and physical security, wasn’t enough for my mother.

I understand why graduating high school as an average student, wasn’t enough for my teachers. I understand why earning a paycheck, but being unable to enjoy it with their families, wasn’t enough for my Marines.

And I understand that the degree we earn today, and our good intentions, will not be enough for graduates of SIS.

We need empathy, to address the root causes of our complex, global problems.

We are leaders and changemakers who will go forth knowing that physical security alone, will not provide people with a decent life.

A decent life… means that people don’t have to hide behind locked doors.

A decent life… means that families are never forcibly separated.

A decent life… means people are not compelled, to leave their homes in search of safety and opportunity.

Congratulations class of 2019.

Mis logros se los dedico a mi familia y a todas las familias que han sacrificado tanto para que sus hijos logren a tener una vida decente y segura. Sus sacrificios no son en vano.

I dedicate my accomplishments to my family and all the families that have sacrificed so much so that their children can have a decent and secure life. Your sacrifices are not in vain.

Keynote Address


General James L. Jones delivered the keynote address for Spring 2019 graduates on May 12 in Bender Arena.

Thank you, President Burwell, for your kind introduction. Your positive influence on this university and this body is apparent, and the future of AU is bright under your capable leadership.

Good afternoon to you all, and thank you for inviting me to participate in this joyous occasion.

Let me begin by congratulating the class of 2019 on your incredible achievement. Today is yours: it is hard-earned and well deserved. Your dedication to your undergraduate, Masters, and PhD programs has culminated in more than a piece of paper: it has equipped you to carry the mantle of leadership in the coming days, months, and years as you leave this place.

Let me also congratulate your families, friends, and loved ones in the audience today. Their support of your education is most commendable, and they deserve our recognition and our gratitude.

This is a time of celebration. It is a time to cherish the moments and memories made here, and a time to prepare for the next step. It is a time to reflect, and a time to look ahead.

In this seemingly precarious moment, in can be difficult to determine where to direct our energy and our focus.

Our lives are filled with these moments: where uncertainty hovers, indecision paralyzes, and fear reigns supreme.

We experience this not only on an individual level, but also on a national and even a global level.

It is crucial to know that while these moments can be frightening, they are the times in which we grow, not the times in which we fail.

This place, the School of International Service, has instilled in you the values you will need most in those moments: the ones which anchor you, and the ones which propel you forward.

The philosophy is this: our commitment to service is our bedrock, and our adaptability is our catalyst.

I have learned and re-learned this at every turn in my life, and those who have spoken here before me know it well themselves.

When President Dwight D. Eisenhower spoke at the groundbreaking of this institution in 1957, I was living in Paris, France. My family moved there in 1946, just a year after then-General Eisenhower left Europe at the end of World War II. Only a few years later, in 1950, Eisenhower became the first Supreme Allied Commander of NATO. Later in life, I became the 14th.

While my family and I lived abroad, I looked upon our country as an expat, gazing in from the outside. I couldn’t have known then how important it would be to have such an experience: to literally step outside one’s own world and view it from another angle. This only strengthened my love of country and my patriotism, because I could accept new ideas and paradigms. Diversity of every kind- diversity of thought, race, gender identity, orientation, socioeconomic status, religion, and experience- makes us more adaptable.

You have that right here on campus: this body of students represents 48 states, 130 countries, and nearly 3,000 unique stories. You’re about to enter an even broader world. Remember as you encounter new people and new thoughts that it is more important to be adaptable than it is to be right. Our differences are our asset, not our downfall. Don’t be afraid to question what others tell you; at the same time, don’t be afraid to learn something new. And don’t be afraid to love your country: otherwise, you can never truly serve it or improve it.

When President John F. Kennedy gave his Strategy of Peace speech to SIS students in 1963, I was down the street at Georgetown finishing my freshman year. At that time, the Cold War was at the forefront of everyone’s minds. No one knew if two superpowers- with weapons whose destruction capabilities of which we could hardly conceive- would obliterate one another at any moment, in a matter of moments. Our leaders needed new strategies, new methods. And the Commander in Chief laid his out here.  

Even at that time, with a clear and present enemy, President Kennedy encouraged SIS students to view the Soviets with empathy: to resist reducing a nation to its most extreme ideologues. Part and parcel of Kennedy’s strategy for peace was an ability to look beyond the obstacles, to cut through the noise, and to remind those here that it is their sense of humanity that makes them capable and makes peace possible.

Both Eisenhower and Kennedy recognized the uniqueness of this place and the people who study, teach, and learn here. Both contended with the Soviet threat and the uncertainty of a bipolar world. Both believed in the ability of SIS students to, as President Eisenhower put it, “wage peace”: to solve the problems at hand, the problems they struggled to solve themselves, and the problems they had yet to face.

I have that same faith in the SIS students before me today.

This school has an impressive history of adapting its programs and curriculum to the needs of the times:

In the 1960s, the International Communication Master’s Program was created to foster dialogue at a time when Cold War tensions strained international relations.

In the 1990s, SIS updated its curriculum to keep pace with the changes in Eastern Europe after the fall of the Berlin Wall.

And in this past decade, the SIS building became the first on campus to earn LEED gold certification, while AU became the first carbon neutral university in the United States. This is unbelievable.

At the heart of this success and progress is this school’s vigilant dedication to service. Service is in the fabric of this institution and each of its students.

I spent 40 years in the military and two years in the government. I was Commandant of the Marines Corps, Supreme Allied Commander of NATO, and National Security Advisor. It has been my life’s work to make Americans safe. In my own lifetime, I have watched the world transform and with it, the threat landscape. Today, we must contend with:

  • The race to 5G
  • Growing cybersecurity concerns
  • Advancements in biological and chemical warfare
  • Iran as it continues to be the number 1 exporter of terrorism
  • North Korea as it taunts the global community with nuclear testing
  • Food and water insecurity
  • Climate change

These challenges require innovative ideas, constant commitment, and sustainable solutions.

I constantly ask myself the same questions you may be asking yourselves today: how do we predict what happens next? If we can’t predict, how do we adapt? If we can’t adapt, how do we survive?

How much has what we’ve learned prepared us for what is to come?

The answer, in my own opinion, is this: the world will change. It will change rapidly and constantly. It doesn’t not render what you have learned and confronted and conquered futile. Most importantly, it does not alter our most sacred value: our commitment to a cause greater than ourselves.

When we serve each other, when we serve our environment, we see the results: we find ourselves creating the world we want. If we don’t, we risk receding from the world; we risk living in silos.

Something I admire about this generation is your keenness on purpose. More than any other generation, this one values purpose in a career. This is admirable. This is laudable. This can also, at times, be overwhelming and anxiety-inducing.

Let your purpose be your service to each other. What we face next we must face together, and we must do it for one another. Being adaptable makes us able; being service-oriented makes us good.

Some of you- when you leave today- will join the Peace Corps (which, incidentally, Kennedy noted in his 1963 speech) and travel to new places. Some of you will join Teach for America and educate students here at home. Some of you will work in service of the government. Some of you will pursue another degree. Some of you will join non-profit organizations; some of you are headed to the private sector. Some of you, like me, will join the military. Some of you do not know what your next step will be. Many of you know what your next step will be, but it isn’t your final destination.

Wherever you go next, go there with empathy. Go there with good intentions. Go there and become an active part of the community, whether you travel the world or remain right here in D.C. And do not forget, you have done this already.

You are not the person you were when you came to AU. You have learned from each other. You have influenced each other’s ideas and attitudes. You have questioned, collaborated, and created. You have joined a community, you’ve made it your home, and you’ve made it better because you were there. Today is your chance to remember that, to honor it, and to solemnly vow to yourselves that you’ll do it again every day from this day forward.

If I may leave you with one thought today, let it be this:

Uncertainty is not the enemy: apathy is.

While it is difficult to say goodbye to the places we’ve been fortunate enough to call home, it is important to know that this place will be with you wherever you go: it’s a part of you.

And we need you now.

Thank you and congratulations once again to the class of 2019.

Commencement Speaker

General James L. Jones

Former National Security Advisor to the President of the United States

Receiving an honorary Doctor of International Affairs

James L. Jones is the president of Jones Group International and a retired Marine Corps general who has spent his life serving and protecting his nation and its ideals. In his role as commander of the US European Command and supreme allied commander Europe, Jones led all military operations for the North Atlantic Treaty Organization. During this assignment, Jones advocated for energy security and the defense of critical infrastructures as core components of NATO’s future missions.

Commissioned as a Marine Corps officer in 1967, Jones served as a rifle platoon and company commander during the Vietnam War. His military career continued after his return to the US, where he served as the Marine Corps liaison officer to the US Senate. As national security advisor during the Obama administration, Jones brought clear vision and steady leadership to the US mission in Iraq, the war in Afghanistan, and the nation’s interests around the world.

After his 2007 retirement, Jones became the president and chief executive officer of the US Chamber of Commerce’s Institute for 21st Century Energy, working to increase the variety of the US energy supply and associated infrastructures, to advance international cooperation on energy issues, to protect national energy security, and to promote better understanding of changes to the global climate and its effects on the environment. He is a graduate of the School of Foreign Service at Georgetown University.

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