Ambassador James Smith's 2010 SNHU Commencement Speech

Saturday, May 15, 2010
SNHU Communications Office

James B. Smith's SNHU 2010 Commencement Speech


Dr. LeBlanc, Distinguished Guests, Ladies and Gentlemen, it is a great pleasure to be back home with you today on this great occasion.  I want to offer a special note of congratulations to the parents and families of our graduates for you have nurtured these wonderful young people.  As the father of four graduates, I can attest to the great satisfaction you feel today.  Tomorrow you will beam with pride that your child is a DG...did graduate.

For you graduates, today marks the end of the first leg of a great adventure, and we honor you for your success in getting through this challenge. 
You are a unique new breed of graduates as most of you have been tested in the crucible of real life, real have worked, you have traveled abroad, and you have involved yourselves in community activities.  You grew up in a technological, peer to peer world that understands what globalization is all about.  Most young graduates sit at graduation asking “what do I do now?”  You’re asking “what do I do next?” 

Yours is a unique generation, much different from my generation, arguably much better prepared for the challenges of tomorrow.  That’s good...because the challenges are no less daunting than they were for me when I sat in your seats nearly four decades ago.

So let’s talk for a few minutes about what’s next.  Graduates, you should take stock of the fact that Southern New Hampshire University takes pride in its role to prepare good global citizens for the 21st century.  So I’m going to ask you to take a few minutes and ask yourself what is going on in the world?  How am I to make a difference?

You leave SNHU and enter a world as the United States wages two wars, now almost a decade old.  You also confront a domestic economy slowly recovering from an economic crisis that rivaled the Great Depression.  These are uncertain times.

On the foreign policy front, I’ll start by offering you one observation:  about two thirds of the world’s population consider themselves sons of Abraham.  It is in that family that most of the world’s strife exists.  This is the strategic problem that your generation faces.  It will not be resolved by putting up walls and wire; it will not be resolved with guns.  There is a limit to what combat power can achieve, and at the risk of alienating purists, I’ll be frank:  the sole contribution of military force is to set conditions where other instruments of statecraft can take hold.  In Afghanistan, the strategy is very simple:  use the military for security, but offer the Afghan people a life other than violence. 

 Using history as a reference, World War II in Europe did not end in May ended with the completion of the Marshall Plan.  Combat power tears things down...your generation must focus on building things up.

And that’s why the theme of global citizenship is so important and so relevant to you.

I have been blessed in my three careers: in the Air Force, in business, and now as a diplomat. I left the farm 40 years ago with the sole ambition to see the world.  While I exceeded all expectations in that modest aspiration, in the process I was given the privilege of serving this great Nation which I love so dearly.  I am the first to admit that I am still learning, but I would like give you a couple of examples from my experience...hopefully this will provide a few lessons for this your last lecture at the University:

Lesson 1:  Learn about the world yourself.
The first example comes from my wife, Janet, as we share in the adventure of representing the United States in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia.  Several months ago, she took a trip north to Qassim, one of the most conservative parts of Saudi Arabia.  She spent the day with ladies clad in black...but in the middle of the town stood a building, a community center with women actively engaged in a variety of business and educational activities. There was even a Women’s Empowerment Program to help young Saudi girls achieve their dreams.   As she is finding, most of our perceptions about the Islamic world have another side to the story. 

We would never have learned this from watching either CNN or have to get out and learn these things yourself.  Saudi Arabia is a unique country with many facets that most Americans do not understand.  It is an opaque culture, conservative in nature, fiercely proud and protective of its culture and religion.  But the people are among the warmest, most hospitable, and most generous of any in the world.  Many deeply admire the United States and respect our educational institutions.  In fact we now have over 27,000 Saudi students in the United States.  It is significant that most of the key leadership in government, industry, academia and medicine were educated here.  They treasure the long standing relationship with America.  I work on a daily basis with the Saudi government on geostrategic issues like stability in Yemen, long term relationships in Iraq, the threat from Iran and terrorism, and the Middle East Peace Process.  They are among our strongest partners.
And the country is modernizing at a rapid rate.  This year 26% of their national budget is dedicated to education; the Kingdom will grow from 8 to 32 universities in under a decade.  Today, 60% of the college students are women; last year 55% of the university graduates were women.  The Kingdom is moving rapidly to a knowledge based economy to become competitive in a global economy; it’s not just about oil anymore.  Probably most significant, every teenager has a blackberry with all the apps in the world...the average Saudi you....uses Facebook, YouTube, and has access to the World Wide Web.  Yes, we face many challenges together...and there is much work to be done.

For those of you who are drawn to this challenge of international relations, I urge you to consider the Foreign Service in your future career plans.  I have found in the Embassy in Riyadh, a group of simply outstanding young Foreign Service officers who travel the world, contribute to peace, and our nation’s security.  They bring new energy to diplomacy.... And the State Department is hiring!

To see if this field calls you, I would ask you to seek out and find that one person you always meant to have a conversation with.  He or she is someone who doesn’t look like you, doesn’t think like you, and perhaps prays to a supreme being differently than you.  For whatever reason, you didn’t know how to start the conversation.  Well, here’s how you do it:  just say, “Excuse me, but I always wanted to have a conversation with you, but I didn’t know how to start it.  Do I still have time?”

Lesson 2:  Involve yourself in something greater than your own self interest.

I was the Wing Commander at Kadena Air Base Japan in the late 1990s, in an era of tense relations with the local communities brought about by some misbehavior on the part of American forces.  We decided in 1998 to host the first Okinawa wide Special Olympics...and we did so with the fairly humble notion of bringing to Okinawa an important part of American culture; in their traditional culture they celebrate perfection, so at the time there was no public celebration for special needs children.

We worked through the planning for the better part of a year, but even though we were getting the polite Japanese “Hai”, we weren’t making much progress in commitments from the logical or prefectural governments.  I had several conversations with local businessmen who encouraged me to persevere, so I made a return trip to see Mayor Nakasone of Okinawa City, who I knew had a special needs son.  He is a man that I admire to this day, but our exchange was frank...rare for people of different cultures.  He told me that there was concern about the Special Olympics because of the fear that people would make fun of their children.  I was taken aback for a second, but then I explained the tradition of Special Olympics in the United States and how it was used to celebrate what people could do, not focus on what they couldn’t do.  He thought for a second, and then he said:  “General Smith-san, I still don’t understand Special Olympics, but I trust you.”  The next day I received a call from the Governor’s office offering full support.  Six months later we opened the first Okinawan Special Olympics...435 participants, Okinawan and American alike, with over 1500 volunteers supporting the event.  I can report that it has continued to grow every year, and now Okinawa sends athletes to the International Games. 

As a footnote, I will tell you that I treasure a photo from that first event...Mayor Nakasone was presenting a medal to one of the contestants.  In the background was her Mother, tears streaming down her face because it was the first time her daughter had ever stood in victory on stage.  The look on her face will be etched in my soul forever. 
These are the experiences that shape a lifetime...not promotions, ceremonies, medals or motorcades...involve yourself in something greater than your own self-interest and you will be rewarded in ways that you could never have imagined.

I tell you these stories because I embrace President Obama’s challenge for a new beginning with the world, especially the Islamic world...a relationship based on mutual interests, mutual trust and mutual respect.  The challenge for your generation will be to seek out opportunities for dialogue, to find ways of tearing down walls instead of building them up.  This is your most important challenge as a global citizen.

Lesson 3:  Life will not turn out the way you planned.  I know some of you are worried about the economy.  Some of you have a master plan for success.  Neither will workout exactly as you fear or as you have planned.

There is one missing element in my biography from that kind introduction:  I have lost my job twice in the last 10 years.  No, I did not always get the assignments I wanted while on active duty in the Air Force, but in every case an opportunity was presented that I did not appreciate at the time.  In the two cases where I became unemployed in the last decade, I found challenges that I did not know even existed.  In the second case, I found my way to New Hampshire, and for someone who has been a wandering nomad for 40 years, I’ve found home.  In addition, I found myself involved in supporting a candidate for President with whom I shared a vision for the national security of this country.  I would never have found either had I not first learned the meaning of leveraged buyout in my job in Kansas.  Every fork in the road provides an opportunity.  Learn to live with disappointment, but remember that the disappointment does not have to endure.  You can never give up.  Never give up.  Never give up.

Finally, I’ll close Lesson 4:  Find out what gives you peace and protect it at all costs.  For some it’s family, for others its faith, still others escape to golf.  For me it’s the friendship of my wife, Janet, and we always seem to find spiritual relief watching a sunset together.  This is important because, going back to Lesson 3, things are not going to work out the way you think they should.  In my dark days I had her hand to hold, and we both knew it would be all right.  Find for yourself what gives you will need it.

I’ll close with a small bit of advice, but I do so with great trepidation, because I remember when I was in your seat and how reluctant I was to pay heed to strangers speaking at events like these.  But it is not my advice, for it comes from my favorite novel, ...Once An Eagle by Anton Myrer.  It tells the fictional story of Sam Damon, who grew up in Nebraska, fought in World War I and was awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor, served during the depressing interwar years, and served as a Division Commander in the Pacific during World War II.  The novel provides the reader a dramatic comparison of the careerist versus the professional soldier, and Sad Sam Damon embodies all the principles of the professional soldier.  At the end of the novel, just before the violent and sad ending, Damon is approached by the son of his former Assistant Division Commander who was killed in battle; the son, now a Lieutenant Colonel,  asks Damon for career advice...what should he do next?
Thinking for a moment, Sam Damon told him:  “given the choice between being a good soldier and a good human being, always be a good human being.”    This advice applies no matter if you are in hotel management, accounting, business, or the liberal arts.  It is your core that will keep you balanced, that will let you take advantage of the opportunities ahead.

You are global citizens to whom the world will look for answers.  I pray for your success.

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