Commencement Address, May 23, 2010

Thank you President Adams for your kind introduction. I also want to thank the Board of Trustees, the faculty, and the Class of 2010 for inviting me to join you here today. It is a privilege for me to celebrate with you the achievements and the promise of the men and women of this great college we honor today. Congratulations Class of 2010. 

I have had occasion to attend a number of commencements over the years, including my own son’s just last weekend, and there is always one thing that everyone talks about afterwards and remembers forever: how long the commencement speech was. That’s one memory I prefer that you not have today, so I will try my best to make my speech like the Colby White Mule—fast-moving and short. 

As I thought about what I might say to you today, I thought, of course, about all the challenges which confront us, from the economy to the environment to extremism. But I also thought about all the opportunities which will surround you if you pursue your careers and dreams with open eyes, open hearts, and open minds.  

At a commencement ceremony much like this one, in 1947, Secretary George Marshall, a personal hero of mine, announced the creation of the Marshall Plan to rebuild Europe after World War II. At a time when the United States stood astride the world, rich and unrivaled, Marshall articulated a rationale why Americans, who, he observed, were distant from the troubled areas of the Earth, should care about the well-being of impoverished citizens in faraway countries of whom they knew little. He made a cogent political and economic case for American partnership with the people of other nations. But what gave unassailable moral strength to the Marshall Plan was the fact that it was based on the simple but profound insight that what unites us all as humans is far more powerful and important than what divides us. That even after the wreckage and animosity of a world war, we came together to build a better future. 

This is something I contemplate every day as I sit in the very office where Secretary Marshall once sat in the State Department, and this is something that I have benefited from throughout my career in the private sector and now in government: the power of people to overcome barriers and coalesce around their common humanity. From Waterville to Moscow to Islamabad, people everywhere share the same aspirations for their families and communities.  

Let me give you some examples from my personal experience. I have had the great good fortune to work at some extraordinary organizations, first at MTV, then at Discovery, and now at the Department of State. At MTV we led a cultural revolution of our own, providing the world’s youth with creative new approaches to the music and entertainment they sought. At Discovery Communications our entire business plan was based on a simple observation about human nature: everyone everywhere is at some point curious about the world around them. Wonder and the thirst for knowledge are immutable parts of human nature. At Discovery we built our business by asking people what they wanted to know, listening to their responses and providing them with the information they requested, and providing them with programs that enlightened and inspired, like Walking with Dinosaurs and Planet Earth. We in essence offered a partnership. We provided people something they valued, and they were happy to pay us for it. We were both enriched. 

As you consider how you will make use of your Colby education and dedicate your knowledge, time, and energy in the future, I urge you to focus on the ways to tap into the potential of partnerships based on human commonality and to avoid becoming blinded by the superficial differences between people, the manmade barriers that impede mutually beneficial relationships.  

Let me suggest a moral imperative for the twenty-first century: that we must make the necessity to treat people and nations always first as potential partners and not as potential threats.  

A scientist I met at the National Institutes of Health once told me a story that drove this point home. As you may know, particularly the science majors among you, scientific researchers tend to be an intensely competitive lot. They all want to be the first to reach a breakthrough, the first to publish, the first to discover or create something. Even very smart people can sometimes fail to see the opportunities they’re missing by building barriers around their work.  

In contrast to this tradition of innovation in isolation, the NIH scientist told me she witnessed a remarkable phenomenon several years ago following the outbreak of the SARS pandemic. You may recall that in a very short time it spread to dozens of countries around the world. The death toll was mounting and anxiety circled the earth even faster than the virus. When scientists around the world realized the seriousness of what we were facing, the laboratory walls dividing them began coming down. By telephone, fax, and e-mail they began sharing information across specialties, laboratories, and borders, twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week. The result was that SARS was rapidly pushed back, and many, many lives were saved.  

The life-saving collaboration and innovation that resulted when scientists realized anew that they were more powerful working as partners than rivals stands as an important example of the power for good of focusing on what unites us rather than what divides us. Imagine what we can achieve if we can find other ways in other areas to lower the walls which divide us, to eliminate the barriers of national boundaries, of racial and religious stereotypes, of economic and social disparity. 

Here on this beautiful campus you have pondered the best, and worst, that has been thought and said in the past and looked to the future in the prism of different disciplines. You have gone beyond what you thought were your limits to examine and appreciate the universe and its inhabitants in new ways. You have pursued knowledge with open minds, and you have learned, I trust, that curiosity is forever cultivated and never satiated. If you retain nothing else from your time here, I urge you to persevere in keeping your curiosity forever thirsty and your minds open to new people, experiences, and ideas. And I ask you always to seek what unites people and to reject divisiveness.  

Let me suggest a moral imperative for the twenty-first century: that we must make the necessity to treat people and nations always first as potential partners and not as potential threats.  

This does not stem from starry-eyed idealism. Rather it reflects the hard-edged, utilitarian calculation that, in this age of social networking and borderless economies, of transnational threats and technological promise, when we enter into relationships with those around us and others around the world, we have a much better chance of creating something useful, and maybe even enriching ourselves, through cooperation rather than antagonism.   

This is the insight behind President Obama’s vision for how America should interact with the world. We are building American leadership for the new century by asking people what they want to talk to us about, listening to their responses, and engaging them on subjects in which they’re interested. I have found what works in international business works in international relations as well. Reciprocity—social, political, and even commercial—creates good will.  

It is this power of leveraging human commonality that drives my work now at the State Department as we endeavor to carry out President Obama’s and Secretary Clinton’s vision to renew and expand America’s engagement with the world. We seek to renew American leadership for the twenty-first century on the basis of stable, long-term relationships with people and institutions around the world. In other words, we will pursue our national interests through international partnerships built around common interests. 

This is more than merely a new vocabulary. This is a new way of understanding what global leadership means and requires in a world utterly changed by the spread of connective technologies, the increase in the number of electoral democracies, the rise of new national powers and non-state actors, and in a world where the most serious challenges we face as Americans are ones all humans face together such as climate change and nuclear proliferation. It is an understanding that, when the citizens in one nation exercise their right to vote or raise their voices in protest, their actions affect not only the fate of their country, but the fate of our country and the fate of the world.  

Discovering and capitalizing on shared interests requires more than mere abstract awareness. It requires human relationships to validate them, to bring them to life. At Discovery, I used what was once revolutionary technology—cable television—to find out what people wanted and to deliver it to them in ways that made both of us better off. Today, at the State Department, we’re still harnessing tried-and-true people-to-people exchanges, as well as cutting edge media, to create and sustain global partnerships based on common interests that benefit America. We do this in the knowledge that no communications technology is ever neutral in its application. It can be used to empower or imprison, to inform or mislead, to enlighten minds or invade privacy, to advance good or spread evil. History has taught us that when propaganda becomes the lifeblood of a society it poisons progress.  

So now it’s your turn. Each of you has the intellectual preparation and potential to drive progress forward through the unique ability of your generation to communicate. More than any generation in the history of the world, you are plugged in, turned on, and multitasking.  

Four years ago only birds tweeted. Today none of us knows what new technologies will emerge over the next four or forty years to connect people. But we do know that we will have a choice. We can choose to use technology to broaden and deepen the sense of human connectedness and build constructive partnerships or to exacerbate our differences. Individuals and nations, friends and foes alike, will always disagree on something. Like curiosity, disagreement is inherent in human nature. The measure of success of a person or a civilization is not the avoidance of discord but the ability to successfully and positively manage it. We know that no nation, region, or civilization has a monopoly on solutions, and that connective technologies make innovations that were once the domain of an individual, a small group, or a single nation available to us all. As with Thomas Jefferson’s candle, our light is not diminished when we share it with others, but the sum total of human illumination and welfare is increased. And we also know that no technology will ever supplant the great value all humans place on personal relationships. For millennia, relationships have grown from street to street, neighborhood to neighborhood, and city to city. Technology now allows them to flourish across borders, from nation to nation.  

Women and men of the Class of 2010, the open, inquiring, and disciplined habits of mind you’ve developed here in Waterville, and perhaps during a semester or a year studying abroad, combined with the technologies you have at your fingertips, give each and every one of you an almost unlimited opportunity. You will be amazed at what you can do by leveraging the power that comes from bringing people together around shared interests, transcending the superficial differences of race, creed, and culture to build something of value. This is the opportunity of your generation. You are the hope of all Americans and of all of us who share this fragile planet. 

Thank you for your invitation to be here with you, and congratulations again.

About the Speaker

The current Under Secretary for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs at the U.S. Department of State and former president of Discovery Communications will delivered the commencement address and received an honorary degree at Colby’s 189th Commencement ceremonies on Sunday, May 23.

Judith A. McHale was appointed by President Obama to help lead America’s engagement with the people of the world. Her career has been devoted to building companies and nonprofit organizations that reach out to and connect people globally. McHale’s background is particularly relevant to the student experience at Colby, which has a strong college-wide commitment to internationalism and has 29 countries represented in the graduating class.