Ambassador Hall’s Remarks at the American International School of Vilnius (AISV) Graduation Ceremony
June 2, 2017
Thank you Director Ruz, teachers, students and families, it is a great pleasure to be here today. My congratulations to the Class of 2017!! You made it! I’m very honored to be able to share this special day in your lives.
It’s been many years since my own high school graduation in Orono, Maine — a state in the northeastern part of the United States, near Canada on the Atlantic Ocean. I couldn’t have imagined then that my path would bring me here, to Lithuania, a place of nature and beauty that reminds me very much of the place I grew up.
I remember almost everything about my graduation in Maine. I remember the closeness I felt to my classmates and my friends. I remember the bittersweet sadness of knowing we were all going our separate ways. I do not remember, however, a single word that the graduation speaker said that day — or, to be perfectly honest, even who it was! — and so I won’t be insulted if you don’t remember either!
That said, I want to share a few thoughts with you, in hopes that some of them may be helpful to you as you go forward. On this day, I imagine that some of you may be confident as you look ahead, with interests already well defined and a sense of your path. Others are probably less certain, not sure what you will study or eventually discover as your gift to the world.
A while ago I came across something Sheryl Sandburg, COO of Facebook, said that echoed the way I look at life. She said “There is no straight path from your seat today to where you are going. Don’t try to draw that line. You will not just get it wrong, you’ll miss big opportunities. And I mean big — like the Internet. Careers are not ladders, those days are long gone, but jungle gyms. Don’t just move up and down, don’t just look up, look backwards, sideways around corners. Your career and your life will have starts and stops and zigs and zags. Don’t stress out about the white space — the path you can’t draw – because therein lies both the surprises and the opportunities.”
Her words resonated for me then and still do because that is the way I have looked at my life. Some of my most important turning points have been unexpected. When I graduated from high school I knew I wanted to do something international. I had been an exchange student to Chile when I was 16 and studied international relations in college and graduate school. And so I decided to apply to the Department of State – our diplomatic service. I didn’t know it then, but I had found my life’s vocation.
In our diplomatic service we change jobs every two to three years. That means almost constant change – and opportunity. Some people try to ensure success by carefully charting their course, but I never did. I always waited to see what opportunities the list of upcoming jobs would present — what job would jump off the page, what place would speak to my heart. I went with my gut, every time.
After studying Chinese and working in China for several years, I learned of an opening in our Nordic-Baltic Office. Now I had loved working in China, but working with allies, well, what a new experience that would be, I thought, figuring I would do it for a couple of years and return to China. And so I joined our Nordic-Baltic team in 2001 — just as we were working to help the Baltic nations join NATO and the European Union. That was my introduction to Europe, and later, when there was an opening to lead our Consulate in Krakow, Poland, I was selected — and fell in love with this part of the world. My path was set. After that, I chose to come to Vilnius as Deputy Chief of Mission, returned to Washington to be Director of Central European Affairs, and then was delighted and honored to be asked to return as Ambassador to Lithuania.
But in the midst of this, yet another unexpected turn of events awaited me. A colleague asked me to join her in leading the part of the State Department that handles our international cooperation on environmental, oceans, science and health issues. I was intrigued. While I had never worked on these issues, I had long had a personal interest in many of them — and so I took the job, though not without some trepidation about what I could bring to the table! Well, within a month I was leading our efforts to form an international coalition to fight the Ebola epidemic and putting the finishing touches on the President’s National Strategy for Combating Wildlife Trafficking. I think you know the success the international community ultimately had in ending the Ebola epidemic. And after two years of extremely hard work with the Chinese, British and other partners, in September, 2016, Presidents Obama and Xi agreed to end the trade in ivory.
The lesson in this is to be open. Don’t fear the white spaces. That’s where the magic happens. Try new things; take a leap of faith from time to time. You have a responsibility to yourself to find something that you really care about and follow it. So many people in the world don’t have the luxury of that choice. It’s a rare privilege. But all of you have it. It may take courage, it may take twists and turns to find that one unique calling that at some point in your life you realize you can’t do without. But that’s how you best serve your family, your community, your world.
And while you do this, I hope you will think about the values Ms. Segedy mentioned earlier. What is important to you? What do you want to contribute to the world around you? What kind of a person do you want to be?
I also hope you will think of serving something larger than yourselves. The diplomatic service has given me extraordinary opportunities to contribute to making the world a more peaceful, inclusive, and prosperous place. There are so many ways to serve — you will find yours if you look for it.
And as you go forward, keep your optimism — no matter what you encounter, believe you can make a positive difference, and you will. Leave no space for cynicism to creep in.
And finally — remember to be grateful. Appreciate the people who love and care for you and make time for them. Be thankful when you are doing something you love — even it means lots of very hard work.
Because that’s the other side of the equation — when you love something and you’re good at it — you’ll also find it will involve dedicated, hard work.
And so as you leave, I ask you to bear a few things in mind:
— Value the white spaces;
— Be passionate about what you choose to do;
— Think about serving something larger than yourself;
— Keep your optimism and remember gratitude.
And finally, capture this moment in your mind’s eye: The day when you and your parents and your family and your friends came together to celebrate a new beginning.
May God speed you on your way today and for the rest of your lives.