Ambassador Pyatt’s 2020 Athens College Commencement Address

July 9, 2020, 7:00 p.m.

Καλησπέρα σας. Thank you, President Jackson, for that warm introduction. It’s a great honor for me to speak at the Athens College commencement, and I’ll have some thoughts to share with the students and families in the audience later, but I want to start this evening by acknowledging President Jackson’s many years of service as an American diplomat and his strong leadership of Athens College over the past three years, as this historic institution found its footing with a new board and positioned itself for this challenging but hopeful new period of Greek history.

President Jackson, you leave behind big shoes to fill, and all of us at the U.S. Embassy in Athens are grateful for your cooperation and friendship.

I’d also like to congratulate incoming President Synolakis and welcome him to the College. As an Athens College alumnus and distinguished academic with strong ties both to Greece and my home in Southern California, you are an ideal leader to further develop Athens College as a premier educational institution in Greece and a strong example of American-style education. In this regard, I look forward to working closely with you to continue deepening the ties that unite our two countries.

Founded in 1925 by Greeks and American philhellenes, Athens College has a long and distinguished relationship with the United States. The College was the first school in Greece to receive a Ford Foundation grant, it received Marshall Plan and USAID funding for many years, and it combines a Greek curriculum with the innovative, hands-on American style of education and extracurricular activities.

One other connection is the longstanding partnership with Fulbright, so I also want to recognize this evening the thirteen American College Fulbright teaching fellows who had to return early to the U.S. due to the pandemic. I know that they wish they were here to celebrate today, and I am certain that they will continue to nurture the relationships with Greece that they started here at Athens College.

Mr. Martinos, Thanassis, board members, faculty, students, family and friends: it is a great honor to celebrate the Athens College graduating Class of 2020.

Graduates, as you reach this important milestone in your lives, I hope that the challenges of the past few months do not take away from the sense of accomplishment that you feel today.

I know this isn’t the graduation ceremony you expected, but remember that all your hard work and growth over the years, all the friendships you’ve cultivated and the lessons you’ve learned—these will stay with you long after today’s ceremony and my remarks are forgotten.

As the U.S. Ambassador to Greece, it’s been my privilege to know and work with many distinguished Athens College alumni. I direct these remarks to you today with the knowledge that I am addressing Greece’s future leaders.

Whatever else happens in the years ahead, your class will be remembered for having made it through your final year at Athens College in the midst of a global health crisis that none of us have seen in our lifetimes. Through the pandemic, Greece defied expectations, demonstrating a combination of smart governance and social cohesion that puts it in the top tier of European response and helped to avoid, so far, the worst of the crisis.

I want to commend Prime Minister Mitsotakis for upholding his alma mater’s values through his successful management of the COVID-19 pandemic. His government’s effective, science-based response, and Greece’s parallel digital transformation, have saved lives and won praise from partners and media around the world.

As somebody who’s lived in Athens for four years now, to see Greece transform from being dismissed by many in Europe as a sort of black sheep—a poor performer—to a model of effective governance is really inspiring.

So, as you step out into the larger world, do so with the knowledge that Greeks are being recognized for their resilience, compassion, and unity in crisis.

You graduate today not just as citizens of Greece or citizens of Europe, but as citizens of a world that is more connected than ever before in human history, with powerful technological tools that have changed the way we communicate and do business.

The global pandemic has taught you this lesson better than any textbook ever could. Tonight, I’m going to make the case for why an understanding of history and the interconnectedness of world events is more important than ever before.

I joined the U.S. Foreign Service in 1989, before any of you were born, in the dying days of the Cold War. I remember sitting in my Foreign Service trainee class when the Berlin Wall came down. We watched as the existential threat that the Soviet Union once posed to the United States suddenly disappeared. The Iron Curtain fell, freedom prevailed, and Europe changed dramatically for the better.

I then spent many years in Asia, watching as hundreds of millions of Indians and Chinese were lifted out of poverty by globalization and technological innovation—a transformation that arguably represents the most rapid period of economic progress in recorded human history.

To take one example that I lived through, from 1990 to 2019, the average life expectancy in India rose from 57 to 69, and the infant mortality rate dropped from 12.5% to 4%. GDP per capita grew from about $300 per year to $2000 per year.

This social and economic transformation is in some ways analogous to the rapid modernization and urbanization that Greece experienced after the Second World War, but it is occurring even faster across Asia, and on a much grander scale, as hundreds of millions of people become connected to the global economy and begin to acquire the human comforts, health, and food security that we in the West take for granted.

As the pandemic has reminded us, however, our international community is now more connected than ever, and the U.S. economy is much more dependent on the prosperity of the rest of the world than it was when I began my diplomatic career.

Almost every challenge we face today, from public health and energy markets, to counterterrorism, refugee issues, and a changing climate—to name just a few—requires concerted international cooperation to address.

As networks of communication and transportation develop, as they have in the years leading up to the pandemic, our world has become so much more connected. And as we defeat COVID-19, this technology-driven shrinking of the world will only accelerate.

n your pockets than the scientists who led the Apollo 11 mission to the moon. You can share videos, files, and data—including your opinions—instantaneously and for free with people around the world.

As services are digitized, and smaller, cheaper computers transfer and analyze larger and larger amounts of data, many industries will be disrupted, and the global economy will be changed beyond recognition.

I grew up in California, home to Silicon Valley, and I consider myself a technology optimist. On balance, I think this new era of technology will be a very exciting time, full of opportunities to address pressing challenges like climate change and health care.

But we’ve also seen how technology can be used to threaten civil liberties, how authoritarian regimes like China’s have created a data-driven surveillance state, silencing scientists and censoring discussion of the pandemic within China.

Similarly, Russia has weaponized technology, launching cyberattacks and disinformation campaigns to disrupt American democracy and undermine our sovereignty and our social cohesion.

Then there are the more subtle reasons to spend less time with our screens: social media can polarize and distract us, decreasing our ability to focus and engage in the face-to-face dialogue that is the foundation of human civilization. Emerging technologies like big data, artificial intelligence, and ubiquitous sensors also raise privacy concerns that our democratic societies will have to work through together. Much of this effort will be the task of your generation, much more than mine. But I am sure you are up to the challenge.

Over the past four years, I’ve watched young people across Greece forge new paths, collaborate with one another, and invent new outlets for their talents and creativity.

The resilience of Greek democracy through a decade of economic stress is mirrored in the stories of Greek entrepreneurs and students like yourselves, who’ve discovered through the years of crisis that overcoming life’s obstacles requires experimentation and sometimes even failure.

But as I’ve discovered in my visits to universities and science parks in Athens, Thessaloniki, Patras, Ioannina, and Heraklion, Greek young people are already playing an important role in the technological revolution of artificial intelligence, transportation, energy, and advanced biomedicine.

I see in Greece the same creative and highly skilled human capital that we have in California, and that’s what makes me optimistic about Greece’s future. And now Greece has a leadership that is determined to break through bureaucratic obstacles, attract back to Greece those who have left the country, and empower government to unleash this human talent.

So, let me leave you with three pieces of advice as you begin this next chapter in your lives:

First, get to know the world. Regardless of the path you choose, international experience will be a huge advantage in the decades ahead. Your openness to new people and new ideas, and your appreciation of languages and cultures different from your own will make you better leaders, creators, and innovators. If you have an opportunity to study or work abroad, grab it now, because it will pay dividends for the future.

When my own kids were in middle school and high school, we moved from Hong Kong to India to Austria, and Washington DC, and as they moved on to university and began their professional lives, I could see how this variety of experiences helped them to appreciate what the rest of the world looks like, how diverse it is, and how privileged we are in the United States with our democracy, our high standard of living, and our entrepreneurial ecosystem.

Of course, your Athens College degree also sets you apart, giving you a global education that combines Greek roots with the best of American educational principles.

Our nations share a common spirit and common values: faith in the power of education and hard work, natural curiosity and a desire to innovate, loyalty to our families and communities, and an unwavering commitment to democracy. Travelling the world will help you to see all of these gifts more clearly.

And that brings me to my next piece of advice: we’re all in this together. With global citizenship comes global responsibilities. Try to build bridges rather than walls. Lean into conversations with people who disagree with you.

Practice the art of listening, and try to put yourself in other people’s shoes, rather than thinking in terms of “us” versus “them.”

Remember, hard work matters, but nobody can make it alone. Don’t forget to thank the people who’ve stood in your corner and helped you to get this far: most importantly, your parents, but also your teachers, coaches, siblings, and friends.

Keep in touch with your parea, and help to lift each other up. Athens College alumni are everywhere: in the United States, and across Europe, Asia, Africa, and beyond. They are leaders in their fields, people who are making a difference around the world.

Your shared educational experiences mean a shared set of values and a common belief in service. This network will be a great asset to you going forward.

And finally, take pride in where you’re from. Greece is the birthplace of democracy, that precious gift to humanity, and your country’s democratic institutions have proven themselves through a decade of economic hardship. As I have learned over and over through these four years, Greece and the Greek people should not be underestimated.

Greece is also a reminder that even in our globalized world, geography still matters. Greece’s strategic position, at the historic crossroads of Europe, Eurasia, and North Africa, is central to America’s Eastern Mediterranean strategy. For Washington,

Greece represents a source of solutions in this strategically dynamic neighborhood, a strong and capable NATO Ally, a guardian of European energy security, and a country that shares American goals and values.

So remember, America stands with you.

We look forward to your bicentennial next year in 2021 as an opportunity to celebrate the shared democratic values that legions of Greeks and Americans have pledged to uphold and defend. The United States has stood with Greece as a friend and an ally through difficult times in the past, and we look forward to strengthening and deepening our relationship as partners in the future.

But we should not take our success for granted. The global pandemic has exposed and exacerbated continued inequalities in all of our societies, shortcomings in our democracies that will require your attention, intellect, and ingenuity. Your generation will by necessity be a generation of innovators, builders, and problem-solvers, and the world will need your leadership as well as your commitment to our shared democratic values.

The good news is you are better equipped than any previous generation to tackle the issues we face today. Not only are you the most technologically savvy generation ever—the digital natives—but you are also the most diverse, curious, and environmentally conscious generation we’ve ever seen. I know you won’t settle for the status quo. Your generation can build something new, and I’m confident that you will.

So happy graduation, Class of 2020. Συγχαρητήρια!