June 22, 2020
Thank you, Dr. Pelonis, for the kind introduction. University of Illinois at Chicago President Dr. Amiridis, Chairman of the Board of Trustees Mr. Sabbagh, distinguished guests, faculty and staff of the American Community School, parents, family, and friends, and most importantly, members of the graduating class of 2020, I’m honored to welcome you to this year’s graduation ceremony, and I wish I could be celebrating with you in person.
I also want to say a special congratulations to our Embassy graduates, Justin, Maia, and Samuel. As the parent of two young adults who moved from India to Austria to Washington DC during their high school years, I have a good sense of what you have given up because of your parents’ careers, but I also know how important your support has been to the work they do to advance America’s interests abroad, so thank you!
Graduates, as you reach this important milestone in your lives, I hope that the challenges of the past few weeks and months do not take away from the sense of accomplishment you feel today. I know this isn’t the graduation ceremony you expected: empty stands, social distancing, and me talking to you from a giant screen.
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. You’ve made it through high school in the midst of a global health crisis that none of us have seen in our lifetimes.
At the end of your senior year, as you were looking forward to graduation parties and ceremonies with pomp and circumstance, you instead were forced to stay home, thrown into online learning platforms, and confronted by incalculable loss around the world.
Still, you respected social distancing measures, you made masks and personal protective equipment for our health workers, delivered groceries and supplies to the elderly and those at risk. So you should be very proud of your resilience, your compassion, and all that you’ve achieved.
The pandemic has forced your generation to learn difficult life lessons earlier than those before you. And many of you continue to face uncertainty as you wait to see whether and how you will begin university this fall.
But especially here in Athens, we are reminded that throughout the arc of human history, great challenges have inspired unprecedented collective action.
The generation of Athenians confronted by invading Persians became the generation that built the Parthenon during this city’s Golden Age.
The generation of Americans that experienced the infamy of Pearl Harbor became the generation that defeated fascism and helped to rebuild Europe. We’ll get through this, too, but only if we work together.
The uncertainty of the current moment is scary, but it’s also an opportunity.
The global pandemic has exposed and exacerbated deep inequality in our societies, problems 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 more than ever.
You are better equipped than any previous generation to tackle the issues we’re facing today. You’re the most technologically savvy generation ever, and you have more computing power in your pockets than at any point in all of human history. You are also the most diverse, open-minded, 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 you will.
So let me leave you with three pieces of advice as you begin this next chapter of your lives: First, 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.
And in that spirit, I’d like to recognize the late Dr. Gialamas, a mentor and inspiration to so many at the Athens Community School, whose love and vision as president will forever leave their mark on this institution. Stefanos approached education with passion and a commitment to serve others, and I know he is deeply missed.
And this brings me to my second point: the value and responsibility of global citizenship. As our world becomes ever more interconnected, ACS has given you valuable tools and experiences that will serve you throughout your lives, regardless of the path you choose.
Your international experience, your openness to new people and new ideas, and your appreciation of languages and cultures different from your own will help you to become better leaders, creators, and innovators.
So I urge you to hold on to your special status as students of Athens, the city that Pericles praised for affording equal justice to all under the law, for opening itself to the world and welcoming foreigners who sought education and opportunity, and for the heroism of its citizens, equal to so many emergencies, who understood and defended the precious gift of freedom.
Finally, as architects of our future, I urge you to have faith in our democracies. They are much more resilient than you might think. Greek democracy and democratic institutions survived a decade-long financial crisis, emerging stronger than ever. And in just a few weeks, America will celebrate 244 years of independence, having weathered Civil War, economic crisis, Pearl Harbor, Watergate, and 9/11 with our democratic values clarified and our society continuing to bend towards justice.
Like all of you, I’m sure, I was appalled by the footage of George Floyd’s death while in police custody recently. I’m following the historic process that’s underway in the United States every evening. The peaceful protests that are taking
place in every state of the U.S. are not just about George Floyd, but about how to achieve systemic reform, a struggle that goes back many, many years in American history.
The United States has made good progress on these issues, but we still have enormous injustice to overcome. The protests that we’re seeing now and the statements from governors and mayors, police chiefs and civil leaders show that American democracy is alive and well.
Americans from across the political spectrum are exercising their right to peacefully assemble and express their strong desire for a more equal and more just Union. We’ll continue the hard work of perfecting our democracy while maintaining our commitments and responsibilities as a global power.
But government by and for the people requires constant investment and active participation from the people. So don’t despair in our democratic process. Instead, lean into it. Listen, and engage in fact-based debates with those who disagree with you. Whatever your nationality—Greek, American, or something else—exercise your right to vote. Organize, serve your community, and if you feel so moved, run for office. The future is in your hands.
So happy graduation, Class of 2020. Συγχαρητήρια!