Commencement Address by Administrator Samantha Power at Johns Hopkins University

Speeches Shim

Monday, May 23, 2022

Johns Hopkins Universitywide Commencement Ceremony

May 23, 2022
Homewood Field

Johns Hopkins University
Baltimore, Maryland

ADMINISTRATOR POWER: Hello everybody. Thank you, Nathan, for that really brilliant speech. Thank you also for that introduction, and especially for all those kind things you said about me to the News-Letter. Nathan said, and I’m quoting here, “Power’s wisdom will be invaluable to the graduating class,” and that my speech, the one you’re about to hear right now, “will empower the graduates to make equitable and positive change.”

Nathan, maybe lower the bar a little bit! We aren’t all student Class Presidents who got our masters degrees in four years while simultaneously mentoring middle schoolers. Well done Nathan.

I would like to start by congratulating the honorary degree recipients. Huge thanks to President Daniels, to Chief Marshal Sunil Kumar, to Lou Forster, Chair of the Board of Trustees, and to Anika Penn, President of the Alumni Association for inviting me here and bestowing upon me this singular honor: delivering the commencement speech to the Johns Hopkins Class of 2022!

Blue Jays, be honest: How good does this moment feel?

Three months ago, you weren’t sure if you’d be stuck going back to virtual classes. But three weeks ago, you were partying with Meek Mill and housing Chicken-on-Stick—not Chicken-on-a-Stick, but Chicken-on-Stick—at Spring Fair.

And now, here you sit. No more zoom lectures half-listened to with your camera off while you streamed the Tinder Swindler. Oh, no. No more papers, no more lab reports, no more final exams.

Today, after four long years—two-and-a-half of which were especially trying—and one extra night—just because nothing for your class can ever go according to plan—you, the Class of ‘22, bonded by hardship, and now, triumph, are here, together, in person.

The applause you have heard, those people in the audience all around us—those are the people you love most in your lives and the people who love you back. They are here, to bask in the glow of your collective achievement and shower you with warmth—let us give them the riotous applause they deserve.

Personally, I feel amazing. To share this special moment with all of you. To be in Baltimore, a city that I love—I love the Chesapeake blue crabs, the chance to call everyone “Hon,” and of course because the Orioles never pose a threat to the Red Sox in the AL East.

But what makes this event so special for me and anyone who gets to crash someone else’s commencement is that I once sat exactly where you find yourself now: eager, fulfilled, thrilled to close one chapter, and frankly, a little terrified to write a new one.

The end of college often feels like it comes too soon. And that must feel especially true for many of you. After so much of your college experience was taken away, you find yourselves leaving when you’ve really just returned to gathering in person.

But look at the bright side: You never, ever have to enter Brody again!

Now, if you’re feeling trepidation about the road ahead, alongside your excitement, let me draw your attention to a powerful myth in American culture—the idea that life progresses along some grand, ordained narrative arc. That anyone who’s ever been successful at anything knew exactly what they wanted to do, started early, put in their 10,000 hours, and couldn’t wait to take on and change the world.

But for the vast majority of us who are not professional athletes—and for me it was a sad day when I realized that despite playing every sport known to man, I would have a career in exactly none of them—life zigs and life zags.

Life is a series of impetuous improvisations. The unpredictable, luminous joys; the sudden bolts of inspiration; even the unforeseen, unmooring woes—these are the moments that change us, and, in their way, steer us.

What we do with our lives is not a composed symphony; it’s free jazz. It’s not repertory theater; it’s improv. It’s not Throat Culture; it’s Buttered Niblets—I was promised you’d get that reference.

Though we may all crave certainty, our journeys are inherently uncertain. Isn’t that what we all learned if we didn’t know it before from the pandemic—that the things we thought were second nature, were actually second to nature’s whims?

Certainty, it turns out, is an illusion. And the quest for it, itself a diversion.

I suspect many of you knew this already, though. After all, 70 percent of you started at Hopkins as pre-med! You were certain you’d become doctors.

And—though I’m sure it’s causing some of the parents here a little heartache—the percentage of you actually going off to medical school has plummeted amid everything else you encountered here on campus.

And if my experience was any guide, that’s OK. Because over the course of your life, the best way to grapple with uncertainty is to focus on a calling, not a career. A calling.

When I entered college, I knew what I wanted to be when I grew up. Since it turned out I couldn’t play professional sports, I was determined to be a sportscaster. I followed the blueprint, becoming a play-by-play announcer for the men’s and women’s college basketball team, writing bad sports columns for my school paper—I mean, cringe-bad—and the summer after my freshman year, interning at the CBS sports affiliate back home in Atlanta, Georgia, certain that I knew what I wanted to do with the rest of my life.

But it was during that internship that one day, while monitoring an Atlanta Braves game, I saw raw footage coming in from Beijing that stopped me in my tracks and changed the trajectory of my life. Young students, my own age, were protesting the Chinese government in Tiananmen Square. They were risking their lives for their freedom. Yet as I watched, in admiration, that admiration quickly gave rise to horror, as soldiers opened fire and the Chinese military moved into the square. Subsequent footage would emerge of one man standing stubbornly in front of a column of tanks, daring them to run him over, refusing to bend to their will.

It’s hard to describe what the students’ bravery meant to me and so many at the time, but I see echoes of it today on Twitter and Tik Tok, as we watch defiant Ukrainians stand up to Putin’s belligerence. Video’s of President Zelensky stubbornly touring Kiev when besieged, Ukrainian soldiers using tractors to tow away discarded Russian tanks—even families filming funny videos while they wait out air raid sirens in bunkers—all of these recall the resolve of people determined to be free. The kind of resolve that asserted itself in Beijing back in 1989.

After glimpsing that uncut, brutal footage from Tiananmen Square, the plan I had to be a sportscaster suddenly felt inadequate to the challenges facing the world. I no longer had a career I knew I wanted to pursue, but I couldn’t simply pivot and proclaim a new calling, since thousands of hours memorizing RBI statistics and free throw shooting percentages wouldn't exactly serve the cause of becoming a diplomat or human rights lawyer. But nonetheless, for the first time, I had something I hadn’t actually known I was missing—not a career path, but a real-world calling: I wanted to stand, if not literally in front of tanks, on the side of those fighting for their dignity and freedom.

Over the course of my life, across many different careers I’ve been privileged to hold—war correspondent, professor, advisor to then-Senator Barack Obama, aide at the National Security Council, Ambassador to the United Nations, and now, the head of USAID, this amazing and the largest development and humanitarian Agency in the world, USAID—that calling has remained my compass amidst an uncertain journey.

But honestly, as terrifying as uncertainty might feel, it is through embracing uncertainty that one discovers life’s most rewarding gifts. The flush of a new love, the spur of the momentary getaway, the leap of faith to grasp a new opportunity, even the unexpected loss that shows you just how fleeting it is to be mortal—but also just how precious.

Earlier this year, I and the world lost Dr. Paul Farmer. Paul was a clinician and an anthropologist, but his impact was so much larger than those titles would imply.

Paul spent part of his childhood growing up with his five siblings on an old bus, and then on a boat, and that sense of rootlessness never left him. After graduating from—well, I won’t name the school but let’s just say they have an inferior lacrosse team—Paul moved to Haiti, volunteering for a hospital in a rural settlement. The hospital was so strapped for cash, it charged patients for the basic supplies needed to treat them. This meant that they needed to pay for everything from a blood transfusion to a surgeon’s gloves, in advance.

Paul wrote to a friend about his experience. “It’s not that I’m unhappy working here,” he said. “The biggest problem is that the hospital is not for the poor.”

Paul devoted his life to building healthcare for the poor with one conviction in mind: treating patients as if they were members of his own family—with each case deserving the same attention and care as a mother would marshal to save her own child’s life. But also, to be an “antidote to despair.”

After finishing medical school, he traveled back to Haiti, and founded an organization called Partners in Health which began building a hospital and clinics that focused on providing care at the community level—in some cases going door-to-door.

Paul gave everything to build the organization, literally. Though he taught at Harvard and practiced medicine in Boston, he never saw his paychecks. An accountant would pay his bills and channel the rest of his income to the organization. His Robin Hood streak didn’t end with his own money—the first microscope ever to reach his stretch of rural Haiti was pilfered from Harvard Medical School.

Today, though Haiti remains the poorest country in our Hemisphere, thanks to Paul and Partners in Health, it is now home to the world’s largest solar-powered hospital, it provides services and training to a new generation of Haitian healthcare professionals. What’s more, over 12,000 Haitians receive life-saving HIV/AIDS drugs at Partners In Health clinics throughout the country. A longstanding USAID partner, the organization has gone on to do similar work in countries throughout the world like Rwanda and Peru, and even the Navajo Nation here in the United States.

Paul was a truth-teller, challenging me whenever I heard from him to change American foreign policy in a whole range of ways. Yet despite this truth-telling, interestingly, he was reluctant to dispense career advice to the legions of young people who asked him what fields of study they should pursue.

But, in a visit to Hopkins back in 2005, Paul actually shared a powerful piece of wisdom.

He said, “If you want to change the world… the biggest contribution you can make is long-term engagement. That is measured in decades, not years.”

And he continued. “How can you do something for decades if you don’t love it?”

To Paul, telling young people to pursue a certain career—clinician, anthropologist, policymaker, computer scientist, engineer, diplomat, writer, artist, whatever—was terrible advice. Students had to discover what they loved, what kept them engaged over time—they had to discover a calling that would continue to inspire them over a long and sustained journey.

And here’s the genius in Paul’s advice to seek or heed a calling, rather than to define one’s goal around the pursuit of a particular career: it gives you limitless ways to “succeed.”

If your ambition is to become a doctor, you either succeed, or you fail. But if your ambition is to heal people, you can successfully do it in infinite ways—as a social worker at a non-profit right here in Baltimore, as an epidemiologist studying communicable diseases or as a Peabody-trained musician—last year, a cardiology study showed 30 minutes a day of listening to music lowered the pain and anxiety levels of heart-attack survivors. That’s healing.

If your ambition is to be a diplomat, sure you can brush up on a foreign language and hope you make it past the oral portion of the Foreign Service exam. But if your calling is to bridge cultures and foster peace, you can do it as a conflict mediator, as a criminal justice lawyer or a social justice activist or even a chef—just ask the incomparable José Andrés, whose World Central Kitchen has already served 25 million meals to Ukrainians in need.

And for those who don’t yet have a calling, you may be asking how? How does one discover a calling?

How do you decide the cause to which you should devote your life when it was hard enough to decide what to wear this morning?

How can you conceivably make a difference on a planet beset by problems caused long before your generation was asked to solve them??

But I’m here to offer a dose of reassurance this morning. Your calling need not be clear at this moment. And it also need not be epic.

Your calling can be that thing you fight for.

It can be that inequity you can’t live with, that emotion that overwhelms you, that circumstance that forces you to act. Or, it can be the change you make on a much more intimate scale—the fight to provide for a better life for your family or community, the difference you make by acknowledging the dignity and humanity of the people around you, the ability you have—right now, not in some abstract future—to be, as Paul Farmer put it, an antidote to someone’s despair.

Time and again, Johns Hopkins graduates, your class has fought for its beliefs. You have organized and marched during protests against racial and economic injustice. You have pushed for the creation of a new course of study that recognizes and reflects the diversity of the student body. And you have spent your spare time volunteering to provide support to Baltimoreans in need, you’ve developed alternatives to fossil fuels, and even created an edible tape we can all use to keep our burritos from falling apart—a cause worth fighting for if I have ever heard one.

This is a class that has met the demands of some of the most rigorous courses of study in existence on this earth, and have managed to step up for others.

And by fighting on behalf of the dignity of others, you can find a humbling and profound calling of your own.

Of that single fact, Blue Jays, I am absolutely certain.

Class of 2022, congratulations and thank you so much!

Last updated: August 19, 2022

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