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Commencement | Susan Burk: December ’11 Graduation Remarks

2011 December Graduation Remarks by
Ambassador Susan Flood Burk ’76

Special Representative of President Obama for Nuclear Nonproliferation

Watch the Video of the Speech

Thank you President McGuire, Provost Broaddus, members of the Board of Trustees, Sisters of Notre Dame, parents, families and friends, and, especially you, Trinity’s newest graduates.  Thank you so much for this honor, and thank you for welcoming me back to Trinity this evening.  I am delighted to be here.

This dynamic institution that you will soon call your alma mater has demonstrated amazing resilience over the years.  It reflects the extraordinary vision of its current leadership, especially President McGuire, as well as continuing devotion to the education of women – and now men – the vision of its founders, the Sisters of Notre Dame de Namur.  I am happy to add my voice to the chorus of well-deserved congratulations that you are receiving for your remarkable achievements as Trinity graduates.

It was 35 years ago that I sat in Trinity’s magnificent chapel waiting to receive my diploma.  We were the Red Class of 1976, the Bicentennial Spirit of ’76.  I remember the bitter-sweet emotion of reaching the end of that chapter of my life, and the anticipation of the future.  I also remember how proud my parents were that day.  My parents loved Trinity in all its aspects:  my Trinity “sisters,” my professors, and the faith-based community that Trinity embodied.  As with so many of my classmates, Trinity became a family affair and two of my four sisters are also Trinity graduates.

Throughout your academic career, your family and friends have been there for you and I hope you will let them know how much you appreciate the love and support they provided while you wrestled with your studies, with jobs, and with other responsibilities.  In addition to the degree that you will receive this evening, I am sure that you can add the title of Master Multi-Tasker to your resume!

I have been asked to tell you some of my story and to share some life lessons with you as you move from this chapter to your next.  I do so with some trepidation lest what I say seem corny or trite.  But I do so from the heart as someone bound up with you across the decades as a member of the Trinity community.

I grew up in New Jersey, the oldest of seven children.  Growing up in a large family offered me my first taste of multilateral diplomacy – and introduced me to the art of negotiation (we had one shower!)  I was a product of public schools.  My father wanted us to attend Catholic colleges, however, and I wanted to be in Washington, D.C.  After interviews at Georgetown University and Dumbarton College, a Catholic women’s college, we were heading out of D.C. and back to New Jersey when my Dad took a detour – right to the front door of Main.  Trinity wasn’t even on my list, but a campus tour later and the rest, as they say, is history.

I majored in political science, sang with the Trinity Belles, and was a frequent rider on the metro bus to Georgetown and back on Friday and Saturday nights.  (What happens in Georgetown stays in Georgetown.)  I made friendships that endure to this day, and I learned in a deeply personal way what it meant to live in and contribute to a community.

Today, Trinity Washington University has a diversity of programs and degrees that Trinity College did not have.  It also has this magnificent sports center.  But the education you have received and the community that has embraced, supported and encouraged you here goes far beyond all of that.  It reflects the best traditions of Trinity over the decades, traditions and their underlying principles that have remained constant.

I began my government career one month after graduation, as a summer intern in the Defense Department.  About a year or so later, still at Defense, I landed an entry-level position in a policy office headed by a senior woman who, at that time, was very much the exception, not the rule.  I saw up close what a challenge it was for the few professional women I encountered in the Pentagon to maneuver in that very male-dominated world.  But I had my Trinity experience, where female role models, as well as leadership opportunities, were the rule, not the exception.  That Trinity experience, and the confidence it gave me, proved to be invaluable as I navigated the Washington bureaucracy.

Let me say up front that while I have had a wonderful career, I never had a long-term plan.  Hard work, long hours, a deep interest in national security, and a commitment to public service, caused one opportunity to lead to another.  From the Defense Department I moved to the U.S. Arms Control and Disarmament Agency, and eventually to the U.S. State Department.  Throughout this journey, I was supported by my family, especially my husband, Mike, my daughter, Christen, and my son, Brian.  I would not be here today without that support.

I assumed increasingly more responsible positions, and I discovered that the field of nuclear nonproliferation, preventing the further spread of nuclear weapons, was where I found the greatest professional and personal satisfaction.  I pursued that interest for most of my career, preparing, although I did not appreciate it then, for the offer I received after the election of President Obama of the position I hold today, as the chief U.S. negotiator on matters involving the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty.

After 35 years, I look back at a career that has taken me all over the world, given me a chance to develop and implement policy on important and sensitive national security issues, and allowed me to represent the United States with foreign partners.  Early on, I believed I was just incredibly lucky, but when I would say this, my father would respond, “You make your own luck.”  I now understand the point he was making.

Make Your Own Luck

So the first lesson I would share is, “you make your own luck.”   You are here today because of your hard work, your tenacity and your ambition to be more and to do more.  You have demonstrated that you can master the great philosophers, learn the lessons of centuries of history, understand the complex and ever-changing world of science, and appreciate the challenges of international relations.  Many of you have done this while juggling full-time jobs and other responsibilities.  And now you are headed out – or back – to the wide, wide world to make your mark.  You are blessed – and you are lucky.

There is a South Asian proverb that reads:  Luck comes to those who are first prepared.  For how shall one catch the fish without first a hook or a net?  So gather bait, and let your hook always be cast: for in the stream when you shall least expect it, there will be fish!

When you are prepared, you are open to and available for all possibilities.  Preparing means life-long learning, remaining curious, always asking “why?”  Although I had no long-term career plan, I had professional opportunities, I went back to school at night to get my master’s degree, as many of you have done, and I had people in my life – peers, supervisors and eventually subordinates – who helped me develop skills that paved the way for other opportunities.

Every position I held prepared me for the next.  I didn’t love every job, but I always learned something new.  When I discovered that I did not have a particular aptitude for the technical details of nuclear missiles and strategy, for example, I looked for opportunities where my experience with nuclear issues and international negotiations would be relevant.  This led me to the nuclear nonproliferation community and the field that became my professional passion.  It is often as important to know what you don’t enjoy doing, as it is what you do want to do.  With the right approach, drawing on your Trinity experience, every path you pursue, every experience you have, can and will prepare you for the next one.

General Colin Powell is known for his exceptional leadership of people and organizations.  I had the honor of working for him when he was Secretary of State.  Secretary Powell has said, “There are no secrets to success.  It is a matter of preparation, hard work, and learning from failure.”

So let me encourage you to prepare, work hard, be open for opportunities, and make your own luck!

The Golden Rule is as Important Now as Ever

The second lesson I have learned and would like to share is the Golden Rule is as important now as it ever was:  Do unto others as you would have others do unto you.  We are bombarded every day with evidence of the loss of civility in political and other discourse.  I am sure that all of us, in some way, share the frustrations, and occasionally even the anger, that we see reflected by the media, by our elected officials, and our community leaders.

The Ashanti people in Ghana have a proverb that goes:  Two men in a burning house must not stop to argue.

We live today in communities and in a world that are grappling with extraordinary challenges.  Whether the issue is the economy, jobs, the environment, the state of our education system, the status of women, or the risk of nuclear proliferation, we all have a stake in how these challenges are addressed.  Time is of the essence and we lose time when we talk past each other rather than with each other.

I have been so proud to serve under President Obama because of his commitment to strong and creative United States leadership and engagement with the international community in a common effort to solve global problems.  He has articulated a vision of a world without nuclear weapons, and rejected the fatalism of those who would believe that the spread of such weapons is inevitable.  The President has directed his Administration to turn those words into actions and provided an agenda that protects fundamental United States interests, but recognizes that the problems we face today cannot be fixed by one country or group of countries alone.

My colleagues and I are working diligently to turn political commitments into concrete results.  We are engaging collegially, constructively, and in good faith with other governments to negotiate agreements and set agendas for collective action to strengthen the barriers to nuclear proliferation and reduce nuclear dangers.  It is difficult work by any calculation, but the U.S. is seeking to set an example through its own actions, and by being a reliable partner.

Whether you end up working on the local, national or international stage, I urge you to be an example for your families, your communities, your co-workers.  Be a model for the power of cooperation and respectful engagement.  Strive always for the highest standards of integrity and responsibility.  And do unto others what you would have them do unto you.

Sometimes this will not be easy.  It never has been.  Each of you, however, has the power to influence others by showing respect for views different from your own, and by being willing to work with others to find common ground, not simply to prevail.

Be the Change

The final lesson I want to share comes from the great Indian political and spiritual leader, Mahatma Gandhi.  Gandhi encouraged his followers:  “You must be the change you want to see in the world.”   I discovered this reference a few years ago, but I find myself coming back to it often.  It is a call to action and to service.

I know that all of us see areas where change is needed.  Personal and social change must go hand-in-hand.  This graduation ceremony is testimony to the change each of you has undertaken in your own life.  Your hard work at Trinity has given you the tools to make a difference in whatever fields you choose to pursue.

I urge you to look around, see what needs to be changed and consider what you can do to make the situation better.  Ask yourself:  how can I make a difference in my chosen field, as a volunteer, a mentor, as an informed citizen who exercises the right to vote?   How can I be the change?

In closing, let me leave you with a final quote from the 18th century Christian theologian, John Wesley.  Wesley said:  Do all the good you can, by all the means you can, in all the ways you can, in all the places you can, to all the people you can, as long as ever you can.

You are leaving Trinity armed with knowledge, faith, and the love of your family and friends.  I urge you to use those gifts always to do all the good you can.

Congratulations and best wishes to all of you.


For more information about Graduation, students should contact Dean Meechie Bowie at 202-884-9611 or via e-mail at commencement@trinitydc.edu. For media inquiries, contact Ann Pauley, Media Relations, at 202-884-9725 or pauleya@trinitydc.edu.

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