Hi, I’m Congresswoman Stephanie Murphy, MSFS class of 2004. I’m speaking to you from my home in central Florida. I know you’re watching from your own homes across the United States and around the globe.
I hope you and your loved ones are safe and healthy.
I wish I could be with you in person to celebrate the achievements of the graduating class and to offer you a few words of encouragement as you embark on your next journey.
But, of course, a conventional ceremony is not possible during this pandemic.
And that is a real shame. Graduation is an important ritual and rite of passage. It’s a way station on the path of life, a time to pause and reflect upon the past and the future, an occasion to celebrate.
It’s an opportunity to tell your family members who have loved and supported you how much you appreciate them.
It’s an opportunity to offer a handshake, and a word of gratitude, to your favorite professor—the one who was tough on you because they saw the potential in you, who drove you to achieve more.
It’s a time to step into the spotlight, to walk proudly across the stage to receive your hard-earned diploma.
It’s a chance to walk, one last time, through a campus that has become like a second home to you.
And it’s a moment to say goodbye to your friends who have become like family—and who will now set off to locations near and far.
I’m so sorry that your graduating class cannot be together, in each other’s presence, to say farewell to Georgetown and to the people who made your experience so special.
Ceremony or not—you are now part of a close-knit community of Georgetown graduates. You are bound together with your fellow Hoyas by virtue of your shared experiences, traditions, and values. Nothing can diminish that, and nobody can take it from you.
If your Georgetown experience was like mine, it was rich not just because of the academics, but because of the opportunity to spend time alongside people from diverse backgrounds.
To this day, even though I’ve served with bright and driven people at the highest levels of government and business, I still marvel at the caliber of the classmates I met at Georgetown.
Your class of 99 members hails from all corners of the world and many of you had diverse work experiences before coming to Georgetown.
You all have a unique life journey that brought you to this school, and to this moment of reflection and celebration. Let me share my own journey with you.
I was born in Vietnam several years after the end of the Vietnam War. A communist government had taken power, and it sought to punish those who had worked alongside American or South Vietnamese forces during the war. My parents fell into that category.
When I was a baby, and my brother was eight, my parents concluded that a difficult situation had become intolerable. They wanted us to live in a place where we would be safe, where we would have freedom and dignity, and where we would have the opportunity for a better life—and they didn’t think any of that was possible in Vietnam.
So we fled Vietnam by boat in the dead of night. By attempting to escape, my parents took the risk that we might not survive the passage. But they had decided that it was better for our family to die together in search of light than to live in darkness.
Several days into our journey, our boat ran out of fuel in the middle of the South China Sea. We sent out an emergency call and began to drift. The adults on the boat must have thought the end was near.
Thanks to grace or good fortune, however, a U.S. Navy ship patrolling in the area received our distress signal and located our boat. The sailors onboard showed compassion for desperate strangers.
They gave us the fuel and supplies we needed to reach a Malaysian refugee camp.
After several months at the refugee camp, my family again became the beneficiary of American courage and kindness. President Jimmy Carter, in the face of public skepticism, chose to increase the number of refugees from Southeast Asia that the United States would accept. This policy change set the stage for a church in Virginia to sponsor my family’s passage to the U.S.
This journey made the rest of my life possible. And although I was too young to realize it, this was also my first lesson in America’s uniquely wonderful combination of power and generosity.
Although we were beyond grateful to be living in the United States, our life here was not easy. My dad used to say that he arrived in America with nothing but his two bare hands. My parents did everything they could to make ends meet and to provide a better life for my brother and me. I received a good public education and was fortunate enough to be accepted at the College of William & Mary.
Fast forward to September 11, 2001. On that fateful day, I was more than a year out of college and working in the private sector in Washington, DC. I was making money for the first time, which was pretty awesome for someone who had been poor her whole life.
But when those planes hit the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, and crashed into that empty field in Pennsylvania, everything changed for me.
In that moment of national upheaval, I re-evaluated my own life choices. I decided to leave my job in the private sector. I wanted to help defend the country that had saved my family’s life. I vaguely sensed that the best place for me was in public service. And that the path to this career change was through graduate school.
Going to Georgetown turned out to be one of the best decisions of my life. I found caring mentors and made close friends, many of whom I remain in touch with today. I learned so much from my professors and my classmates.
After graduation, I went to work at the Department of Defense, which was an incredibly rewarding and, at times, emotionally wrenching experience.
I worked with men and women, both military and civilian, of exceptional courage and character. Some of them lost their lives or limbs for their country. Others led humanitarian missions that saved or improved the lives of strangers in far-flung places.
Not every day at the Pentagon was fulfilling or exciting, but so many days were. There was a sense of mission that pervaded our work. There was this unvoiced feeling that our efforts were more of a calling than a career.
Along with serving in Congress, I’ve had no higher honor than working at the Department of Defense. And I wouldn’t have had the opportunity to fulfill either role were it not for Georgetown. The university prepared me, it empowered me, and it changed the course of my life in ways I never could have imagined.
I think you’ll find the same will be true in your own lives.
More than a decade-and-a-half after my own graduation, I still feel tremendous pride in having gone to Georgetown, and I hope you do too. I don’t know any of you personally, but I feel a sense of kinship with each of you.
Whatever you choose to do with your careers, you’re bound to have what I call “Georgetown moments” or “MSFS moments” along the way. It happens to me rather often.
You’ll meet or cross paths with someone in your line of work. It could be in a foreign ministry, at a refugee camp, during a high-stakes business negotiation, on a congressional trip abroad, or— more likely now—on a Zoom conference call where someone is struggling to master the “mute” button. They could be of any age or nationality. They might be on “your side” or on the “other side” of whatever issue you happen to be discussing.
You’ll start talking and you’ll learn they went to Georgetown and graduated from SFS, just like you did. You’ll swap stories. Even if you have little else in common, a bond of recognition and respect will form between you—one that is rooted in your shared fondness for this special place.
Those will be memorable moments, and they’ll remind that you are part of a cohesive community with a global reach.
Let me close with this thought.
The world is a complicated and challenging place. It was before COVID-19, and is likely to become more so in the wake of the virus.
It’s one thing to read about the deadly pandemics of the distant past.
It’s another thing to confront—but to largely contain—the contagious diseases of the recent past, like avian flu, swine flu, and Ebola.
It’s a completely different thing to endure a global pandemic that—as I speak to you—has already taken the lives of 300,000 people around the world and ravaged the global economy.
This nightmare scenario has become our new reality.
It’s too soon to predict with precision how the world will change as a result of the coronavirus, and whether those changes will be for the better or for the worse.
On the one hand, we could see increased competition, and even conflict between and within countries.
On the other hand, we could see enhanced cooperation among nations, even among historic rivals, because they now confront the same unseen enemy, one who does not respect borders or care about flags.
You are graduating into a moment of global upheaval. It poses new risks and presents new opportunities.
In times such as this, the need for wise leadership, steady statesmanship, and innovative corporate thinking has never been more vital.
We need men and women who have studied history and foreign affairs, and who have learned— but not over-learned—the lessons of the past.
Who are comfortable, and even cherish, interacting with people from different backgrounds and cultures.
Who are proud to be citizens of their country, but never forget that they share a common humanity with citizens of other countries.
Who understand that patriotism and nationalism are not the same thing.
Who embrace the changing times, while staying true to their core values.
Who believe in the free exchange of ideas.
Who want, and who are willing to put in the hard work, to build a world that is more just.
In other words, we need men and women just like you.
I wish you the best of luck as you continue your journey through life. You’ve done an incredible job so far, and I know you’ll keep making us proud.