Ambassador Chung’s remarks for Convocation Ceremony of the Bandaranaike Centre for International Studies (BCIS)

August 20, 2022

Aybowan, Vanakum, Salam alaikum. Thank you for the invitation to speak with you this afternoon. I understand this is the first time in some years that you’ve been able to hold convocation in person – and how wonderful it is to see you all in person and not on a screen!  What a joy.

It is truly an honor to join you today.  I have immense respect for the Bandaranaike Center for International Relations, for Ambassador Sumith Nakandala, for President Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga, for your professors and officers, and for each of you.

These are unprecedented times.  Hard times.  And each student we are celebrating today has overcome extraordinary obstacles to persevere in their own education and life. My most sincere congratulations to all 228 of you!

I extend those congratulations not just to the graduates, but to everyone here who made their successes possible.  The BCIS academic board and council of management, the faculty members, and especially the parents and families. I hope you take a moment to recognize the many sacrifices your parents have made for you so that you can have this moment, as I know my parents have made for me.

No one is here today as a spectator.  If we have learned anything in recent years, it is that we are deeply inter-connected, and life is not a spectator sport.  The success of our families, our schools, our communities, and even our nations depend on participation and engagement from each of us.  Behind each student is an advocate, a change-maker, a dreamer, a supporter.  And that means that each of you is responsible for the good they will bring to the future, for the roles these students will play in improving their communities, addressing injustices, and upholding the democratic institutions here in Sri Lanka that make this country and our world better.

Students, you have made a courageous choice to pursue a future in international affairs in these unpredictable, challenging times.  2022 could be a confusing time to find your place in any field – but especially now, it is a vital time to pursue international relations.  And as you start this new chapter in your life, I would like to share a handful of lessons – big and small- I’ve learned along my own path that I hope you will remember as you continue down yours.

The first lesson is about embracing change.  For many thousands of years, human society changed very slowly.  People lived their entire lives within a few miles of where they had been born, without huge technological or social changes.  But today we live in an incredibly globalized world.  Look at me – I was born in Korea and moved to America as a child.  My parents were so incredibly brave to make that move, to learn a new language, embrace a new culture, grow their lives from the ground up.   They gave me a world of opportunity.  Those first years were tough, but their bravery and willingness to embrace change was such a gift to my whole family.  Who’d have thought that a child born in Korea would stand before you today, here in Sri Lanka, as the representative of the President of the United States of America?

Change – not isolation – is the new constant.  None of us can know what the coming years of scientific advances and human experience will bring, or how these innovations will reshape the beliefs and institutions we consider essential today.

So, my advice is not to fight change but rather to embrace it. Like my parents did.  Nothing lasts forever — not the black and white TVs of my father’s generation, the cassette tapes of my youth, or even Twitter, my adult obsession.  And like even my favorite cassette tapes, many of the things we take for granted about politics and society will someday be outdated.  It is very likely that some ideas you hold true right now will look different to you, even in just a few years.  Keep learning and growing.  Embrace change, the only way to keep up with our incredibly fast-moving times.

My next lesson is about communication.  History is filled with conflicts that arose from misunderstandings.  Some of these mistakes were inevitable, but too many horrible things have occurred because people didn’t communicate clearly or because they were misled by disinformation or false rhetoric.

Living in a tri-lingual country like Sri Lanka makes clear communication even harder to achieve.  It becomes vital to connect with people and speak in words, terms, and with frames of reference they can understand and find relatable.  This might mean stepping outside of your comfort zone and speaking a language other than your mother tongue, for example.

As you go forward in your career, I encourage you never to take communication for granted.  Don’t be afraid to speak your truth – clearly, articulately, again and again.  Don’t believe everything you read or hear – check your sources, don’t fall prey to false narratives, and become an educated consumer of information.  Don’t try to impress people by using big words to say things you could say more clearly with smaller ones.  And always stay open to what people tell you, even if it’s hard to hear or you disagree.

Good communication is really, really difficult.  It’s a moving target, a lifetime process.  But it’s also about the most important thing you’ll ever do, so don’t take it for granted.  Give it the time and attention it deserves.

Lesson number three is about convictions – not mine, but yours.  To be successful in life, you need to know what your convictions are.  What do you really, truly believe?  What is at the core of who you are?  What are you willing to strive for, to wake up every morning excited to pursue? What is your purpose?

Throughout my adult life, I have been guided by my own convictions.  When the future seems cloudy and there don’t seem to be many good options – you too will find that core values will both ground you and show you the way forward. I know my purpose.

Regardless of the challenges you face, I hope that you will make choices based in integrity, empathy, and courage.  If there’s one thing I hope we are all learning from massive global challenges like COVID-19 and climate change, it’s that we are all interconnected.  Our actions impact each other, and we need each other.  Justice and equality truly matter.  Discrimination and oppression have terrible consequences.  Those are my convictions.  What are yours?  How will you stay true to them?  You need to ask yourself those questions and know the answers.  And check back with yourself again and again to be sure you’re staying true to yourself.

The next lesson is to say YES whenever you can.   In your studies, I’m sure you noted that in international politics, states cooperate more readily when countries and leaders are willing to engage, to work together, to tackle problems.  I’ve found that’s true in life too.  Please, take on the practice of saying YES far more often than you’re saying no.  And then keep your word, every time.

I can tell you honestly that I was terrified when I left my home state of California for the first time to head to New York for grad school at Columbia University.  The Big Apple seemed incredibly intimidating – so many people going in so many directions, so much commotion, the noisy subways and sea of yellow taxis.  I could have spent those years hiding in the library and my apartment which was laden with cockroaches, but I am so glad that I didn’t.  I said yes every time someone asked me to go visit a new neighborhood, or volunteer at a church, or work on a group presentation.  I did it all.  And while I didn’t enjoy every single experience, I learned a lot about what I loved – like contemporary art, slapstick comedy, and Puerto Rican food. Most importantly, I learned how to be a good partner and dependable friend.

And now when I think back to grad school, I think about the sights and sounds and smells of New York, and how much I experienced along the way to building my career.   I encourage you to do the same.  As you go forward, don’t hide from things that are new.  Say yes and then keep your word.  Build a reputation for being hard-working, inclusive, and open-minded.  That will make you the person others turn to as a friend and partner – and a leader that others will want to follow..

The next lesson is about anchoring your dreams with a more practical approach.  To achieve any great success, you need to think strategically and plan realistically.  The same goes for any nation.  World history is filled with suffering that occurred because national leaders didn’t think through what they were doing or choose a pragmatic path.  For example, in February Russia invaded the sovereign nation of Ukraine in an unjustified attack that threatens the foundational principles of the international system and now can’t seem to figure out the way out.  Millions of people are displaced, thousands have died, and nothing has been achieved.

As you enter the professional world, you need to dream big – and then think strategically and be pragmatic in your planning.  The most common conversation I have with leaders here: Sri Lanka needs to reach a point of political stability so that it can re-negotiate with its debtors and put itself on a path toward security and prosperity for all.  There are no quick fixes for the challenges this nation is facing.  But Sri Lanka can move forward by committing to a debt-restructuring program with the IMF and sticking with it.  There will be unpopular decisions that need to be made, like increasing electricity tariffs, but I am optimistic that Sri Lanka can grow its economy and attract investors and tourists again.

And I urge you to apply the same principles to planning your own career and path forward.

The next lesson is that nothing is too big for you to tackle – but tackling it together is essential.  I know we live in a world with some really big problems. COVID and climate change, intolerance, and hyper-nationalism.  It can be overwhelming, and make you feel very small and even hopeless.  Problems so big that sometimes it’s easy to stop, to focus elsewhere.  I’ve felt that way before – I’ve stopped before I’ve started, and I’ve learned the hard way that hiding from problems gets you nowhere.  So, the truth is that to solve big problems, you need to take steady and coordinated steps in all the right directions. Take that first, courageous step.

Take climate change.  Addressing climate change is something we can ignore or focus our efforts only on our own nations.  Instead, it is an all-hands-on-deck effort. Our future depends on the collective choices we make today.

At home, the US is tackling climate change on a massive scale.  President Biden just signed into law the most consequential climate change mitigation measures ever taken. In addition, the US is investing in clean-energy jobs and technologies that offer creative solutions to capping carbon emissions.  And we’re working with other countries around the world to curb global carbon emissions through diplomacy and public-private partnerships, including investing in renewable energy and phasing out coal.  The truth is that green energy brings economic benefits – the global renewable energy market is projected to exceed $2 trillion by 2025, and the countries that take decisive action now to create the industries of the future will be the ones that reap the economic benefits of the clean energy revolution.

We’re working very actively to bring those technologies and those opportunities to Sri Lanka.  Just this week, I visited an electric tuk tuk factory that will transform internal combustion engine three wheelers to electric and solar ones while also establishing a network of charging stations.  Solutions to our biggest problems do exist, and I urge you to be brave and smart enough to work toward finding them.

My last lesson – and this is a big one – is to choose your allegiances carefully. 

In the challenging world of international affairs, nations pursue relationships with allies to enhance their security, stability, and prosperity.  That’s a part of discussions I have with Sri Lankan government officials regularly, and the United States remains a partner that hopes to see your country thrive.

Sri Lanka is faced with many challenges right now.  It would be an easy time to make fast friendships or look for an easier road.  But let me note here the shared history between our nations, which goes back more than 70 years.  Sri Lanka and America have been friends and partners since your country’s independence.  As fellow democracies, as Indo-Pacific nations, as trading partners, as countries that share a broad range of interests, our bilateral relationship is deep and essential.  And it’s one that is not solely defined by our government-to-government connections.  We’ve got people to people ties, business to business ties, student to student ties, and long histories that tie our nations together.

When I think of that history, I think of the Fulbright program, which has been operating in Sri Lanka for 70 years.  Or USAID, which has been here for sixty years and has delivered over 2 billion dollars of assistance to the Sri Lankan people.  We continue to show up, especially in these times.  We’ve announced over $180 million in new funding and assistance since June, and we have more announcements coming soon.  We believe in this country. I believe in this country – and in the strength and value and dreams of the Sri Lankan people.  It’s my very real belief that we are the kind of ally and partner that Sri Lanka needs, yesterday, now and for the long term to come.

And more personally, choosing the right allies in your own lives is equally important.  None of us lives in isolation, and we all have bosses, partners, and friends who have tremendous impact on our days and our paths.  Take the time to really decide when you are choosing you are going to work for, start a business with, or even marry, because those choices you make will be among your most significant decisions in life.  I am so grateful to have a partner – my amazing husband Jose and our son – who move around the world with me, and who make anywhere we are together a home.  But I’ve also seen really good people surround themselves with people who didn’t have their best interests at heart, and then spend years trying to find their way back onto a better path.  Look for people you can trust, build relationships with friends and colleagues who will help you to be the best you – and who care about you enough to tell you the truth when you’re not living up to your full promise.

Enough lessons from me.  Today is about you.  About your achievement, and about your future.

Congratulations again to each of you for the tremendous work and achievement it took to get to this point.  I am incredibly proud of you, and excited about the roads that lie ahead.   Let me say again that you have made a wonderful and courageous choice to pursue a future in international affairs right now.  And looking at you today, all of you in your bright saris and handsome suits, I know that Sri Lanka will be a better nation. Our world will be better and more connected because of your work and your dreams.  I am truly grateful to share this wonderful experience with you.  Thank you.