Esther D. Brimmer
May 19, 2019
Thank you, President Starr, the Pomona College Faculty, and the Board of Trustees; greetings to families and friends gathered here and Congratulations to the Class of 2019!
It’s an honor and a delight to speak to you today. I stand before you as a proud Pomona alumna. Much has changed on campus, but the fundamentals remain the same. Yes, there are more beautiful buildings, but as always inside those buildings professors and students strive for academic excellence. This is a special place. I formed deep, long-lasting friendships here that have withstood time and distance.
I grew up in Washington, DC, but was eager to go west. I came to Pomona because in those days, Pomona was one of the few colleges to have a strong undergraduate international relations major. Through Pomona I had life changing experiences.
At a commencement we look forward, but let me take you back to see the lens through which I view the future. I look back three decades to what was probably a chilly morning, because I was not in southern California. The student across the classroom asked the professor a question in French and the professor responded in French. Another asked a question in English and the professor replied in the same language. Students and the professor were equally fluent in both languages. I was impressed by the ways in which knowledge of another language enabled a rich and nuanced discussion. I was in Geneva in a Pomona College study abroad program. I was thrilled to be accepted and had worked hard to get there. Applicants had to meet a standard of excellence to be admitted because participants were placed in an institution of graduate-level study.
That semester studying in Geneva sparked my interest in the tutorial system which led me to Oxford for my graduate study and confirmed my interest in international organizations, and it began my affection for that somberly elegant lakeside city, Geneva.
Over the years, I have been back to Geneva at important points in my life. I was back in the year 2000, as a member of a U.S. delegation to the helping to negotiate a UN resolution on a right to democracy. By that time, I was married. Indeed, my husband and our 3-year old son accompanied me to Geneva for the multi-week session. As was the case so many times in life, I could not have managed a career and family without the support of my dear husband.
Years later, when I was Assistant Secretary for International Organizations, the U.S. Mission to the United Nations Organizations in Geneva would be my bureau’s largest post (even larger than to New York). Indeed, my proudest single moment as a diplomat occurred in Geneva when I gave the first ever speech on behalf of the United States as an elected member of the new UN Human Rights Council in September 2009. Why was that important? Because the United States was finally entering this important forum for the global discussion of human rights. The U.S. should not be absent from such significant international debates – even if the venue is imperfect. As you will soon hear, I think it is important to step up and speak up not sit on the sidelines.
That leads me to three pieces of advice I would like to offer today’s graduates:
- The first was my father’s advice to me: “Run with the swift.”
- The second is “Give back.”
- And the third is “Find your fun.”
[Run with the Swift]
My father, who was the commencement speaker at my 1983 Pomona graduation ceremony, wanted to instill the importance of learning from the best. I am still trying to live up to that motto, but it informed key decisions in my life.
The idea behind “run with the swift” is that whatever you choose to do, you should try to learn from the best. Earlier in life, I focused on the latter part of that phrase, “the swift.” I went to Pomona an institution that—as you know—strives for excellence in undergraduate education. In those days an undergraduate degree program in international relations was rare, but Pomona had the best. I continued to seek excellence in education and was honored to earn a master’s and doctoral degrees from Oxford University.
These days, I appreciate the importance of the first part of that phrase, “run.” It’s run with the swift. That means you have to be in the race. You cannot sit on the sidelines. You have to commit to do those things that are important to you. Sometimes that means just jumping in.
I remember asking a former boss and mentor for advice in the fall of 2006. He queried a lacuna in my career. I had never worked for a political campaign. He asked me did I care about politics, which I did, yet I had not participated in a campaign directly. He asked if I had a candidate whom I would support, which I did. He encouraged me to act on my convictions, which I did. I took a chance and volunteered for a young senator from Illinois, which turned out to be the best career decision I ever made. Eventually, I led one of the campaign policy groups and was later honored to serve in his presidential administration. However, this is not a party-political appeal; it is a call to get involved with the best cohort in whatever you choose to do. Run with the swift; it can take you down a long path, but to a satisfying destination.
My second point is, find ways to “give back.” I recognize that I was fortunate that my parents could give me a Pomona education, including education abroad. My father had studied abroad; he was in the first group of Fulbright Scholars in India in 1951. I know that studying abroad was a fundamental component of my education as a person and a professional. I am thankful that in my current job I can help others experience the benefits of education abroad and of international education in general. As Executive Director and CEO of NAFSA: Association of International Educators, I work with professionals in colleges, universities, companies, and institutions around the world. While we work on the whole field, I am very interested in expanding access for students to study internationally.
There are many reasons to pursue education abroad. The benefits have expanded from personal fulfillment and academic attainment, to gaining inter-cultural experiences and career-enhancing global competencies, to enhancing peace and security.
Currently, only about 2% of all college students in the United States undertake education abroad, even though over 80% say they would like to do so. By graduation only 10% will have had an international education experience. Barriers can range from cost, to curriculum constraints, to familial commitments and obligations. NAFSA members work to increase the numbers and help diversify the types of students who study abroad and the range of countries to which they travel. A well-designed, high-quality education abroad experience can enrich your studies and shape your life. I know that my experience on Pomona’s Geneva program helped set me on my career path. Trying to advance access to international education is part of my way of giving back—by paying it forward to future students.
[Find your fun]
My third piece of advice is “find your fun.” Discover an activity that brings excitement, contentment, joy, or satisfaction into your life. Such fulfillment can come from commitment to a life-long passion. This is something beyond your job or your career, it may involve your family, but is distinctive to you. For me, it’s horses. I have enjoyed riding since I was nine years old. Yes, I rode when I was at Pomona. I even rode when I was studying abroad in Geneva. Wearing my riding clothes, I would take the bus to the end of the line then walk a short distance to the stable. I rode while I was at the State Department and still do so now.
Your personal passion is not determined by your job. Over the years, your job will change; your family responsibilities will change. Finding your fun is nurturing that personal passion that makes you feel more distinctly yourself. Finding your fun can give you the internal strength to run with the swift and to give back. My first two pieces of advice demand an outpouring of your talents into the world; this third piece of advice suggests a way to replenish yourself for the long journey.
In effect, I am asking you to engage your head, your heart, and your soul. Your head tells you to run with the swift; your heart entreats you to give back; and your soul implores you to find your fun. Draw on all three as you commence your new life after college—which brings us back to today.
Earning a college degree is still a remarkable, life-changing achievement. When you walk across the stage today, think of and thank the ones who brought you here. When I sat where you are sitting, I understood I did not inhabit that space alone. My parents had encouraged me; they knew how important a college degree would be to the life they wanted to lead. Despite growing up in in the segregated South during the Depression, my father was the first in his family to go to college, thanks to the G.I. Bill. He eventually earned his PhD. On my mother’s side not only had she gone to college and graduate school in the 1950s, her parents had gone to college graduating in 1924. Empowered by their newly earned degrees my grandparents were part of the Great Migration North. Yet my grandmother was steered on this path by her mother, my great grandmother, who despite the barriers of the early 20th century, had moved her daughters, from the South Carolina farm that she owned into the city of Columbia so that they could go to school.
Do you recall my mentioning my son who accompanied me to Geneva when he was 3? He is now 22. When he graduates from college in a few weeks, he will be the fourth generation of our family to do so. He, like you, and like me, stands on the shoulders of generations. Whether you are the first in your family to get a college degree or the just the latest one, when you graduate you know that there was someone who helped get you to this point and across this stage to receive your diploma. I hope you can pay that gift forward to future generations.
So, graduates, thank you for the honor of being one of the people wishing you well as you set off on the next stage of your journey. I encourage you to run with the swift, to give back, and to find your fun. Congratulations to the Class of 2019!