University of Vermont

Ambassador Power Urges UVM Class of 2014 to 'Overcome Mountains'

UVM commencement 2014 image
The weather cooperated Sunday, allowing nearly 3,000 graduates to gather on the University Green for UVM's 213th commencement. (Photo: Sally McCay)

Samantha Power has spent her life fighting for human rights and addressing global challenges to peace, security and prosperity, most recently as the United States ambassador to the United Nations. On May 18, at the University of Vermont's main commencement ceremony, the Pulitzer Prize-winning author told nearly 3,000 UVM students receiving diplomas that they, too, can make a difference in the world, despite having feelings of doubt about how much impact they can have on it.

“The world is plenty messed up, but you can help change it,” Power told an estimated 8,000 people on a sun-drenched day on the UVM Green. “We need you to stay engaged both at home and abroad. And no matter what your 'insides' are telling you or how assured others seem on the outside, you -- as in you personally -- can make a profound difference if you set your mind to it. You have lived in the shadow of the Vermont peaks for four years, and I urge you to make it your task to overcome mountains that others have found too high to scale.”

Power spent the majority of her 18-minute speech addressing areas of doubt students might feel when trying to change the world, including those who think it's too damaged to fix. “I hear you,” she said. “Sometimes in my job as ambassador to the United Nations I feel I am in a marathon with no finish line… but the truth is, away from the headlines, change is happening for the good, and it is happening fast…. My point is, sure, there is a lot going wrong out there in the world, but there’s a lot going right as well." Quoting the Canadian song writer and poet, Leonard Cohen, she added, "There is a crack in everything. That’s how the light gets in."

Aware that many Americans think the U.S. should address its own issues before attempting to solve the world’s problems, Power said: “But you all know better. We just don’t live in a world where we have the option of disconnecting or retrenching. We live in a world where what happens overseas has a direct impact on us here. We live in a world that cannot afford to do without the moral voice, the clarion vision, and hopeful promise of America and the American dream.” As for those who think they can’t change the world, Power told graduates not to raise the bar too high. “Start by doing what it is in your power to do right here and now. Louis Brandeis once said, 'The only title in our democracy superior to that of president is the title of citizen.' And I believe that.”  

Power managed to weave in moments of humor, telling a story about how she got lost on her way to the Oval Office, arriving late to her first meeting with President Obama as special assistant to the president and senior director for multilateral affairs and human rights on the national security staff at the White House. She also congratulated the UVM community for successfully completing its 213th year. “This makes you just about as old as I feel after nine months of arguing with Russia at the U.N. The big difference is that you are a whole lot better looking than the average member of the Security Council.”

UVM president Tom Sullivan told graduates that the combination of determination, resilience and perseverance equals "true grit" and would ultimately determine their success. To illustrate his point, Sullivan told the story of Andrew Harris, UVM’s first African American graduate, who after being rejected by other colleges due to race, persevered and earned his degree from UVM in 1838. One year later, he delivered an address to nearly 5,000 abolitionists in New York City and would become a renowned orator while protesting slavery in the South and racism in the North.

“Harris used his talents to fight for a just cause,” said Sullivan, who closed with a quote from Theodore Roosevelt: “It is far better to dare mighty things, to win glorious triumphs, even though checkered by failure, than to rank with those poor spirits who neither enjoy much nor suffer much, because they live in the gray twilight that knows not victory nor defeat.” Sullivan continued, "We hope you use your gifts, your significant advantages, your determination and your resilience to ‘win glorious triumphs’ as President Roosevelt observed.”

Vermont Governor Peter Shumlin implored graduates to remain in Vermont and use their ability to connect their newfound knowledge with their heart. “I think that’s what makes UVM’s educational delivery system so special. This is the economic engine of Vermont. The education that is being conferred upon you and the degree you will receive today that gives you the ability to go forward from this point and make change in a world that needs you more than ever.” 

At this year’s ceremonies, approximately 2,904 graduates received diplomas, including 2,359 bachelor’s, 324 master’s, 112 doctoral and 109 M.D. degree recipients. Degree recipients came from 41 states and included 84 international students from 20 countries. Approximately 1,059 graduates are from Vermont. The graduating class included 290 African, Latino/a, Asian and Native American (ALANA) students and students identifying with two or more races.

In addition to Power, six other individuals received honorary degrees at the ceremony: Professor Jonathan David Jansen, Dr. Irwin H. Krakoff, Dr. Robert Larner, Crea Sopher Lintilhac, Dr. Robert B. Low and Richard E. Tarrant.

During the ceremony, the UVM Alumni Association presented the annual George V. Kidder Outstanding Faculty Award for excellence in teaching to Donna Rizzo, professor of civil and environmental engineering in the College of Engineering and Mathematical Sciences.

Nine students were honored with five university awards. Hillary Laggis won the Mary Jean Simpson Award, honoring the senior who exhibits the highest qualities of leadership, academic competence and character; Dennis Mahoney won the F.T. Kidder Medal, honoring the senior man ranking first in character, leadership and scholarship; Suzanne Friedman and Allesandro Carissimo won the Class of ‘67 Award, presented to seniors who best exhibit leadership, academic competence and character, and who have earned the respect of faculty and fellow students; Breonna Young and Christopher Veal won the Keith M. Miser Leadership Award, recognizing outstanding service to the university; and Mache Chase, Erick Crockenberg and Tad Cooke won the Elmer Nicholson Achievement Prize, recognizing the greatness of the students’ UVM experiences and the expectation that they will make major contributions in their respective fields.