Good afternoon, and congratulations to American University of Armenia’s class of 2021.
I am honored and grateful for the opportunity to address you on an occasion that I hope stays with you for the rest of your lives. I also want to thank the family, loved ones, friends, faculty, and staff who prepared you all for this moment. And a special thanks to Dr. Markides and the leadership at American University of Armenia for the invitation to speak today and for your commitment to our longstanding partnership.
Commencement speeches are inherently motivational and uplifting affairs, but I cannot honor what you have gained by being here today without acknowledging what you’ve lost. Not only are you graduating into a world that has been tilted off its axis by a global pandemic, but the lives of six of your fellow students, as well as beloved family members and friends, were cut short as violence erupted in a decades-long conflict. My heart is with each of you and your families as you grieve, and as you understandably wonder what it will take for the Armenian people to see lasting peace.
After this past year, there is no doubt that you are ready to confront whatever comes your way. You should not have to demonstrate this much resilience so early in your lives, but you have, inspiringly so. You’ve stuck together to overcome these demanding circumstances, and I hope that gives you a sense of pride—the same pride that your teachers, administrators, parents, and friends must feel in you.
I actually had the opportunity to visit the American University of Armenia just three years ago, and if I’m being honest, there were parts of me that were anguished about that visit.
We had made, during my time in the Obama Administration, what I had thought to be several important steps forward in terms of advancing the dignity of people all over the world. We made serious global commitments to fight climate change, de-escalate tensions with long-standing antagonists like Iran and Cuba, and we worked to support democracy abroad, including in countries like Armenia.
Still, when I came I was arriving in Armenia fully aware that we had not lived up to our commitment to recognize the Armenian genocide during President Obama’s time in office. And during my visit, I carried with me a deep sense of regret and disappointment.
Then I visited AUA, just two months after the Velvet Revolution. And I was inspired by students, professors, and advocates who had just been in the streets, successfully advocating for democratic values. And I remembered that the only antidote to a defeat is not despair, but resolve. That not yet, does not have to mean never.
And today, I get to address you, not just on behalf of an American Administration that has finally recognized what the world has long known to be a genocide in Armenia—but as Administrator of the Agency—USAID—that helped found and support this University. And I hear the stories of this incredible generation of young Armenians and I’m inspired anew.
The young woman who studied to be an investigative journalist, and who is already raising awareness about drought and water depletion in her community in the heart of the Ararat Valley. The student who also happens to be the only social worker from her village, in contact with as many as 150 families a day. The graduate studying public relations, who is also working to improve basic public services and create bus shelters so that commuters in Yerevan don’t have to wait in the blazing sun or freezing rain just to get to work.
That is what you all are doing today—that is the kind of resolve you’re showing while still in school. Even now, I am heartened by the empathy and urgency within you, Armenia’s future leaders. But I am even more encouraged about the future your generation will create—a generation keenly focused on the needs of others, proudly advocating for marginalized groups, unafraid to demand a better, greener, more equal world.
Because here is the reality: Setbacks happen. Losses accumulate. Malign forces in the world will not give up without a fight. You will live to see people perpetrate evil acts—genocide in Western China, famine in Northern Ethiopia, ethnic cleansing in Myanmar—you will witness those same people deny that they are happening.
That sad two-step of history has not yet been overcome. And unfortunately the repression that these regimes show—first of people, then the truth—that repression often works. But just because it works, does not mean it will win. It requires the resolve—of young activists and advocates like all of you—fighting for the dignity of every soul to beat repression back, push for peace, uncover the truth, and ensure that lies have short legs.
My sincere congratulations to all of you on this very important day. I wish you all the best. Congrats again.