The American School Graduation, June 2, New World Hotel
I feel deeply honored to speak with you. Principal Armstrong generously shared with me some of your accomplishments, and I wanted to begin with you, the graduates. I hope those here today will share my sense of admiration and inspiration, as you’re a diverse group with grand and beautiful dreams for the future.
Two years ago, Flora Ho won the Save the Rhinos essay contest and travelled to South Africa for a two week safari. She came back to Vietnam and acted as a Save the Rhino Ambassador, visiting local schools and sharing her message. Flora is a regular volunteer at local orphanages with the school’s student-led organization, Walking Hope. Flora also volunteered with Habitat for Humanity this year and built a home in Dong Thap. She has been on the student council throughout her time at TAS. Flora Ho will be attending Drury University in Springfield Missouri and plans to complete a 6-year Doctor of Pharmacy. She hopes that Springfield will have just the right balance of boredom (suited to studying) and fun.
A truly gifted actor, Lan Tran has stared in two Arts Week one-act plays and this year’s musical, “Loserville.” He has a passion for acting and hopes to continue participating in theater as a hobby in the years to come. Lan is also an athlete and is on the swimming and basketball teams. He has been at TAS since the school was founded in 2010. Lan has participated in two Week Without Walls trips to Laos and Nepal. He hopes to be a successful game designer in the future. Lan will be working on understanding the sport of American football and the lure of pickup trucks in Alabama at Auburn University while pursuing a degree in computer science.
Rebekka excels at hip hop and modern dance. She played the Principal in the school musical, “Loserville,” this spring. Rebekka plans to attend Concordia University in Montreal Canada. Her declared major is Art History. Rebekka, who has lived in the Philippines, China and Vietnam, hopes to add French to her language skills while studying in Quebec.
Danny Tran has completed more service learning hours than any other student at TAS. He is the leader of Walking Hope, a student created/ student led organization that provides care for disabled children at local orphanages. Danny spends his weekends coordinating service projects throughout the city. He’s been on student council all through high school, was a student ambassador and is an all around good guy. Danny is a talented graphic designer. His work can be seen all over campus on different student events posters. He also designed the school’s student hoodie that is a popular accessory for students from 1st – 12th grade. Danny plans to study at Baylor University in central Texas where his involvement in community service projects will benefit the 2nd largest state in the US.
I wish I had time to tell stories about every one of you, as you’re all inspiring and your futures are very, very bright.
Most of you who graduate today were born in the Year of the Dragon. I know something about Dragons; I married one. Much is expected of you. And that’s what I want to discuss today.
Faced with so much success, I want to talk about failure, or setbacks.
In my high school, the Putney School in Vermont, USA, instead of Extended Essays, we had senior projects. Mine was to raise and slaughter fifty chickens. When my family arrived after a ten-hour drive for my graduation, I was up to my elbows in feathers and chicken guts. I wasn’t ready for their arrival. I hadn’t known how long it would take to take the feathers off and clean the chickens. I also didn’t know that plucking dry chickens takes a long, long time. The first half-dozen took 45 minutes each. It’s much easier if you dip them in warm water first. That was a small lesson in failure, and in learning from failure. With my parents’ help, I cleaned up and made it to graduation – but just barely.
Earlier, during the spring of junior year, I learned a harder lesson about failure. I wanted to be Head of the Student Council, just like Kelly Kang. I collared all sorts of people asking them to vote for me. Not only did I lose, I didn’t even come in second. I felt sad and humiliated.
The same day we learned the election results, we also learned who had been assigned to live in the cabins that were part of senior-class housing. My school had three log cabins, and as there wasn’t much supervision, they represented real independence for any students. That cabin was probably the best place I ever lived.
My roommate raised a pig and I raised the chickens. We chopped wood for our stove, and studied using kerosene lamps. It gets very cold in the winter in Vermont: sometimes the temperatures stay below zero Fahrenheit for a week at a time. At night when we got into bed between our icy sheets, it was so cold we’d scream. When I was typing my college applications that winter (yes, we used typewriters back then), my fingers were so cold that I made lots of mistakes, and had to use a lot of white-out. Mistakes or not, I wrote my college essay about that cabin, and was accepted to Harvard.
I learned in high school, a safe place, that it’s okay to fail, that I could fall on my face and get up, dust myself off, and find another way. The way to respond to disappointment is to find an alternative. One of the most meaningful features of The American School is that you’ve created a space for learning where there is enough support to take risks and enough challenge to reach beyond what you already know to what is new. It’s been safe to fail here, and it’s OK to fail out there.
Now, not every institution of higher learning creates that safe space. So you may have to take The American School with you.
Even those born in the Year of the Dragon must be willing to accept the occasional failure. After failing, you have to dust yourself off and get back to work. You may find that something will happen that is even better than what you had been aiming for.
Resilience in the face of failure turns out to be a useful quality, especially when pursuing things that really do matter: love and purpose.
When Clayton and I asked Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg to renew our marriage vows, we were thinking first about purpose. As the first openly gay U.S. ambassador in East Asia, I hoped to provide some encouragement for Vietnam’s LGBTI community.
Clayton and I had often heard from gay people in Vietnam that, when they saw us, they realized that careers and families might be possible for them, too. While Vietnam has decriminalized marriages between people of the same gender, such unions are not yet legally recognized. Justice Ginsburg visited only a few weeks after the Supreme Court decision that legalized marriages such as ours in all fifty states. So for her to renew our vows seemed like a chance to encourage others, to make a difference.
At a press conference in our home, Justice Ginsburg walked through the history of marriage equality in the United States that led up to the Supreme Court’s historic decision. She told a story to show how social change sometimes leads to legal change and to justice.
Later, when this wise and distinguished Justice met with Vietnam’s Supreme Court, she acknowledged that American society is not perfect, that we, too, suffer setbacks. Even so, she suggested, our two societies, imperfect though they are, might learn from each other. That’s the best thing about diplomacy, the profession through which until recently I pursued my purpose: it’s two societies learning from each other.
I’ll tell you a bit more about how I found my purpose.
When I came to Vietnam for the first time, right around when our two countries normalized diplomatic relations, I confirmed that my purpose in life included diplomacy. I fell in love with Vietnam and with its people. I couldn’t believe how forward-looking and forgiving the Vietnamese were, even when I first visited, just twenty years after the war had ended. I thought our two societies could learn from each other. That time in Vietnam was the best tour I ever had – at least until I returned as ambassador – in a career that lasted nearly 30 years, and in which I served in eight countries.
As ambassador, three days marked the high point of a long career: the days I hosted President Obama in Vietnam. When the President visited Ho Chi Minh City, one million people went out on the streets to welcome him, the biggest crowd to greet him anywhere in his two terms as US President.
So I found my purpose, but as it turns out, the journey doesn’t stop there. Finding one’s purpose is a continuing process, and sometimes there are setbacks. Now we have a different president in the United States, and I’m no longer working for the government. Instead I have become vice president of Fulbright University here in HCMC. Because I want to find an alternative route, another way to bring the United States and Vietnam closer together. I decided that, after serving as ambassador, the best thing I could do is work hard to boost higher education in this country.
While trying to find purpose, it’s also possible to find love, and to create a family. But, class of dragons, life doesn’t always go in a straight line. Usually, we have to fail a few times, get up, dust off, and try again, find another route. Twenty years ago it wasn’t easy to be a gay man in the Foreign Service. But a group of us founded an employee association and, at one of its monthly meetings, I met a wonderful man, Clayton. Together for 14 years, we are incredibly lucky to be raising two healthy children: a son and a daughter, now ages 3 and 4.
Soon after I came to Vietnam as ambassador, a young man asked whether I had encountered difficulties because I am gay. I thought if he was brave enough to ask that question in front of 800 high school students, I owed him a real answer. So I told him the truth: yes, I have, but by being who I am, I was able to create a family, and even to have a career that I love. I told him that love and purpose are possible, and worth the effort to find.
When failure happens, and it will, pick yourself up, dust off and get back to work. Find an alternative route. You may not know your purpose now; I certainly didn’t when I was in college or even for many years after. For some of you, it may be to create art, or music, or Vietnamese drumming or theater. For others it might be teaching, or business, or what Justice Ginsburg referred to: creating social change that leads to justice and legal change. Perhaps it’s tackling the existential challenge of our time: climate change. Perhaps it’s using the benefits of artificial intelligence to make Vietnam stronger and more prosperous. Perhaps it’s finding love, creating a family.
Things don’t always go according to plan, but sometimes they work out better than we planned. Love and purpose are possible, they are a continuing process, and sometimes they even come together.
I want to close with a few lines from my favorite poem, “Ithaka” by the Alexandrian poet C.P. Cavafy, about the journey that doesn’t always go in a straight line.
As you set out for Ithaka, hope the journey is a long one, full of adventure, full of discovery.
Laistrygonians and Cyclops, angry Poseidon – don’t be afraid of them.
Keep Ithaka always in your mind. Arriving there is what you are destined for.
But do not hurry the journey at all.
Better if it lasts for years, so you are old by the time you reach the island, wealthy with all you have gained on the way.
Congratulations, Class of 2018! I wish you all long journeys, full of adventure, full of discovery, full of love and purpose.