Dignity and Grace in the Face of Challenge and Change: Former Secretary of Defense Ash Carter, Alumna Masha Gordon (F98) Give 2018 Class Day Remarks
“Harness your grit to make change,” Fletcher alumna Masha Gordon (F98) urged The Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy’s graduating class of 2018.
The fastest woman to ever complete the Explorer’s Grand Slam – a grueling feat that includes climbing the highest peak on each of the seven continents while also trekking to the geographic North and South poles – also happens to be an accomplished businesswoman, mother of two, and Fletcher graduate. Gordon opened this year’s Class Day remarks with tales of her path from Fletcher into finance and finally to mountaineering, reminding the class that embracing change will be a necessary part of their own journeys.
At 22-years old, Gordon arrived at Fletcher freshly out of the Russian youth communist camp; she left with a Master of Arts in Law and Diplomacy, and on a path to becoming an emerging markets investor for Goldman Sachs. “Fletcher has the ability to turn one’s life upside down and re-orient it in the most unpredictable of ways,” she told the gathering of 250 soon-to-be-graduates.
Embracing change, finding hobbies, harnessing grit, resilience and mental toughness rounded out the themes of Gordon’s graduation-appropriate speech, peppered with personal anecdotes, inspirational trailblazing, and humble advice. The personification of the word “accomplished,” the Gordon then handed the “main event” over to the featured Class Day speaker and recipient of the Dean’s Medal, former Secretary of Defense Ash Carter.
Carter, who served under several presidents during his time in the Department of Defense, was the U.S. Secretary of Defense for President Barack Obama from 2015 to 2017. Speaking to the students, friends, family, faculty and administrators, he emphasized the importance of comporting oneself with dignity and respect for others.
In his introduction of his former boss, Fletcher School Dean Admiral James Stavridis noted that kindness, thoughtfulness, and intellect were a few Carter’s hallmarks. Carter took to the stage, and went on to showcase his sense of humor, as well.
“I presided over Stav’s retirement as Supreme Allied Commander of Europe a few years ago. Supreme Allied Commander of Europe. SUPREME,” he joked. “That used to stick in my craw, you see, because I was secretary. The Secretary of Defense, but secretary! And here he was – supposed to be working for me – and he was calling himself supreme!”
As the crowd joined him in laughter, the former Secretary went on to regale them of some of Dean Stavridis’ greatest accomplishments, including as the Pentagon’s longest serving combatant commander, highlighting a career that has been dedicated to public service. “The noblest thing you can do with your life is dedicate it to the betterment of others,” Ash said. “Your attendance and your successful graduation from this institution, means you made that choice.”
Echoing the theme of change set out by alumna Masha Gordon, Secretary Carter – himself a physicis – emphasized the inexorable advance of technological change, or “disruption,” as key to the challenges that Fletcher’s new grads will face. Disruption in the digital revolution, cybersecurity, biosciences, and nuclear technology will be just a few of the areas that demand attention. “Change of a different sort will be the transformation of diplomacy,” Carter said. “Much of what you could have taken for granted in the past, you can’t take for granted in the present.”
“Even as the Secretary of Defense, I always believed that diplomacy came first. I argued for a bigger State Department, even in a zero-sum Washington,” Carter told the applauding graduates. “I’m appalled at the conditions that led to the departure of so many skilled diplomats from the State Department and I hope that some of you will return.”
Taking the audience on an oral tour of the world from Iran to Russia, and from China to North Korea, the Secretary meandered through the changing nature of diplomacy, and the mix of diplomacy and defense that may be needed, as examined through a U.S. foreign policy lens.
He closed his speech by recalling his time in public service which had lessons for those pursuing careers as diplomats, military leaders, the world of business or non-governmental organizations. Calling on the Class of 2018, Carter implored everyone to remember the importance of conducting oneself with dignity and respect for others, no matter their position or situation.
“Graduates, all of this change, all of these great opportunities await you,” Carter said. “You’re prepared for them now. We’re counting on you. And we’re watching you with admiration.”
Watch the 2018 Class Day and Commencement ceremonies: