UN ambassador to launch speaker series at commencement address

Photo Courtesy of the U.N.

Linda Thomas-Greenfield, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, will present this year’s undergraduate commencement address on May 8. 

Thomas-Greenfield’s address will be the first in Lewis & Clark’s Ambassador Edward J. Perkins Distinguished Speaker Series. The series is named after the distinguished LC alum who preceded Thomas-Greenfield as ambassador to the U.N. LC’s Diplomat in Residence Niels Marquardt ’75 said Thomas-Greenfield was enthusiastic at the opportunity to speak at the alma mater of Perkins, her mentor.

Dean of the College of Arts and Sciences Bruce Suttmeier expressed his gratitude for Marquardt, whose friendship with Thomas-Greenfield helped make the connection possible.

“I am thrilled that Ambassador Linda Thomas-Greenfield will be our CAS commencement speaker this year,” Suttmeier said via email. “Her exemplary accomplishments as a diplomat and a leader represent the best of global engagement, championing values of diversity, openness, and cooperation throughout her long career. With so many students, across the curriculum, deeply committed to international issues, she’s an inspiring and ideal figure to have speak.”

Thomas-Greenfield grew up in Louisiana, attending segregated schools in the deep South during Jim Crow. In her TED Talk “How I found strength and compassion through adversity,” Thomas-Greenfield spoke about how she has intentionally transformed difficult experiences into inner strength, including navigating the intensely racist environment in which she grew up and surviving the outbreak of the Rwandan genocide.

Thomas-Greenfield was a regional refugee officer based in Nairobi, Kenya in 1994. That spring, she was staying at the U.S. embassy in Rwanda with Ambassador Joyce Leader, who was deputy chief of mission at the time. On the morning of April 7, at the beginning of the genocide, members of the Rwandan military entered the embassy in search of Prime Minister Agathe Uwilingiyimana, whose house was next door to the U.S. embassy. The soldiers mistook Thomas-Greenfield for the prime minister and she was hard pressed to convince them that she was not Uwilingiyimana, nor a Tutsi (a member of the targeted minority ethnic group), but an American citizen. 

“It was a very tense and stressful time but she handled herself beautifully,” Leader said. 

During her career in the foreign service, Thomas-Greenfield formed a lasting friendship with Perkins, a fellow Black Louisianan who preceded her in three positions: as ambassador to Liberia, as director general of the Foreign Service and as ambassador to the U.N.  

Perkins graduated from Jefferson High School in Portland and went on to study at LC in 1953. He received the LC Distinguished Alumnus Award in 1992 and was a lifetime trustee of the college. 

During his time in the State Department, Perkins strove to champion diversity and equality in the United States and around the globe. He was the first Black U.S. ambassador to South Africa, where he advocated for the abolishment of the apartheid system. Perkins also promoted equal representation within the Foreign Service where he worked.

“(Perkins) definitely felt he should be responsible for starting to transform the diversity of the State Department, which was and still is inadequate,” Marquardt said.

Marquardt led the effort to institute a speaker series to honor Perkins’s legacy at LC. Institutional Advancement, which organizes fundraising and outreach activities for the college, is currently working on establishing the speaker series and is still accepting contributions. The series will likely be an annual event in which a distinguished diplomat or scholar in international affairs will travel to campus, present an address and possibly spend several days leading workshops with students. 

Thomas-Greenfield’s commencement address marks the first event of the series. According to Marquardt, she will certainly pay tribute to her mentor during her address. Perkins passed away in November 2020 and Thomas-Greenfield honored him in the acceptance speech she delivered when she was nominated to be U.S. ambassador to the U.N.

“On this day, I’m also missing my mentor, Ambassador Ed Perkins, who served as the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations under President George H. W. Bush and President Clinton, and who was also from Louisiana,” Thomas-Greenfield said in her acceptance speech. “He told me constantly, ‘Linda, don’t undersell yourself.’ And he would always do everything possible to lift me up. He passed away last week, but I know he’s here with us today.”

Marquardt encouraged students to use their diplomat in residence as a resource for exploring future careers. Students who are interested in looking further into international work — whether in diplomacy, education, business, Peace Corps  or other NGOs — can contact Marquardt via email at  nielsm@lclark.edu.

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