‘We Believe in You,’ Ambassador Rice Tells Students

June 23, 2011
The General Assembly hall felt a lot younger when 2,400 leaders convened one recent evening to represent 24 countries at the United Nations.

As Susan E. Rice, the U.S. ambassador to the UN, remarked to the group in her speech, the usual sea of gray hairs was missing from the hall, “but I like the way this looks.” Indeed, the high-ceilinged assembly teemed with serious, curious and enthusiastic youths sharing a single goal: to save the world.

“And I hope some of you are thinking,” Rice added (no gray hairs evident on her, either), “ ‘I could get used to this. I intend to come back!’”

The occasion was UNA-USA’s 12th annual Global Classroom conference, the largest high-school Model UN in the world, drawing not only thousands of students but also hundreds of teachers for a three-day program, from May 12-14, of passionate debates over such issues as education, maternal health, natural disasters and the Millennium Development Goals.

Timothy E. Wirth, United Nations Foundation president, presided over the evening gathering, which started punctually, an achievement in itself given the demanding schedules of the speakers, who also included Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon.  Wirth, who is a former U.S. Senator from Colorado, reminded the audience that this was a “wonderful, wonderful experience for all of you” and that the students’ energy and idealism would instill the hall and the entire UN, a sensation that the participants could take back to their communities and use to carry them forward into the future.  

Wirth then introduced Patrick Madden, UNA’s executive director, and Samuel Lichtenstein, the conference’s other “secretary-general” and a student at Johns Hopkins University, who bounded up to the dais like a true politician, urging the audience, in Kennedyesque terms to “not do better but be better.”

Ban, who first came to the UN fresh from university in South Korea decades earlier, exuded his persistent love for his job and the UN in his speech, reminding everyone that he occupied his post “temporarily.” And that someday, “one of you may be standing here” and that people would refer to the secretary-general as “she” or “her.”

After a fast-paced video showing Ban at work, arriving by Mercedes-Benz before dawn at headquarters and on the move long after sunset, the students’ energy level soared in the General Assembly, as if they were V.I.P.s in the video too.

But the road to becoming secretary-general is not about cool videos but about leadership, which, Ban emphasized, “begins with what you are doing this minute.”

“So I want you to prepare for your future even as you sit in these chairs,” he continued. “Say what you mean; always try to live in truth; be true to yourself; know who you are.

“Be true to your principles. Be careful what you think, because what you think shapes what you say, and what you say shapes your actions. Your actions shape your character, and your character defines your destiny.

“Living in truth takes courage, so you have to be brave. Being brave means more than being cool in dangerous circumstances; it means being willing to take a stand for beliefs – even when those beliefs might expose you to disagreement, controversy or sometimes even persecution. Be brave. Be bold. And finally, embrace a vision larger than yourself.”

Rice kept the momentum going, telling the students that “just by being here today, you’re doing something already important.” And that is studying the issues, understanding the “wider world,” grappling with the “challenges facing your nations and your generation.”

So, she added: “We need you now to get in the game. And we need you to stay in the game. And that’s because as you heard the Secretary-General say, We’ve got very real problems to solve.”

Not letting the students off the hook, Rice, who has two young children of her own, spelled out the students’ missions as diplomats now and ahead: that dreams are attainable, even if the paths to them are not immediately clear; that perseverance works and naysayers should be dismissed.

“We believe in you,” she said. “We’re counting on you. So show us what you’ve got.”

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