When Susan Rice graduated from Stanford in 1986, the Soviet Union was a formidable foe, China barely registered on the global economic scene and the first computer laptops – weighing in at 12 pounds each – were just hitting the market.
And if someone had told her that she'd serve in the Cabinet of the country's first black president as ambassador to the United Nations, "I would've asked them what they were smoking."
But in her remarks delivered during Stanford University's 119th Commencement on Sunday, Rice put the advances of the past 24 years in perspective. She called the fight against global poverty "not only one of the great moral challenges of all time, but also one of the great national security challenges of our time."
"The planet is still divided by fundamental inequalities," she said. "Some of us live in peace, freedom and comfort while billions are condemned to conflict, poverty and repression. These massive disparities erode our common security and corrode our common humanity."
While she did not discuss any specifics of her role as the country's ambassador to the United Nations or the organization's recent move to impose a fourth round of sanctions on Iran, Rice did talk about the link between poverty and security.
"When a country is wracked by war or weakened by want, its people
suffer first. But poor and fragile states can incubate
threats that spread far beyond borders – terrorism, pandemic disease,
nuclear proliferation, criminal networks, climate change, genocide and
more. In our interconnected age, a threat to development anywhere is a
threat to security everywhere."
-Ambassador Susan Rice
Rice's address marked a very public return to Stanford. She graduated with a bachelor's in history from the university as a junior Phi Beta Kappa and Truman Scholar in 1986.
She was confirmed as ambassador to the United Nations in 2009 after being nominated by President Obama. It was a job that followed her role as Obama's senior adviser for national security affairs during his presidential campaign in 2007 and 2008. Before that, she served as the country's assistant secretary of state for African affairs and as a special assistant to President Clinton. She was also a senior director for African affairs at the National Security Council.
During a trip to a displaced persons camp in war-torn Angola in 1995, Rice saw firsthand the global poverty she talked about on Sunday. Of all the people she saw in the camp, she said one of her most striking memories is the smile she received from a malnourished little boy when she gave him her baseball cap.
But she's haunted by thoughts of what may have happened to him.
"I had to leave that camp," she said. "And when I did, I left that little boy in hell. I like to think, and I sure hope, that kid is OK. But he could well have become one of the 9 million children under the age of 5 who die each year from preventable and treatable afflictions."
And that boy, she said, should be a symbol to Stanford's graduates of the challenges that face them and the good they can do in the world.
"That little boy's future is tied to ours," she said. "Our security is ultimately linked to his well-being. So we must shape the world he deserves."
Rice's weighty remarks still left room for graduation levity. And the student procession – known as the Wacky Walk – showcased much of it.
The graduates hit the field of Stanford Stadium with balloons and signs thanking mom and dad. They were dressed as Egyptian kings and Vikings, wizards and butterflies. Some wore bathing suits and flowing togas. Others covered up with costumes paying homage to the pop culture past of Pac-Man, as well as more timeless pursuits like dominoes and poker.
It was a final blast of carefree fun for college students about to contend with an uncertain job market.
"We have everything we need on campus," said Tyler Porras, a graduating biology major who took to the field with a bolo tie and black cowboy hat. "Now it's off to the real world where you need to find a job."
The ceremony marked the award of 1,722 bachelor's degrees, 2,100 master's degrees and 980 doctoral degrees.
Departmental honors were awarded to 365 seniors, and 272 graduated with university distinction. Another 74 graduated with multiple majors and 33 received dual bachelor's degrees. There were 110 graduates receiving both bachelor's and master's degrees.
Among international students, there were 102 undergraduates from 45 countries other than the United States, and 955 graduate students from 75 foreign countries.
"As you leave Stanford, I hope you carry a deep appreciation of the values and traditions that are everlasting, as well as a willingness to be bold and to approach challenges with a fresh perspective," Stanford President John Hennessy told the graduates.
The day also gave parents a time to beam and brag.
"These kids have the potential to contribute so much to the world," said Tim Roake, whose daughter, Caitlin Roake, is graduating as a biology major and is planning to join the Peace Corps.
Roake and his wife, Kathleen Gutierrez, had front-row seats in the stadium bleachers next to Dave and Lori Gaskin. Their son, Greg, has been dating Caitlin Roake since their freshman year.
"The last four years for Greg have been such an enriching experience from an academic perspective but also on a personal level," Lori Gaskin said. "I attribute that not only to the university but the wonderful people he's met and the relationships he's made."