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Deputy Secretary of Defense Dr. Kathleen Hicks' Remarks at the University of Maryland School of Public Policy Commencement Ceremony (As Delivered)

Thank you, Dean Orr, for that very kind introduction. To you, members of the faculty, distinguished and honored guests, families, friends, and members of the class of 2022 – thank you for inviting me to be with you this afternoon. 
It not only offers me the chance to briefly escape the confines of the five-sided box that is the Pentagon, but also allows me to return to my alma mater, see College Park, join you in this outstanding venue, and offer my sincere congratulations to all of today’s graduates. 

At the outset, I wanted to note that while graduation is always a special time. I think today’s ceremony holds even more significance than usual for two reasons. 

Number one – this is the first in-person graduation that UMD’s School of Public Policy has held since the COVID-19 pandemic first disrupted all of our lives in early 2020.  

Earning a degree in higher education is difficult enough – but doing it during a global pandemic is something else entirely.   

And not to take anything from the class of ‘22, but I want to offer a round of applause to graduates from the classes of ’20 and ’21 – who didn’t have the chance to walk with their classmates due to COVID – but are joining us today. 

So, number two; whether you are one of the 90 bachelor’s graduates, 119 master’s graduates, or ten PhD graduates – you are part of the largest class that the School of Public Policy has graduated in its 40 years. 

You are joining a long and distinguished list of graduates and alumni – numbering roughly 3,400 of us – that have studied and tackled some of the toughest public policy challenges the world has faced, dating back to 1982.

This includes notable individuals like Ethan Brown, Class of ’97 – whose focus on sustainability and the environment led to the founding of “Beyond Meat.” 

And my 1993 classmate, Kelly Veney Darnell – who is the COO of the Bipartisan Policy Center here in Washington, D.C. 

In the early 1990s, I was finishing my undergraduate degree and was engaged in that time-honored and universal endeavor of trying to figure out what exactly I was going to do now that college was rapidly winding down. 

At the time, I was torn between pursuing a doctorate in history or doing something more in the policy realm. And I was lucky to have great undergraduate advisors; one of them really admired the then-SPP-dean, Dr. Michael Nacht and the program here at Maryland. 

I put together my application, was accepted, and arrived on campus in the fall of 1991. 

At the time, the school was located in Morrill Hall, which if you’ve ever seen it, is quite small – though in-between my first and second years here, the program moved to Van Munching Hall – which I know the graduates are familiar with. I actually had an on-campus job helping move books and supplies for Dean Nacht from one building to the other. And I know, as Dean Orr indicated, this school will be moving into its new home later this year, so for me, it probably makes me feel quite old, but it also it feels like completing a bit of a circle to be with you here today.  

My two years at SPP were a time of personal and academic growth. 

As you might have guessed from that quick bio, I concentrated in national security here. 

And the early 90s were an exciting time to be on campus and studying international relations. It was a time of tremendous hope. The Berlin Wall had come down, the Soviet Union had collapsed, and after decades, the Cold War was finally over. It felt like democracy, open and free markets, and human rights were on the move.  

Thirty years later, we face new challenges at home and abroad. But you, as has been so well described by your representatives, you are agents of change and a source of inspiration to others.  

We face challenges to democracy – what George Washington called “the last great experiment for promoting human happiness.” 

More and more, these challenges emanate from antagonistic authoritarian powers.

The people of Ukraine are at the forefront of our minds today. Russia’s invasion – its war of choice – demonstrates that it poses an acute threat to all of us.

Even as we confront Russia’s activities, we also know that China has rapidly become more assertive, and that it has the economic, technological, and military capabilities to threaten America’s interests in the international system. 

And of course, we face a great number of global transboundary threats, notably climate change and pandemics. 

Our success in meeting these conditions is not preordained. But each generation rises to its challenges, and the Class of 2022 will do the same.  

To paraphrase Robert Kennedy, you chose not the easy path of financial success- although I wish you financial success.

Instead, you and I chose public policy. Your pursuit seeks to make the world a better place by focusing on the complex problems facing our citizens and the citizens of the world. 

Whether you are entering government service, the private sector, the non-profit world, or otherwise, you are well-positioned to begin making a real difference in your career. 

As a student, I think it is natural to wonder about the value of your higher education for your career. And those who paid for it, if it’s not you, may also wonder. But I’m here to tell all of you today that what I learned as a student at SPP has proven invaluable – and I suspect the same will hold true for all of the graduates here. 

Let me give three examples.  

First, the knowledge that you’ve gained here will pay off. During my time at Maryland, I had the chance to take excellent classes that imparted information I still use, decades later. 

In a course on strategy that I had with former CIA Director, Admiral Stansfield Turner, I learned the fundamental precepts of civilian control of the military. As you might imagine – and hope – that’s critical to how I exercise my authority as the Deputy Secretary of Defense today and has been vital to my professional journey since the first day I stepped into the Pentagon, as a freshly-minted SPP graduate. 

Another memorable class was in game theory and was taught by Nobel Prize winner, Dr. Thomas Schelling. That was actually one of two game theory classes I took here.  

While there is a certain transcendence to game theory – as you will know or may someday learn if you have ever entered into what I will gently term “negotiations” with significant others or children – it has especially significant applications to geopolitical competition. 

As it turns out, that’s been pretty vital in my line of work as well. 

So, though it may not have felt like it while you were sitting in lecture, listening in on Zoom, drafting a term paper, or taking a final exam – please be assured that the knowledge you gained here will help you navigate the issues you are likely to face in your career, no matter your area of focus.

Second, many of the skills I learned at SPP proved valuable in the real world. 

While a Terp, I sometimes felt like the majority of my time was spent drafting one- or two-page policy memos. Dr. Allen Schick practically drilled us in the art form. 

At the time, my class – and I’m sure your class – was told that having the ability to condense relevant facts, express complex issues clearly, and concisely provide a recommendation would be important to busy officials and executives. 

Well, let me tell you: this skill is vital to every walk of life. Throughout my career, I have written countless memos for different senior officials, across both major political parties, and am now the recipient of a daily deluge of similar memos. 

Maybe your line of work will take you far from government, but I’m confident that no matter where your career takes you, from a Shark Tank pitch to op-ed writing, to briefing a CEO, the communication skills you accrued at SPP will pay off. 

My final example of how your SPP education serves you is in how it has challenged you – and left you more resilient as a student during the most impactful pandemic in generations. 

There were many demands on your time, real pressure to perform, and surely unusual, if not very difficult, circumstances imposed by COVID-19. 

Although I wasn’t trying to earn my degree during a global pandemic, I did of course face some challenging personal circumstances during my time at Maryland.  

And for me, getting through those rough patches meant relying on my family, and the friends that I made here. 

Truthfully – the individuals that I met while here remain some of my closest friends today. I’m sure that is, and will be, true for many of you. 

And as thankful for them as you are now, you’ll be even more thankful for them as you advance in your fields. 

Whether from friendships sealed here or elsewhere, you will need a network of support to help you laugh at the absurd, console and maybe cajole you in hard times, and share in each-other’s joys. 

Just before COVID, about six of my SPP classmates and their spouses gathered together for a weekend getaway of just such sharing. We are a pretty diverse group in terms of professional interests. From small business owner to community college administrator to labor organizer to think-tanker to federal government employee. 

What we shared though was a bond, made up of empathy, humor, sense of purpose, and intellectual curiosity. I can wish nothing less than that each of you find friends and family to help you continue this journey of life, which is marked today by your incredible shared accomplishment of a degree from this august institution and a common care for the world and people that surround you.   

Class of 2022 – congratulations on today’s monumental achievement. And thank you to the friends, family, and loved ones who are joining us today. Once again – I am so happy that you are able to join here in person as a community and celebrate. 

The challenges that we face today are real – at home, abroad, and around the world. But because of you graduates, I am optimistic about the future. And no matter your chosen career path, I know that you are ready. 

I know this because I once sat where you are sitting. The education that I received not only prepared me for my first job after graduating, but continues to inform me, today, nearly 30 years after leaving College Park.

This is a credit to not only the students at SPP, but to the institution. We should all be proud of what the School of Public Policy has accomplished these past 40 years. The world is a better place because of it, and I am looking forward to what we can accomplish together over the next 40.  

Thank you.