Good morning class of 2016! I am so happy to be here with you today. And President Kulinski, thank you for that very warm welcome.
Dear Graduates of the Class of 2016, distinguished guests, parents, and members of the faculty, Chairman Manov, Minister Mitov, Ambassador Potodorova, President Kulinski, members of the Faculty, Borad of Trustees, and University Council. Thank you for inviting me here today.
Let me start by saying how glad I am to be here today at this magnificent campus on this beautiful day to help celebrate the graduation of another class of talented and dedicated undergraduates.
What an amazing 25 years it has been here at AUBG. So let me start with congratulations and thanks to everyone who has contributed to building this university and to turning it into a model not just for Bulgaria, but for the entire region.
And let me add how pleased I am to see the amazing impact that AUBG is making on so many lives. We in the United States. government are proud of the investments we made to help get AUBG off the ground and we are even prouder of the graduates who have taken the skills that they learned here and used them to build their careers while helping their communities and their countries.
I would also like to offer special thanks to the board of the America for Bulgaria Foundation, which has been a steadfast partner, supporter and friend of this university since the Foundation’s founding in 2008.
I am thrilled to be here to share this day with you. I remember my own graduation in 1983 as if it were yesterday.
I studied history, Russian and Eastern European Studies, and that eventually led to my career choice in the diplomatic service. More importantly I formed friendships that I still treasure today. And it was through my college experience that I landed my first job, where I met my wife, Nicole who is here with us today. She and I are now the proud parents of two daughters, one of whom is about to begin her studies this fall at Dartmouth College in New Hampshire.
We are approaching the twenty-fifth anniversary of the first opening ceremony of AUBG, when 208 students and 16 faculty members came together to start an American liberal arts education in Bulgaria.
Historically, of course, this was not the first American-style educational institution in Bulgaria – The American College – established in Plovdiv in 1860, then Stara Zagora, and then moved to Samokov and finally to Sofia – claims that honor. But in 1991, the first American-style university-level institution opened its doors here in Blagoevgrad. And AUBG has been on a journey of achievement ever since. The work of talented faculty, dedicated administrators and staff members, and committed community members, together with the generous financial support of donors such as the America for Bulgaria Foundation have made YOUR travel down AUBG’s path possible – always on a journey that is guided by the values established by its founders – excellence, integrity, inclusion, social responsibility and democracy – in an uncompromising quest for new knowledge through discovery and creativity.
I know that this is a time of challenges and crises for all of us. We need to face them together, as Allies, as friends and as partners. And as members of societies that share a set of values: peace, freedom, democracy and prosperity. And as people who share the original vision with which we ended the lengthy and awful Cold War: and that is One Europe, whole, free and at peace.
These are not easy times for anyone in the region, and certainly not for Bulgarians. I know this is an international institution, which is one of its great strengths. But we are here in Bulgaria today and I would like to say a few words to the many Bulgarians here today. Let me say from the outset that America stands with you and will support the choices you have made: for Europe, for the Transatlantic Alliance, and for a free and more hopeful future for your children and grandchildren.
And let me add that America’s commitment to the European project is fundamental. From the first days after the horrors of the Second World War were ended, we stood with Jean Monnet, Robert Schumann, Konrad Adenauer, Alcide de Gasperi, Paul Henri Spaak and so many others to support the vision of a united, peaceful and prosperous continent, one linked to North America by bonds of friendship, shared values and solemn defense commitments. We stand by that vision now, and will do everything we can to help Bulgaria pursue its future as a member of that union, and as an indispensable part of the North Atlantic Alliance.
To very briefly answer some of our critics, let me add that we are here as your friends, we care deeply about your security and prosperity, and we are not going away or losing our commitment.
In that regard, let me say that I am very optimistic about Bulgaria’s future. As your great poet Hristo Botev once said, “Българският народ не е в гроба на своето минало, а в люлката на своето бъдеще.
I had the opportunity to spend some time in Bulgaria shortly after the transition to democracy in the early 1990s, and I can see the incredible progress that has been made – politically, economically, and socially.
In fact, I remember when it would have been inconceivable to talk about Bulgaria in NATO and the EU, about Bulgarians being free to travel, work and study anywhere in Europe. About the enormous improvements to infrastructure and the quality of life. And about the broadened and deepened U.S.-Bulgarian relationship, from this university to the thousands of Bulgarian young people who travel to the United States each year to work, travel and to meet new friends.
And to the students graduating from other countries let me add that the commitment of the United States to support you and your countries on the same journey is as strong, the commitment is as strong, and I hope that we will be able to say the same thing about all of your countries being part of this vision of one Europe: whole, free and at peace.
President Obama has said that it was ideals born here in Europe, through centuries of struggle – through war and Enlightenment, repression and revolution – that eventually inspired a band of colonialists across an ocean, who wrote them into the founding documents that still guide America today and that are the foundation of the liberal arts education you received here at AUBG. They include the belief that through conscience and free will, each of us has the right to live as we choose. The belief that power is derived from the consent of the governed, and that laws and institutions should be established to protect that understanding. That there is such a thing as objective truth, and our mission is to find it. Including the simple truth that all men and women are created equal.
We, of course, live in very different times than the times of the original authors of those ideals and values. In fact, I’d make the argument that we live in a world that is different even from four years ago, when you started your university experience here at AUBG. We are reminded every day of the criticality of the values that are the very fabric of our societies, as well as the need to be constantly vigilant in defending them. What you have learned here supports the AUBG vision of preparing graduates who are fully prepared for lives of professional achievement, personal fulfillment, and service, and has set you on a path that ensures that you never take for granted these hard-fought freedoms and rights. I am confident that you will join the ranks of those who came before us and had the wisdom and the courage to recognize that the success of our ideals and values will only endure if we see that our self-interest lies in the well-being of other peoples and other nations.
AUBG resounds with the stories of alumni who have used this vision as a guide. I’m proud to count among my colleagues at our Embassy AUBG alumna Viara Andreeva, standing right here in front of the stage here, from the Class of 2004, Viara is the Embassy’s official photographer and information assistant, and she is here today with me. Her position at the Embassy follows a successful broadcasting career at bTV, where she was a reporter and producer for nine years. And I know Viara believes that her time here at AUBG was an important part of her journey, which has included professional successes and, more important, a rich life that now includes her husband and two sons.
I have also heard stories from other AUBG alumni who talk about the contributions of their experience on this campus to the professional success, lifelong friendships and their world view. That is due to what Class of 2007 Alumna Ani Geshava described as everyone at AUBG being invested in your academic and personal success. We have already mentioned the talented faculty and dedicated administrators and staff and I hope all of you will remember to thank them today after the ceremony – they’re the ones who created and sustain this environment and we are all very grateful to them. I’d like to give special thanks to AUBG’s new president, Stratsi Kulinski, AUBG Class of 1995 and one of those original 208 students. Stratsi epitomizes the AUBG mission and vision, and I know you all are thrilled to have him here, back home in Bulgaria.
And it is that return home that I want to focus on for a moment. The journey that many of you take from here may lead you far from Bulgaria or from the other 19 countries represented in this graduating class. Go forth and conquer the world! But I hope you will not forget where you come from, and will remember that your countries’ need for your talents and abilities, many of which you developed right here at AUBG over the past four years. I hope that you will go out in the world and you will use the solid grounding you acquired here to bring people together, to identify what we have in common in today’s difficult world, and to counter those who would define the world by opposing others and dividing us from each other.
And I’d like to close by adding my own personal advice:
Тhink carefully about big decisions and work hard to ensure that the decisions you make today will be ones you feel good about several years down the road. Don’t discount the importance of family and friendship at a time when you are launching your lives as independent adults.
And let me again congratulate you for all the work and commitment that got you to this point today. All of us are proud of you and what you have accomplished, and wish you success and happiness as you go out into the world and put the skills and knowledge you acquired here at AUBG to good use.
Class of 2016, congratulations on your tremendous accomplishments. I join your families in saying how proud we are of all that you have accomplished, and how confident we are of your future success.
Congratulations Class of 2016!